Who are advertising 'pitch consultants' and what do they actually bring to the pitch table?

Pitch consultants and their structured process have come to stay in advertising. Storyboard18 reached out to brands and pitch consultants who decoded the role of the latter in pitching, and spoke about their learnings during the whole process.

By  Kashmeera SambamurthyApr 10, 2024 10:06 AM
Who are advertising 'pitch consultants' and what do they actually bring to the pitch table?
New age brands or start-up brands are more driven by looking at the clutter breaking ideas that can help them get traction. But, they don’t really look at things from a long term perspective. (Representative image by Nick Fewings via Unsplash)

When consumer goods company, Lifestyle International decided to call for a creative pitch in 2022, it hired Spatial Access, an audit and advisory agency, specialising in advertising and marketing, as pitch consultant.

Let us first understand who a pitch consultant is. As the former pitch consultant at Spatial Access, Meenakshi Menon puts it, they are someone who takes into account all the factors that are part of a brand’s business plan.

They include market launches, relaunches and new product introductions. The consultant needs to work upon the pitch in a manner that doesn't negatively impact the business.

Coming back to Lifestyle International's creative pitch, for Spatial Access, it all began with conducting an in-depth meeting with Lifestyle International to understand their priority, the key skills they were looking for in an agency, the type of work they did and the brand’s pain points and scope of work.

Post the meeting, they came back with a ‘long’ list of agencies—almost 20 to 23 agencies — who they felt would meet their criteria.

The process of pitching has always been a part of advertising, where the partnership between an agency and a client lasted for decades to come. In some cases, the partnership still persists.

Spatial Access created a detailed and shared folder, where each agency had an extensive deck, explaining the agency's capabilities as well as a good sample of their work, especially done for retail and fashion brands.

Along with that, they also shared the credentials of each of these agencies. It included information like ‘Who's the key leadership team there?’ ‘What are the brands that they are working on, or have worked on in the past?’ and so on.

The brand team went through all of that and then worked together to shortlist three to five agencies it found most suited.

As per Rohini Haldea, assistant vice president - marketing, Lifestyle International—who was a part of the 2022 creative pitch, shortlisting at least four agencies and not crossing the ‘more than five’ and ‘less than three’ boundary is helpful. Because more than five, could lead to a brand being very confused where they see too many things, and arriving at a conclusion becomes difficult.

Sunil Alagh, managing director, SKA Advisors Bus Consultant, who began consulting in 2004, said, “If you're going in with McKinsey & Company or a Bain & Company or a KPMG, don’t pick more than two or three because if you have five agencies presenting, then you are totally confused.”

Once the agencies were locked, they were called in by Spatial Access, along with Lifestyle International, to brief the creative agencies on what the brand was looking for.

Spatial Access helped the brand build a structure for evaluating agencies in terms of what their criteria should be. Then, at the brand’s end, there was a panel consisting of people from the marketing team. All the criteria were looked at, and agencies rated.

Lifestyle International went on to shortlist two agencies with the highest ratings. In the next round, Spatial Access led the negotiation with the agency. Then they helped the brand close on a commercial negotiation.

Lowe Lintas under MullenLowe Lintas Group has been their creative partner since November 2022.

Haldea explained, “In our case, we were very keen to have people who have experience with fashion retail, because it's very different from FMCG. Somebody, who just has an experience of working on FMCG brands, especially from a creative or planning perspective, is not very useful to us because they don't bring any past experience or it becomes like learning afresh.”

She added, “The big learning is to ask for who are going to be the actual people working on the account, and not who's coming to pitch. We had asked Spatial Access to very clearly communicate that to the agency itself, that as part of the pitch process, we would like to meet the people who will be working on our account.”

Madison Media looks into Lifestyle International’s offline media, and their online media (Digital) is done in partnership with GroupM.

The media pitch, which was done before the onset of Covid-19, was facilitated by Spatial Access, and that led to Lifestyle International reaching out to them for the creative pitch.

Haldea explained, “This process worked quite well because rather than just the marketing team solely using its collective wisdom in terms of who are the agencies out there, we were able to sample from a much larger set of agencies.”

For Lifestyle International, the whole pitching process lasted for three-and-a-half months to four months. “When the shortlisted agencies began presenting to us and we got into commercial negotiations, that could also have been a six to eight week period,” Haldea added.

Brief history: Role of pitch consultants in pitching process

The process of pitching has always been a part of advertising, where the partnership between an agency and a client lasted for decades to come. In some cases, the partnership still persists.

When Eastman Kodak Company shifted gears and shook hands with Ogilvy & Mather in the mid 1990s, it brought an end to the six decade long relationship shared between the company and J. Walter Thompson (JWT).

In the case of DDB Mudra Group, McDonald's, LIC, Dhara, Volkswagen, Royal Enfield, Johnson & Johnson, TTK Prestige, DIAGEO and Hindustan Unilever Limited, are some of its long standing clients.

Brands would typically want to make sure that the agencies who presented to them were the ones who were going to be handling the mandate. Pitching has assumed greater significance since the 2000s.

As per Meenakshi Menon, a former pitch consultant at Spatial Access, up to the 1990s era, there were the same clutch of 10 to 15 agencies. The key agencies were JWT (now VML), Lintas (now MullenLowe Lintas Group), Advertising and Sales Promotion (ASP), Mudra Communications (now DDB Mudra Group), Frank Simoes Advertising, Ulka (now FCB Ulka), daCunha Associates, Interpub, Chaitra Advertising (now Leo Burnett), Rediffusion among others.

If an agency was hired, there wasn't much difference in terms of rates because they were all parity costs (defined as a strategy in which various vendors, despite their differences in brand, quality, or other features, align their pricing for a specific product or service. costs) especially among the big agencies.

Brands would typically want to make sure that the agencies who presented to them were the ones who were going to be handling the mandate. Pitching has assumed greater significance since the 2000s.

Newer advertising agencies began to sprout, where over time, processes became more important or a key ingredient in any pitch process. Like, ‘How do we identify our consumer?’ ‘How do we slice and dice the market?’ ‘How do we look at fragmentation?’ ‘What is it that a partner can bring in terms of technology to the table?’ etc.

Some of the newer Indian advertising agencies today are Gozoop Group, Bang In The Middle, Social Panga, Sociowash, Schbang among others.

Spatial Access—established in 2003, acquired by Deloitte in 2020, were the first pitch consultants in the market. Their very first was a media pitch for Hindustan Pencils. OMD, went on to win the pitch in 2010, leading to an association with Hindustan Pencils that lasted almost a decade.

“That's the beauty of a properly run pitch, where expectations are managed on both the sides. The role of the pitch consultant is not to only organise presentations. They need to be able to get their clients to understand what they should be asking for? They need to get an agency to understand what the client expects,” the former pitch consultant explained.

In the case of Alagh, brands approached him after doing preliminary research about the services he offered. The marketing team then put their heads together to decide on whether he was a good fit. “I've had clients for 10 years where the renewal of the contract was continuous. Hence, we became a member of their team, as opposed to just being an outsider,” he said.

In the case of AXA life insurance company, for example, the CEO approached Alagh. Alagh quoted his charges and it was a deal. He clarifies though that he is a consultant and not a lobbyist. “There are some lobbyists that say, ‘You got a problem with the government, I will solve it for you’. But, I am into marketing and business strategy and offer services pertaining to that,” he stated.

Brands and pitch consultants

When Menon was associated with Spatial Access, agencies expressed their consent and happiness at the sight of a pitch consultant, because of the fact that it would elicit clarity of expectations.

During the whole pitching process, she explained, Spatial Access would hand hold the clients and give the agencies enough time to put together their presentations.

A case in point is a German automobile company that does not have a pitch consultant in place. They have a commercial purchase department that defines the entire pitching process and hands it over to the company. They follow the rules and regulations outlined by the global mandate.

Next, their in-house procurement team negotiates to figure out whether the identified partner has the kind of bandwidth they require in India. The questions include: Do they have offices in India? Do they have manpower in place? And so on.

In the absence of a pitch consultant, the pitching process could become whimsical where the number of agencies who are going to be part of that pitch could expand at the drop of a hat. Then, there's the possibility of the entire system getting distorted. But, when there's a pitch consultant in place, ideally the client stays out of the preparatory equation, and approves the agencies who are being called for the pitch. Once shortlisting is done, then the entire process runs on autopilot.

For the brand — which works on an FTE basis, and not on a package basis—it is a tedious process to hire professionals to work for a particular brand on a case-to-case basis.

Therefore, the company has fixed committed timelines, fixed manpower and fixed structures to work for them in India. That is how the entire process of a global pitch is translated into a local pitch.

The globally identified creative partners are recommended to the local level for only procurement. The in-house procurement team in India will then negotiate with the partners locally and understand their strengths, capabilities, their total team size and if are they in a position to devise a brand new structure to work with the brand in India? Then the procurement team closes the negotiation in terms of cost.

Culinary Brands’ Chief Marketing Officer Mayur Hola echoes’ the German brand’s point of view. Culinary Brands prefers to keep a bird’s eye view on what is going on, than using a pitch consultant.

AXA was the client of SKA Advisors Bus Consultant for three to four years till they shut their office in India. KK Modi (past president of Modi Enterprises) was the other client for 10 years where they serviced every unit of the company right from cigarettes to personal care.

VIP clothing lasted for a year and GSK (GlaxoSmithKline) was for two years—at SKA Advisors Bus Consultant—when they wanted to get into the biscuits segment.

Some of the clients Spatial Access has worked with include Goodlass Nerolac, Whirlpool, Saint Gobain, Bajaj and CavinKare etc.

Pitch consultants and their pain points

In the absence of a pitch consultant, the pitching process could become whimsical where the number of agencies who are going to be part of that pitch could expand at the drop of a hat. Then, there's the possibility of the entire system getting distorted, Menon explained.

But, when there's a pitch consultant in place, ideally the client stays out of the preparatory equation, and approves the agencies who are being called for the pitch. Once shortlisting is done, then the entire process runs on autopilot.

Alagh agrees with Menon. The pitch consultant must work with a team to understand the brand and the overall functioning better.

He added, “You're not going to work with a CEO. You're going to work with the team, as a member of the team. My learning is that, ‘The CEO may have introduced me, but I'm going to be a member of you all. Therefore treat me as a team member rather than as someone who's come from outside.”

He states an example.

For the first two or three months, Alagh’s team goes into a company to understand what their requirements are. After that, they come up with a policy or a framework that they can follow. But, the catch here is whether the company accepts everything the consultant says, he added.

The other drawback that Menon highlighted was, “Very often when there's no pitch consultant involved, then it becomes a pure relationship thing. And unfortunately, there have been cases where there was some consideration given by the agency to the client to win the mandate. I know of three cases where the agency actually paid the client to get hold of the account.”

The other pain point is that many creative people say, ‘We won't come into a pitch unless you pay us.’ But, the minute they figure out that it is a client that they desperately want, they're willing to pitch in without any fee.

“What such agencies would do, would be not taking part in the pitch, but meeting the client separately, buying him or her a dinner, and then feeding ideas, ” says Menon.

The other issue that Menon observed was the serious case of ‘Idea shopping’. In certain cases, clients have said, “Hey, but they came and pitched. We can use this idea. Otherwise, they wouldn't have shared it with us.’

The other drawback that Menon highlighted was, “Very often when there's no pitch consultant involved, then it becomes a pure relationship thing. And unfortunately, there have been cases where there was some consideration given by the agency to the client to win the mandate. I know of three cases where the agency actually paid the client to get hold of the account.”

In such a scenario, Menon has recommended to clients to pay them a fee for using the ideas of the agencies.

The other problem is clients tend to defer decisions, but expect everything to be done overnight when it comes to delivering work. Then, the quality of the work gets compromised.

Pitching process: Established brands v/s Startups

“New age brands or start-up brands are more driven by looking at the clutter breaking ideas that can help them get traction,” said Menon.

But, they don’t really look at things from a long term perspective.

In the case of established brands, they are in need of sustained communication with common themes running through the brands. The cost of mistakes is much greater. They want agencies who can deliver not only ideas, but consistently deliver them on time.

According to a source at the German automobile brand, “The brand campaigns run month on month, and change every quarter. Therefore, it becomes important for these agencies to come back with a strong strategy piece. It's not just about creative inputs, but their strategy piece is extremely important for both of the creative pieces”.

Learnings as a pitch consultant

As per Alagh, a pitch consultant needs to be sure that the pitch matches the wavelength of their anticipation. Then, the next step is to offer something more than that. The consultant also needs to figure out whether the client can afford them or not.

In the case of established brands, they are in need of sustained communication with common themes running through the brands. The cost of mistakes is much greater. They want agencies who can deliver not only ideas, but consistently deliver them on time.

Touching upon the fee structure, as per Haldea, depending on the scope of the pitch, a pitch consultant is paid between Rs 15 lakh -20 lakhs.

He added, “If a company has got 100 crores, they hunt for a big agency. But, if you've got only 10 crores, then you look out for a smaller agency. My learning has been, ‘How much time is the agency going to give you?’ So, you don't go back to the managing directors or the CEO all the time.”

First Published on Apr 10, 2024 7:32 AM

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