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June 27, 2007 10:00 by

retail, strategy

Furniture retailer The One caused a minor disturbance in the Dubai agency world in February, when it decided to invite all the city’s major agencies to a Sunday afternoon party (lunch and booze included) to present its brief. The company had put its account up for review and wanted to invite everybody to pitch for the business. Some were impressed; others were not.

But at the very least, The One founder Thomas Lundgren’s “breakfast show” sparked a small debate about how to conduct a proper pitch. It’s a discussion that’s much needed in this market, agencies say.

“Besides the fact that I didn’t have time to individually brief 16 agencies, doing it en masse enabled all invitees to meet me and my management team, get a feel of what we are all about and more importantly, get the same message,” says Lundgren.

Without criticizing The One briefing specifically, former JWT exec Imad Kublawi suggests there are better ways to go about organizing a pitch. Kublawi’s firm, IK Consult, is the regional affiliate of Agency Assessments International, a search consultancy that helps clients pick ad agencies, a service that is common in many markets - especially ones where big accounts are at stake.

Pitch management

Dan Taylor, new business director at Promoseven Group, says there is a growing trend toward “managed pitches,” where outside consultants like Kublawi advise the client - or at least wheedle the candidates down to a suitable short list. “I think that it will grow over the next few years [in this market], but like in every market, it will never be the only way that pitches are run.”

Managed pitches account for 20 percent of all new business moves in the UK, but those are usually the big deals comprising 50 to 60 percent of the value of all pitches, he adds.

Among Lundgren’s defenders was Tonic’s Vincent Raffray. “I’m not saying every agency should do that, but [Lundgren]’s done a careful job to see if the agency is the right one,” said Raffray, speaking prior to The One’s announcement that Lowe had won the account.

Blair Currie, new business director for TBWA Raad, had the harshest words for The One briefing, calling it a “charade.” Searching for an agency is not a “beauty contest,” he says. “A relationship isn’t made in a day or three hours or whatever you get.”

Kublawi advises clients to boil their list down to four agencies at most before moving on to workshops where the creative work comes out and the two sides discuss details of the client’s strategy. “Think of the pitch as a long term relationship. It’s not Miss Universe and off you go,” he says.

With his approach, “agencies don’t have to waste time and clients get something closer to real life,” he says. The consultant will stay on board as a sort of chaperone to make sure everybody stays on message.

Kublawi seconds Curry’s opinion that clients and candidate agencies need to hang out more before taking the plunge. “If you want to brief agencies, get them in your office. If they want to go one step further and demonstrate their culture, even better.”

He adds, “I’ve seen huge clients who will ask six agencies for a creative pitch and three creative groups from each. No brain on earth can judge that objectively, and that’s why things go wrong.”

With any pitch of that size, agencies start to worry not just about wasted time but about idea theft. It’s not unknown for clients to raid losing creative pitches for ideas to use in their campaigns. Lundgren reportedly allayed this concern by offering an assurance that he’d pay losing agencies if their ideas wound up in the retailer’s eventual campaign.

Currie tries to address both concerns by asking potential clients to cover out-of-pocket expenses - a polite way of asking for a pitch fee - nearly every time TBWA Raad goes for new business. Currie says it’s a good way to gauge the seriousness of the pitch, even though clients rarely agree to it. “People look at me with shock and disbelief. They look at me like I’ve stolen their baby.”

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