Anatomy Of An Advertising Agency Pitch
This interview with Tony Mikes, Founder of the Second Wind Network, is a first-person perspective by an agency leader who sat on the client side of an important new business pitch. It is an enlightening review of how advertising agencies performed, or didn’t, in an pitch for the National Aquarium in Baltimore. It should be instructive for small, medium and large agencies… to say the least.
The interview first appeared in my book, “The Levitan Pitch. Buy This Book. Win More Pitches.”
It is very rare to have an advertising agency veteran sit on the client side of a pitch and give his impressions of the process and how the agencies performed. You will hear about what the winning agency did and what the losers failed to do.
The interview is over three thousand words so I broke it into two parts. I urge you to read both.
At the end of part two, I will give you my impressions on the lessons that every agency can learn from Tony’s experience and insights.
Tony Mikes was the Founder and Managing Director of the Second Wind Network, which today has over 800 small to mid-sized agency members.
Tony consulted with and advised advertising agencies and their leadership on best practices for almost 20 years. He provided members and clients with ‘old school’ agency wisdom and combined it with cutting-edge strategies. Before starting Second Wind, he was President of Pennsylvania’s Mikes & Reese Advertising from 1972 to 1988.
My Portland agency Citrus had been a member of Second Wind, and Tony was one of our advisors. Tony was an experienced mentor that could always help me resolve an agency-related issue or grab an opportunity and turn it into success. Sadly, Tony passed away in 2015.
The Anatomy Of An Advertising Pitch Interview
PL: You were on the client side of the agency selection table recently. How did that go?
Tony: I spent my entire working life in the advertising agency business. At mid-career, I found myself founding the agency network Second Wind. It is my second life. After having spent 26 years running the network, I got a call from an ex-agency member from San Diego. He had gone on to a major zoo in San Diego and then on to the National Aquarium in Baltimore. He was not happy with his agency, didn’t know a lot about Baltimore or East Coast agencies, and asked if I would serve as the consultant to the Aquarium to help them choose an agency. This was a unique position for me. In all the years I’ve been in the business, I have never ever been on the other side of the table.
PL: And what was the Aquarium looking for in an agency? What was the master brief?
Tony: Well the master brief was essentially a search for a traditional media buying and creative agency. The client also had existing relationships with PR and digital agencies. The bulk of the budget, around 2 million dollars, was going to the agency that would win the business.
PL: What process did you use to build an initial long list? How long was it?
Tony: Because the Aquarium is a funded organization, a 501(c)(3), the search was a bit more public than usual. So the list was long, because everybody in management threw somebody into the hopper, and there were absolutely no criteria set for management’s recommendations.
On top of that, we had another list that was built using marketing objectives. This list was built on geography, specialty, expertise, and former personal working experience. So there were two long lists that combined ended up being about 50 agencies.
PL: 50, wow. So 50 agencies were sent an RFP. Did you help craft the RFP?
Tony: I did. I had plenty of them on file at the network, and that was one of the reasons the client wanted to use me. Most of the agencies did not respond to the RFP.
PL: Interesting. Why would an agency decline? It’s not like they had a whale or porpoise client conflict.
Tony: Well, some declined because they were busy. One particular agency that I liked declined because they just had too many things to do, and then a number of agencies from around Baltimore declined because they had felt that the client was tough. At the end, 20 agencies responded.
PL: And your goal was to reduce that initial 20 to how many agencies?
Tony: I would’ve wanted three, but it became six.
PL: Did you see a large difference in how agencies responded to the RFP?
Tony: Yes. Although I will say that of the 20 that submitted, probably 15 put together very acceptable written proposals. In answering the questions, in sticking to the topic, in putting their agency’s credentials forward, in answering the couple of spec questions that we asked – we didn’t ask for spec work but we asked for some spec thinking.
But the other 5 kinda just threw stuff together like it was printed off of the printer; no binding, paper clips at the top – they were pretty easy to spot, and they really easy to turn away.
PL: Why do you think an agency can wind up delivering such a half-assed response?
Tony: I don’t think they know any better.
PL: Interesting and somewhat sad, right?
Tony: My educated guess is that they just don’t know what they don’t know. Having been involved with over 800 agencies, I am not surprised at the wide range of agency knowledge.
PL: What were your criteria for choosing the short list?
Tony: We had a rating system. I helped the client build a scorecard. Everybody individually scored these agencies, and then we met and talked about each agency and their scores. This process yielded the final 6.
PL: How many people were on the selection committee?
Tony: There were two consultants: a woman from Baltimore who was really mostly concerned with the image of the Aquarium and me as the agency pro and then an additional six people from the aquarium staff, so eight in total.
PL: How did you make a final selection?
Tony: We wanted to have a face-to-face presentation. The RFP was designed to see if the agencies could follow instructions, fulfill the capabilities, and look like they had enough gravitas to manage the 2 million dollar budget.
PL: How long did you give each agency to present?
Tony: An hour.
PL: Did you give them specific questions, or did you leave it up to them at that point?
Tony: There was another step in between the RFP and the presentation. Once we chose the 6, we notified them and told them they could send us questions. There were a couple weeks where people were just trying to get themselves prepared. But we did not give them anything specific to present. In fact, I thought from my experience, we would allow them to have some room so we could see what their in-person presentations were like.
PL: Did you find that all of the agencies used that period where they could ask you questions as a branding tool for themselves? Did they use this time as a pre-sales opportunity?
Tony: I think that certainly four of the six were able to do a little pre-selling.
PL: It’s just such a great opportunity to demonstrate insights and frankly, show passion.
Tony: Right. And I think passion was important for this thing.
PL: So they came into, I’m assuming, a conference room at the Aquarium – was that the physical setup?
Tony: No, I advised the client to have the agencies go to a third-party location with one door in and one door out. I was fairly adamant about giving the agencies a fair shot and that the agencies would not see each other before or after. I always thought that was very inconvenient to meet up with the next presenter.
PL: Me too, it is bit awkward. In the presentations, were there clearly things that worked and things that didn’t?
Tony: Well, the first presentation was terrible because none of the rules, in my mind, were followed. They just started, and there was just no logic to what they were doing to pass the ball from one to another. They didn’t start strong, they didn’t close strong.
Only the sixth agency was killer.
PL: And how did they kill it? What did they do right?
Tony: They were exuberant, for one thing.
PL: And how many people were there on that team?
Tony: Four people. They stage-managed and asked us if they could come in the night before to change the setup to be in schoolroom style rather than conference style. We all felt obligated to oblige. So the tables had already been reset by them the night before the presentation so they could make their way through the room.
They had asked specifically who would attend, and they had asked all the proper questions about the computer connections and projectors. They were absolutely ready for the dance.
PL: So to be clear, of the six agencies, how many wanted to know who from the client would be in the room?
Tony: Nobody else.
PL: That’s… crazy.
Tony: Yeah, I mean, I think that that’s a sin, maybe not mortal, but that’s certainly a sin. But nobody asked.