The ‘Maximising the agency & procurement relationship – part II: New models for pitching in the 20s’ event took place on Wednesday 26th February at the Royal Society of Medicine.

Meeting report

Rachel Farrow, Strategic Director, emotive & Director, PM Society 

This meeting was an output from the PM Society’s Industry-Agency Relationships Interest Group, a group that includes senior representatives from pharma companies and agencies, currently run by Rachel Farrow. In 2019 the group ran an industry-wide survey on Pitching Practice in healthcare communications. The group has produced several articles on topics relating to pitch practice. The overall aim of the group is to improve ongoing relationships between pharma clients and their agencies, striving for true partnerships.

The meeting was sold out and had representatives from 40 agencies and 7 pharma companies.

Pitch Practice Survey Results

The meeting was opened by Open Health’s Carwyn Jones who presented the survey results from last year’s pitch practice survey. There were 78 respondents (40 from agencies, 27 from medical or marketing and 11 from procurement).

The first topic was budget thresholds – over what value were pharma respondents required to run a competitive pitch based on their company policies?  The medical and marketing group stated an average of £55,000; the procurement group’s mean response was £83,000.

The next question concerned why pitches are held. The most frequent reason agencies were given for being invited to a pitch was that the client wanted to ‘gain a fresh perspective/to gain innovation’, closely followed by ‘concerns about creative output of incumbent agency’. When clients were asked why they held pitches, the number one response was ‘there is a new project but no existing agency we want to use’. The second most frequent reason was ‘concerns about the strategic capability of incumbent agency’.

Then the topic moved on to how clients put together a shortlist of agencies for the pitch. Perhaps unsurprisingly, ‘recommendation from colleagues’ was listed by 68% of client respondents. 53% said they relied on Preferred Supplier Lists or equivalent. 50% said they ‘ask Procurement’.

The most stark difference between agency and pharma responses was seen within the next topic – how much agencies spend on pitches.  Agencies said they spent an average of over `£40,000 on a competitive pitch (for a £200K piece of work). This included resource time and out of pocket expenses. 39% of pharma respondents thought the figure was under £5,000.  There was an audible gasp from the audience!

The survey moved on to look at the time given to agencies to complete the pitch process.  Over 70% of agency respondents said they are given 2 to 3 weeks to prepare for a pitch. This was backed up by the pharma responses. However, 78% of agency respondents said they would like either 4 weeks or 4-6 weeks to do their best work.

Finally the topic of how the winning agency is selected. The main single factor chosen by 34% of pharma respondents was ‘demonstration of strategic thinking’, with the second choice being the ‘specific ideas presented at the pitch’ (13%). Joint third were ‘proven experience in the therapeutic or brand area’ ((11%) and ‘expertise in the implementation of key tactics’ (11%).

This short summary of the pitch results finished with the question of feedback – what are agencies told when given the news that they have lost a pitch? The most frequently chosen answer (by 23% of agencies) was ‘our costs were higher’.  Yet pharma respondents did not rank cost highly when considering factors affecting their choice of agency.

Carwyn asked the audience for a straw poll of the agency attendees. When asked if any agency attendees had experienced never being told a result after a pitch – around two-thirds of the room agreed this had been the case. When asked if any agency attendees had experienced winning a pitch but never actually getting the work, around 70% of the agreed.

So there is clearly some poor pitch practice out there. An interesting topic was the quality of feedback to agencies after a pitch. The survey had suggested it wasn’t always transparent. Carwyn asked the audience how many have felt they don’t get adequate feedback from clients when told they’ve lost a pitch? It appeared to be 100% of agency delegates. Philipp Schuster from Bayer suggested maybe the lack of time on behalf of the client company could be a factor. Sarah Sowerby from Wordbird suggested that it would be useful to have some help with the feedback call – some key questions that agencies should ask on that highly charged call. Many attendees were in agreement with this idea.

Other questions and suggestions from the floor were around agencies pushing back more when they see bad practice or asking more questions about the pitch. Trish Shepherd from Open Health said that agencies should ask for the criteria on which they will be judged for each pitch. Mike Dixon of the HCA suggested that if an agency says no to a pitch, (it’s not our expertise area or we don’t have the resource to do it now) the client may be more likely to come back to them at a later date.  Keith Gentry from AstraZeneca urged agencies to go in and meet Procurement more often.


The New GSK Pitch Process: Experiences from a recent Global Pitch

Mike Orriss, GSK Commercial Director, Global Agency Management

Mike Orriss talked about his priorities in his role of global agency management: he seeks to drive performance through better agency partnership. This has two elements;

  1. Select the right agency partners
  2. Build productive and sustainable partnerships

A key objective is to break old habits, including a 2-year cycle of changing agencies and the tendency to adopt client-supplier relationships. GSK wanted to drive performance by setting agency partners up for success and inspiring the agencies to do their best work.

Mike recently ran a complex pitch process covering three global therapy areas and several priority markets.  He used a three-step process to select the right partners:

  1. The Request for Information stage; GSK created a brief and asked a selection of agencies to respond.
  2. A shortlist was drawn up from the RFI stage, and then a very important second step was GEMBA (going to see the agencies in person) in which GSK team members went to agency offices and spent some time with the proposed teams. This happened in multiple countries with local GSK teams visiting the relevant local agency offices.
  3. Finally, the Pitch Presentation and final selection.

Mike explained that internal feedback on the process was very positive about the GEMBA stage. He believes that the time invested to go and see the agencies was the most useful in selecting the right partners. A learning was that the GEMBA stage was new for the agencies too, and GSK realized that they could have been clearer about what they expected to happen at the agency on that day. It was very important for the client team that they met the whole agency team who would work on the account, particularly junior team members.  They also revisited the agency they planned to select again before making a final decision to address outstanding concerns and questions.

Mike went on to talk about the importance of a good onboarding process following agency selection. In the case of this large scale global pitch, they are taking a whole 3 months to onboard the agency before a go-live date. There is an onboarding team at GSK with objectives and KPIs.  Training has been carried out for agency teams, sometimes in agency offices, there have been social events to get to know the team and a leadership summit between senior leaders from the client and agency.

Panel Discussion

Mike Orriss was joined on the panel by Lizzie Nayman, MD of healthcare communications agency emotive and Niels van Dam, Sourcing Manager EMEA, Astellas.

There were many questions from the floor, several recognizing that the GSK process as outlined is not suitable for every pitch – in this case only global network agencies were considered and the prize was large, so the huge time and financial investment on both sides were understandable. However, Mike suggested that the principles are still the same, particularly the benefit in clients meeting the agencies and visiting their offices as part of a pitch process.

There was a lively debate about pitch practice, Lizzie providing the agency point of view with experiences of pitching processes that have not followed best practice.  The subject of budget came up – should agencies ask for the budget, and should clients provide this?  Agencies in the room seemed to agree that a ballpark figure is necessary to help put together the right set of ideas for the pitch. The client view in the room varied – some suggested a ballpark would be ok, others that it is sometimes too soon to know even a rough budget for particular activities (just the total pot) so this leads to pitches where the client says – “just tell me what it will cost and then I can work out what I can do”.

Another topic was the use of good pitch practice charters – while these won’t stop bad practice, they can be taken into an initial meeting with a client before a pitch and help start a discussion around the expectations on both sides.

Another common theme to the questions was around feedback when a client needs to inform an agency that they didn’t win the pitch. There was a consensus that there needs to be more transparency with losing agencies. If there isn’t time on the initial ‘bad news’ call, another call should be scheduled. There might also be benefit from using a template list of key topics for the agencies to use on this call, helping them run through all the questions they need to ask to help them improve their pitching in the future. Niels said that if an agency asked him for actual scores on criteria used by his team in the pitch, he would provide these.

One of the final topics was around whether clients ask for feedback from agencies on the pitch process. This seems like a sensible idea, and Niels urged agencies to offer feedback to clients at the end of the process, regardless of the result.

A view of the pitching process from both client and agency perspective

Paul Morrissey, Global Business Director, OPEN Health and former Strategic Sourcing Manager at Johnson & Johnson

Paul Morrissey talked to the audience firstly from the perspective of his time at Johnson & Johnson in Procurement. When he started in his role the norm in marketing was for people to be promoted from the field to a marketing position with the accompanying thinking – ‘great I can hire my own agency’, the subsequent removal of an incumbent agency who may have been doing a pretty good job, a new and costly pitch process, and then a repeat of this process 18 months later. There was a lot of agreement form the audience on this norm, even today.

Paul then shared a feedback form that he introduced to pitches at J&J.  It was a scorecard with a space to score agencies on the quality of the team, quality of presentation, creativity, professionalism, experience, dependence on this account financially, case studies, timelines, costs and finally integrity. The integrity elements listed included – do I trust them? Do I feel comfortable? Will they really do what they tell us today? And will they exceed my expectations? He noted that the agency with the highest score didn’t always win, but it was useful to have these templates completed during the pitches to help those in the room remember the details of each presentation and collect their thoughts.

Paul then talked about the “50 to 5” ratio. In his experience at J&J, over 50 creative pitches, in only around 5 cases was the creative presented in the winning pitch actually used. This implied a lot of wasted work. He asked – do we always need full creative ideas or could case studies with example creative be sufficient?

Paul concluded that there are bad practice and processes that can stifle creativity and suck value. He urged for transparency on both sides and to speak to and meet the agency team. He referred back to the waste of time and resource in pitches where there isn’t even work awarded at the end, so urged clients to really think carefully before launching into a full-scale pitch process.  Perhaps, sometimes, there is another way.

A question from the floor led to a discussion about the quality of the brief. Not everyone can write a good brief; it’s a skill and something that clients do need to be able to do well if they are going to embark on a competitive pitch process. A good brief starts the whole process off on the right foot.

A final question led to a discussion about the resource required to answer a competitive pitch brief, and the fact that how much time you can put into a pitch is often down to resources available in a random two-week period. Are clients sometimes led into hiring an agency that simply happened to have the freest resource that week and could, therefore, throw everything at it?


Digitalization in Marketing – Embracing the paradigm shift and creating an opportunity for Procurement

By Philipp Schuster, Global Category Lead Creative & Digital Insights & Creative Development, Bayer

The final presentation was from Philipp Schuster from Bayer. He started by saying that digitalization has meant new ways of communicating with patients and healthcare professionals, new agency players in the market and the need for new ways of working within procurement. At Bayer, the procurement team of 2,500 globally is being reduced. The structure now has both Business Partners who get close to each of the internal business areas and understand what they need, and Category Leads who understand the external space, the industry, the suppliers and what the company is purchasing.

Procurement professionals need to stay relevant and be trustworthy internal consultants, importantly aiming to create value beyond just financial savings. Their job is as ‘matchmaker’ to find the right agency partners and get the best out of those partners. Interestingly, Bayer is striving to become ‘the client of choice’ for agencies, to get access to the right talent and innovation.

Philipp went on to describe the Bayer approach to ‘pitch in a day’. Each shortlisted agency comes into the company offices for a day – gets briefed in the morning and then works with several individuals from the client team to come up with a response to the brief. After a few hours, this is pitched back to the wider client team and this process is repeated over three or four days with all shortlisted agencies.

Phillip was very positive about this approach which he said had received good feedback from the participating agencies. A lot less time and money was invested in the process by the agencies, and he said that the chance for the Bayer teams to workshop with the agency teams led to a deeper understanding of how they might work together in the future. He added that it was critical for agencies to send the right team, not simply the most senior and experienced people, but those that will work on the account.


Panel Discussion

Philipp was joined on the panel by Angie Wiles, The Difference Collective and Louise Sharp, Makara Health.

Louise and Angie talked about the process used to select the winning agencies in the Pharma Times Communications Team of the Year Awards. Over three different categories, agencies are asked to send in a team, (after just a pre-read the day before), to a live pitch situation over a few hours. Both Angie, as one of the judges, and Louise, as an agency participant, talked about the benefits of this approach. “It’s amazing how much you can do in two hours” explained Louise, “there was so much collaborative working within the agency team, high energy and great ideas”.  Angie agreed that it was amazing to see what teams could achieve in a short space of time, and the chemistry and teamwork really came across as well as the focus on strategy.

The meeting ended with an agreement that there is much more to be done to move the pitching process forward. Companies need to consider new models, whether they need a pitch at all, and very importantly, need to be as transparent as possible with agencies, not just to get the best possible pitch presentations but also to allow agencies to improve and learn.

The meeting concluded with a plan to hold another session later in the year which will focus on the contracting, negotiation, and onboarding stages once a piece of work has been awarded.