Evie Barrett
Jan 16, 2024

Is it okay to let agencies pitch ‘as a courtesy’? The industry debates

A LinkedIn post has sparked debate over whether businesses looking for a new communications partner should allow agencies to participate in the RFP if there is little or no intention of choosing the agency.

Photo: Getty Images.
Photo: Getty Images.

Shannon Tucker, vice-president of US-based agency Next PR, recently shared an anecdote on LinkedIn, in which a prospective client said it was allowing a PR agency to participate in its pitch process as a “courtesy.”

Tucker wrote: “Let me be so clear: Having an agency participate in an RFP ‘as a courtesy’ is not a courtesy at all. If an agency has no chance of winning the business, set them free.

“The amount of hours, brainpower, and resources that go into an RFP is taking away time the agency could be spending trying to land serious clients.”

The post, which has received over 2,000 likes at the time of writing, sparked debate from a selection of PR and comms pros.

Rachel Huff, founder of Victoire & Co, commented: “This pains me. Sadly, some clients actually believe they’re doing agencies (especially smaller ones) a service by inviting them to pitch—like they’re gifting them the experience of being in the mix with bigger agencies—even if the client has no intention of hiring them.

“In reality, those smaller agencies’ businesses take a significant financial hit because they put everything aside and go all in on an opportunity that they never had a shot at winning.”

While agreeing with the points made in Tucker’s post, Leah Katz, FleishmanHillard’s managing director of business development for the Americas, added: “I also think incumbents need to be honest with themselves about how they found themselves in the re-pitch situation, assess whether there is any chance of winning, and sometimes make the brave decision to gracefully bow out.”

Sandra Sokoloff, senior director at global PR and corporate comms at Alvarez & Marsal, wrote: “As a former agency person I hear your pain. Now having worked on the client side for close to 10 years, I have a greater appreciation for the multiple layers and inputs that may be involved with an agency selection decision.”

Also offering an in-house perspective, Sarah Bruning Meron, vice-president of corporate affairs at IBM, said: “This is an interesting one for me from the corporate side of the house, as my experience has been that RFP dog/pony shows are mostly imposed on in-house teams by the procurement function, not that the actual comms team finds them helpful."

Bruning Meron explained that she typically meets agencies with no expectation of them preparing a pitch, before sending the top candidates to meet procurement and “clear any compliance hurdles."

She added: “All of the PPT [PowerPoint] churn is ridiculous. And agree 100% upthread with being upfront with the incumbent. If everything was great, you wouldn’t be going through a change.”

Michael Kaye, director of comms at dating apps Archer and OkCupid, commented: “Every time I’ve done the RFP process brand-side I’ve kept it to three agencies I felt confident in, because coming from the agency I knew how much effort and resources go into a pitch.”

Jeremy Tunis, a US-based comms pro with experience at Edelman, BCW and Amazon, weighed in, saying: “RFPs are literally the worst. By their very nature, the chances of success are low, as is the ROI in most cases.”

Tunis continued: “Unless there’s a deep(ish) existing relationship, firms should really think twice about whether to participate. And FFS, if a firm is not in serious consideration after the RFI stage, just tell them.”

Jane Coloccia Teixeira, president of US-based agency JC Communications, also responded to Tucker on LinkedIn, saying: “Totally agree. And then there are the RFPs which are totally for idea mining and no agency will ever be hired because they just want the ideas and will do the work internally.”

She added: “I saw an RFP a few years back that said ‘By responding to this RFP you acknowledge that we may not hire anyone and reserve the right to use your ideas.’”

Similarly, Ali Karsch, founder and chief executive of Little Voice PR, said: “Our team tends to be super creative in proposals and have had multiple brands ‘go in a different direction’ (likely due to fee), and then hand our proposal to a different partner and come back around when it fails. It’s beyond frustrating. Strong partners are out there and charge appropriately.”

Ken Jacobs, a coach to PR and comms leaders, commented: “When prospects show you who they are, believe them. Because that’s how they’ll be as clients.”

He shared an anecdote, writing: “When I was back in my agency days, we had a client who seemed happy with us, but without discussion or warning or any signs of dissatisfaction, put the business up for RFP. We decided that if they didn’t want to be our partner, and wouldn’t give us a chance to make things right (even though they hadn’t told us what was wrong) we declined to participate. They were shocked. We then went on to pitch their competitor. And won!”

Offering an alternative perspective, Scott Valentine, a comms strategist who was formerly head of partner marketing and PR at Unacast, said: “From an agency POV, I think you have a point. From a client POV, they may want that additional RFP for a variety of reasons.”

He explained: “It’s an agency’s job to serve the market and I have seen more than one RFP dark horse win at the end of the day.

“There’s also the matter of agencies smaller than yours that need practice developing an RFP competency, and feedback from prospective clients on where they come up short just yet. In summary, I get what you're saying, but it’s a one-sided view of things.”

When contacted by PRWeek about the attention her post received, Walker said: "Not surprised it resonated. It struck a nerve with people who have been burned in the past."

She continued: "I want more companies to be educated about how to best run RFP processes with empathy for the agencies participating."


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