Why the PR pitch process in India isn’t working

A recent report by MSL India about the outlook of PR in India in 2014, said that one of the biggest challenges that PR agencies face is the gap between pitching for business and converting the deal.

PRmoment India spoke to PR professionals to find out what the challenges are when pitching for PR business and possible solutions.

Why is there a gap between pitching and closing the deal?

Dennis Taraporewala, Director, Criesse Communications says that the process is not always time consuming, but that in order for a potential client to make an agency selection decision, the client needs clarity of purpose and a degree of confidence in the agency's ability to deliver.

Dennis says: “They should be able to answer internally: Why is it that they are seeking to engage a PR agency? What are their objectives from the communications work/process? What are their expectations in terms of outcome? How do they see their PR work dovetail into their marketing and business strategy?”

“Quite often the client has not completed this thinking internally and thus is unsure and not in a confident position to make a decision. Or there may be budget considerations. This often contributes to there being a gap between pitching and getting business.”

According to Tarun Nagrani, Account Director, Edelman India, there are three key aspects that determine and delay the outcome of the pitch – industry and client knowledge, demonstrating team capability and the budget.  

Tarun feels that in his experience, “The client needs to be convinced that the proposed agency team has made the best effort to understand the client’s business and the client’s industry. This is a fundamental requirement from the agency team. While clients are willing to give the agency team time to settle down once they come on-board, they would like to see the team having done its homework during the pitch process. The expectation is fair since seasoned PR practitioners understand the essence of hitting the ground running."

"The second reason for a delay could be that the client isn’t fully confident of the capability of the proposed agency team to deliver on the mandate. The logic is that while an agency team may be working on multiple clients, the client has only one agency team to rely on for counsel and delivery. So, the client would want to be very sure that they’ve got the best team."

"Another delay can occur when the client procurement team gets involved. In one instance where I had multiple rounds of discussions with procurement during the negotiation process, I had to literally give the procurement in charge a tutorial on PR and on why solely comparing PR agencies on the basis of pricing or a rate card may not be ideal. Finally, I was able to convince the procurement person to see the rationale. However, one isn’t lucky each time since in many cases it’s just about the lowest bidder which can be quite frustrating.”

How does this gap affect agencies?

Dennis says the gap affects agencies that are driven by large growth targets or have big internal overheads most. “The reason for business acquisition often becomes more about agency growth rather than client driven work.  When business is driven by the bottom-line only this sort of gap could demotivate the agency heads, perhaps make them feel their agency has some deficiencies or at best make them try repeatedly harder and getting themselves into a “constant pitching” mode. If you are an agency driven by time-sheets and with set year on year growth targets, or big overheads, then not getting a quick response can throw your strategy. “

Dennis adds: “At Criesse, one of the goals of the founding members was to deliver great PR programmes that contribute in a lasting way to the brand's equity. Client solutions come first. So if they need time to decide it's fine. As a boutique firm we have the flexibility to take on business where we feel we could honestly make a difference. So the pressure of getting an immediate answer is not a driving force. Doing work that is excellent is.”

Challenges to pitching in India

Dennis feels that: There have been cases where the occasional client is really just hunting for a free plan and strategy or thinking. But with experience you can sense when the pitch is going in that direction and avoid it."

According to Tarun Nagrani, Account Director, Edelman India, there are two main challenges to pitching in India. Firstly, “Owing to the complex business environment in which most companies operate, particularly B2B companies, gaining an in-depth understanding of the environment dynamics, changing business priorities and customer behaviour can be quite a challenge. Getting the right industry and audience insights is the most crucial element since the strategy and recommendations are completely based on it.”

Tarun adds: “The second challenge is that of understanding the judging criteria for the pitch. While there are some exceptions, most clients are not very forthcoming on spelling out the specific judging criteria to the agencies. There have been instances where the brief highlights the need for demonstrating creativity and big ideas but during the pitch meeting the client is more concerned about the vanilla PR requirements.”

How to improve pitching in India?

According to Dennis, “In India, public relations is nascent and not yet as developed or sophisticated as in the US, UK or other markets globally. The pitching process can only be shortened when there is a better understanding of what PR has to offer and its impact. For this, there needs to be industry education on the client and agency side. Seeing PR just through the lens of coverage in newspapers, magazines and online properties, is one aspect; but seeing PR as a strategic contributor to the brand strategy and brand communications process is another aspect altogether. When, over time, several clients begin to value strategically what their agencies may or may not have done for them, the strategic impact it has had on their brands and understand the central role that PR will play in the coming years in the marketplace; then the pitching process will shorten.”

Tarun feels that having been a part of many global and APAC pitches, he is confident that the pitch process in India is as methodical as most global markets.

Tarun says: “I’ve seen global clients taking interest in the pitches coming from India as they tend to stand apart in terms of subject knowledge. The two aspects where Indians can improve are on presentation skills and on depth of customer research. I’ve seen far greater time being spent in global pitches on the manner in which each idea is presented, the templates being used and the number of dry-runs undertaken before the final delivery. Indian pitches also need to be more research based since customer insights can be a real differentiator especially when client senior management is involved in the pitch process.”

Dennis has made a choice to pitch with care. “At Criesse in fact, we do not just go to the market and pitch incessantly. Most of our referrals are by word of mouth and we always insist on a “reflective discovery process” with the client through initial conversations. This helps the client assess its goals and enables them to make not just a quick decision, but also a more long lasting one.”

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