The aim of a pitch process should be to find a partner that truly matches the skills and approach you’re looking for. The people involved should feel safe enough to provide their best work, to help you make this decision effectively.
If you don’t create a safe space, then you’ll always get generic ideas from people which do not speak to your specific situation. Without a level of trust, people won’t put themselves in potential harm’s way by suggesting things that could be wrong.
Many processes are designed without recognising the power imbalances that exist, which make it difficult for people to feel safe enough to present these specific ideas. This in turn makes it harder to make a good decision.
This example process aims to create a safe space so that you can truly understand what people do best and whether that fits with what you need. It also provides a foundation of trust for whoever you end up working with, to ensure the long term success of the project.
Use an external facilitator
An agency selection process often helps you work out exactly what you’re looking for. By using somebody external to the organisation, you can make the most of this experience.
They are also more likely to be able to ask direct questions of you and the agency, knowing that they sit outside of the power structures which exist in any organisation.
Briefs vary hugely for different types of project. If the exact solution required is known and signed off by the organisation, then they can be extremely specific.
However, most briefs relating to digital work have a higher level of uncertainty. In this situation, it’s best to provide as much context about the ambitions of the project as possible, without defining the solutions.
Discovery will form a large part of most digital projects — especially website rebuilds. This is important to get an external perspective of your users’ needs — and also build up relationships between the people involved in the project. The clearer you can be on your objectives, without providing solutions the better.
Some materials that are always helpful to see include:
- Existing audience research
- Organisational and department strategies
- Org structure including who is on the decision making panel
- Theories of change
- User surveys
- User testing results
- Content strategy
Always share the budget
For most projects, there is a solution for any budget. However if you don’t provide even a ballpark figure, then there is no way of knowing what kind of solution you’re looking for.
If you require different options across a budget range then state that in the brief.
From here, people are able to work out the right solution that enables what you’re looking to achieve, with the resources you have available.
Otherwise it’s the same as saying you want to buy a car that goes from A to B, but without saying how much you’ve got to spend. There are simply too many options to consider without an idea of the cost you’re willing to pay.
Long lists to short lists
If you’re going to speak to a long list, then make it absolutely clear the numbers involved before asking people to submit ideas, estimates or any other materials.
Try to find a diverse range of agencies. Many will have their specialisms, whether that’s service design, fundraising, or development. Unless you’re extremely clear on what you need, it’s best to speak to a wide range of people to help you work that out. The more clear you can be at this stage of the process the better.
This is one of the best reasons for using an external person to help with the process. If it’s something they do regularly they should have a good list of organisations that could fit what you’re looking for. If it’s the first time you’ve run a pitch process for a few years then your knowledge is less likely to be up to date.
When approaching agencies let them know why you’re interested in speaking to them. Was it a particular project or a certain skill set that you saw them talk about? It helps people to understand whether it’s likely to be the right fit or not from the start.
4 page responses + case studies
If taking people from a long list to a short list, then please don’t ask for a full proposal at this stage. They take a lot of time and investment to do properly. It’s likely you’ll get something fairly generic if there are 12 other agencies involved at this stage.
It’s better to ask a few key but brief questions to really focus people’s minds. Some of the best we’ve seen include:
– “Tell us about your agency’s journey and how you’ve got here”
– “How would the website support our mobilisation strategy?”
– “How is accessibility integrated into your design and build process?”
All agencies have their best case studies written up as easy-to-access stories. Asking for a few of these at this stage adds little extra work.
Say which agencies are involved
You want to find out what each agency does best. In any industry people know the other organisations that work in a similar space to them.
By saying which people are involved in the process, you allow each agency to play to their strengths. If one agency knows that a specialist in fundraising is involved then they’re more likely to push on their service design skills, giving you a clearer picture of the choices available to you.
Pre-pitch call or workshop
Walking or Zooming into a pitch is an extremely unsafe environment. There is an enormous power imbalance between the panel and those pitching. It’s your role to try and equalise that imbalance wherever possible.
If you can run a call — or even better a quick workshop — with the core team beforehand, then you’ll help build everyone’s understanding, empathy and trust in one another. This doesn’t need to be with all involved in the decision, just those close to the project.
It hugely helps when you walk into the room to have some friendly faces you know you can trust.
Give agenda, guestlist and questions to be asked beforehand
Some people are happy to answer questions on the fly, even doing their best work when they’re thinking on their feet.
Many others do their best when they prepare extensively. This is not about how well they know their craft, it’s about catering for a diverse range of approaches.
Sharing questions, who’s going to be there and a detailed plan for a pitch session means anybody, no matter what their preferences, can do their best.
Share your decision-making framework
The way that you make a decision should be clearly decided before you get into the room. There’s always going to be discussion, and you definitely shouldn’t make a choice based on scores alone. Our experience is that they should be a conversation starter rather than finisher.
However if you give them to people beforehand, then you have a better chance of your questions being answered. It also helps people to decide where to spend their time in the presentation section.
If 5% of the decision is about fundraising and 20% is about service delivery, then that’s a clear indication of priorities.
Set up a tech-specific session
When running digital projects, it’s best to set up a separate session focusing on the technology. Ideally run with a member of your IT or digital teams, there are going to be lots of questions that are irrelevant to a lot of people.
Rather than trying to jam them into a single session, make space for everyone to get what they need from a detailed standalone conversation. As before, make sure that a clear agenda and questions are shared, so that everyone can come prepared to give you what you need.
Don’t discuss pitches until you have a facilitator
When discussing any decision, it can be easy for biases to creep in. If discussions are held right after sessions, then certain personality types tend to take the lead and can bed in opinion, before others have time to reflect.
This can lead to group-think where you’re not making the most of the diverse panel you’ve set up.
Better to take notes, make scores and then wait until you can have a properly facilitated conversation where all viewpoints are heard once all pitches have been seen.
Don’t give bad news at 4pm on Friday
The number of people who think it’s OK to call at the end of a week with bad news is unbelievable. I would say that 90% of the pitches we have been involved in end this way — with one person even calling me while I was at an airport going away for the weekend (which they knew about).
Have some humanity and give people bad news at a time when it’s not going to ruin their weekends (or holiday!).
Agencies put time, effort and emotions into pitching for new work. It’s draining and hard both personally and professionally.
However, it’s our job so you don’t need to worry about offending us if you’ve made a decision.
Whether winning or losing a pitch, make sure you give detailed, actionable insight based on the decision-making framework you’ve hopefully used before.
People usually want to know:
– What they did better than the person you went with
– What was the same or didn’t factor into the decision
– What they did worse on than the winning agency
It’s also helpful to have a conversation with the decision makers to understand a bit more of the nuance around these points. This is never about challenging the decision, but just helping to use the situation as a learning experience.