An invitation to all healthcare communications leaders and innovators to join us to explore more effective approaches to selection

The HCA’s latest pitching code of conduct was published in September and we were delighted to be asked to contribute to the update process. It opens with a key statement for clients: “We will only pitch when we have a genuine requirement for agency support and internal stakeholder commitment to the programme in terms of funding and feasibility.”

The code goes on to set out fair and sensible ground rules intended to protect both agencies and clients in what can sometimes become a gruelling and expensive process, but a fundamental one for our industry and work.

When clients have critical programmes to deliver over months or years and substantial budgets to deploy responsibly, it makes absolute sense to use this extended and rigorous evaluation process to govern long-term agency selection.

But pitches are a big investment of time and money for both client and agency. And they don’t always lead to a good result. Delivering a slick presentation is one thing, delivering tangible campaign results in a complex healthcare environment is another. Not all agencies have deep enough pockets to absorb the pitch costs, effectively denying clients access to a swathe of skilled and experienced experts and teams.

We’re all in the pitching habit. In a cost-conscious era and a challenging market, it can feel like a safe and prudent option for clients to go through this exhaustive selection process. Agencies look for the security of long-term commitment and locked-in fees in return.

Challenging the status quo feels risky for agencies that are competing hard for valuable client business. From my years in successful traditional agencies, I know it’s madness to bite the hand that feeds you! But here’s the thing. I, and many of you – on both client and agency side – know that pitching isn’t always the answer. For smaller and shorter projects it’s overkill and often conforms to the law of diminishing returns. It stretches resources on both sides. It narrows the field and places too much emphasis on presentation rather than creativity.

The question is, what’s the alternative?

As a judge at the Pharma Times Communications Awards this autumn, I was struck by the exceptional resourcefulness and creativity shown by the competing teams in a locked-room challenge. Without preparation or wifi access and in the space of two hours, healthcare comms people came up with ingenious, informed and substantial proposals to meet a fictional but realistic brief. The pressure and adrenaline might have been unique to the contest, but the talent unleashed was extraordinary.

What if every client could select its agency teams through a similarly efficient and focused process?

As founder of The Difference Collective, for the first time in decades I’m in a position to look boldly and objectively at solutions to the pitching problem. In our new, virtual agency model, we just don’t have the overheads to absorb traditional pitches. Our lean and agile approach means we have to demonstrate our capability in other ways.

In the early days, I assumed we would be ruled out of larger projects and would make our living from small, tactical pieces of work that fly under the procurement radar. In practice, our results on these jobs have brought clients back to us with large-scale briefs. I’ve had to adapt my thinking.

So, over the past year we’ve adopted and tested a selective approach to pitching.

Clients who’ve already seen the value of our work understand why our model doesn’t support traditional pitching, but they still need to evaluate us objectively against alternative providers, particularly for high budget work. Where we know our team has an excellent fit in terms of skills, experience and culture, we may collectively decide to invest our time in collaborating on a pitch that we have a very high chance of winning.

For lower budget projects, we have a range of alternatives that give clients a chance to engage with the virtual team they would be working with, to question them and test their creativity, while limiting the time and money invested. Brainstorming sessions conducted over videoconference have proved particularly successful, with our prospective clients not only seeing the team’s chemistry and capability in action, but also receiving a summary of approach and recommendations afterwards. 

We’ve also delivered mini-pitches and exemplar proposals that tackle one agreed aspect of the brief in detail, to show our capability and rigour. Another option is for our selected team to run a paid-for workshop, to create usable outputs on a test project or topic. Clients can see us in action, including our on-the-spot creativity, expertise and teamwork. I believe this gives a far greater insight into our capabilities, approach and likely programme outcomes than a pre-prepared pitch.

These experiments have proved so successful that I don’t believe I need to evangelise them for smaller scale projects.

But moving up the scale, where procurement is involved, the pitching debate becomes more challenging for everyone. When I was running a traditional agency, I would not have risked disrupting or criticising a client model that we needed to conform to for survival and success. But at The Difference Collective, I’m free to challenge it – based on common sense, experience and the undeniable existence of effective alternative solutions.

In our rapidly-changing health and pharma sector, I urge thought leaders and decision makers from both clients and agencies to join me in seeking more efficient, cost-effective and insightful ways to match the best third party talent with client needs.

So, The Difference Collective is staging a pitch invasion. I truly believe that, as the healthcare comms industry embraces different ways of working, there is a better way to get new business without having to heavily invest in a pitch. I have already heard from many of you who agree. And I really want to hear from as many more of you as possible as we plan to convene a roundtable in the New Year. So if you’re ready to help us test different ways of pitching, Get in touch!


About the author

Angie, Founder, has worked in healthcare communications for nearly 30 years, ultimately building one of the most successful UK healthcare consultancies. Throughout her career, she has constantly looked to do things differently and make a difference to the healthcare communications industry.

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