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Fair Trade: Ethics in Pitching

It must have happened to you. You’re invited to pitch. You burn the midnight oil and come up with a terrific idea. You give your presentation. It seems to go well; the panel love the idea. You get a call six days later: ‘I’m very sorry – you were a close second’.

A month later you see your idea – YOUR IDEA – executed by the client’s chosen agency.

You might say: ‘Ah well, all’s fair in love and war’. You might explode with fury.

The one thing you don’t think about is suing the client, because you can’t. There is no legal protection for ideas.

This used to happen a lot. Today it’s rare, but it still happens.

What can we do about it?

It’s a two-way street

Our best plan is to spread the notion of ethical conduct among clients (as well as agencies) through the PRCA. Good conduct is a two-way street. If our client is a PR person they are likely to care about their reputation in the industry. If they are serious about their profession they are probably a member.

We can also mark every page or slide with the advertising industry’s rubric: ‘The ideas expressed in this proposal are the property of XYZ Ltd and are subject to the laws of confidentiality. They may not be imparted to a third party without the written permission of a director of XYZ Ltd’.

This reminds clients that ideas are not ‘free’.

The illusion of ‘free’

This may be a key point. Clients expect agencies to invest a considerable amount of time, effort and money in a new business pitch. We are a hyper-competitive industry. This leads some clients to believe there are no rules.

There are – ethically – and it’s up to us and our professional body to impose them. Here are some suggestions:

Clients should invest time and effort in the pitch process. This means they should prepare an informative brief and meet the competing agencies, separately, face-to-face.

Experienced clients know that it’s chemistrywhich makes the difference between a ho-hum PR programme and one that delivers spectacular results. Experienced clients hold ‘chemistry meetings’ before they decide on their short-list.

Our standard should be: ‘Is this client giving my team the chance to shine? Are they telling us enough to let us do our best work?’ If not… why not? And if not… why bother?’

Clients should make it clear up-front that they will either (a) pay for ideas or (b) feel free to use them without payment. The most ethical solution is when clients pay each agency a modest fee for their proposal, granting full ownership of the IP.

Clients should tell agencies how the decision will be made. Is an intermediary involved? Will procurement have a say? Is there a marking system? If there is an incumbent agency, are they still in the game? Clients naturally like to keep the cards close to their chest, but it benefits everyone when competing agencies have a clear idea of their chances.

Clients should give losing agencies a full and frank de-brief. If an unsuccessful pitch turns into a ‘learning experience’ the agency’s investment of time and talent won’t have been entirely futile.

Negotiation: clients should resist the temptation to negotiate terms and conditions with the leader of the pitch team. That person has too much invested in winning to negotiate effectively. Clients know this. Agencies must make a profit from a new assignment or it will end in tears. Better for clients to negotiate with someone at the agency who can deal on commercial terms.




Adrian Wheeler presents PRCA workshops on ‘Successful Credentials’, ‘Successful Pitching’, ‘Dealing with Procurement’ and ‘Choosing and Using a PR Agency’