Stealing my heart

The current issue of PR Week carries a totally irrelevant 'gloves off' discussion as to whether  “…clients have become more vigilant in the pitch process since the recession.” More vigilant? Try more vigilant, more demanding and more demeaning as well.

Kidtantrum2Ever since the 2008 economic meltdown, there's been a seismic shift in the ways in which prospects select (or, in many cases don't select, a new firm). I won't elaborate further since Jen Prosek's take on the rather sophomoric debate nails it on the head.

We had a recent experience that exemplifies just how much the agency search process has changed of late (as well as the low regard for a PR firm's time and professionalism that exists within some corporations).

The CMO of a Midwestern technology firm e-mailed us in a panic. Her business was rapidly ramping up its market spend and needed to hire a “top, midsized, BtoB firm” ASAP. She provided the budget range ($15k-$20k per month) and said we were one of only three firms she was contacting.

Since our growth has been robust of late (and, we were reluctant to further strain our resources), we responded cautiously. One of our managers left the prospect a voice mail asking for more details, but never heard back.

Now, fast forward several weeks. My business partner, Ed, received an e-mail from the woman complaining that:
A) I had never responded to her original note, and
B) She had never heard from anyone at Peppercom.

While it's true I didn't acknowledge her original note, one of our executives did, in fact, call. Regardless, she implored Ed to respond and said that we'd already been shortlisted.

And so, I called her. We had an amiable conversation and discussed her needs. That's when she told me she needed a plan within 48 hours. I should have balked. Instead, feeling a little Catholic guilt, I asked one of our managers to drop everything and submit the materials within the deadline.

Then, predictably, our rapid response was followed by prolonged silence. More than a little angry, I shot the woman a note. “Stay tuned,” she replied. “We're making decisions this week.” The note was followed by yet another extended period of radio silence. I e-mailed again, asking for an explanation. This was her response:

“Your timing couldn't be better. We've just made our decision and, sadly, Peppercom isn't one of our two finalists. Thanks and good luck.” Damn. Suckered again.

I felt just like Mick Jagger, who sang in 'Stealing My Heart', “I thought you were dinner, but you were the shark.” In fact, Stealing my heart could serve as an anthem for any agency that's been raked through the coals in today's murky world of new business pitches.

If PR Week wanted to host an authentic gloves off discussion, they would invite two VP's of corporate communications to address a far more relevant question: “Should PR firms be treated shabbily in new business searches?” I could connect them with one woman who answer with a resounding “You betcha!”

This post is dedicated to Peppercommers Sara Jane Whitman Ramos and Courtney Chauvin Ellul.

6 thoughts on “Stealing my heart

  1. Excellent points, Peter. We are, in fact, becoming far more discriminating in our responses to these fishing expeditions and are now turning down quite a few opportunities. Sadly, this one ‘guilted’ us into responding and I fell for it.

  2. When serial philanderers are asked why they do it, they will usually say “because I can” if they’re honest. Bill Clinton’s autobio offers some insight into this.
    The same is true of these “clients.” I would respectfully submit that agencies are partially culpable for allowing it to happen. Forgive me if this sounds like “blaming the victim,” but isn’t the definition of madness doing the same thing over and over again?
    Even if your firm puts it foot down and says “no more” — something I’d admire greatly if you could do it consistently — it’s not enough. Most CMOs know there are dozens of other agencies to take your place. Craven MDs or bizdev VPs continually milk their creative teams dry on these 48-hour snipe hunts, while the CMO counts on this behavior. They’re secure in knowing that the agency — aka “the mark” — sees only the $$$ signs associated with their brand.
    Meanwhile, as you astutely point out,
    industry organs like PR Week continue to look the other way.

  3. Thanks for weighing in, Ann. Boorish behavior by client prospects is at a pandemic stage. All of which makes the PR Week ‘gloves off’ debate borderline bizarre. Talk about the horse being out of the barn.

  4. It’s been my experience that when a CMO acts like this — the panicky, must-have proposal demand within 48 hours — that they have already chosen the agency that they want.
    What they are using you for is the appearance of a due diligence process — just so they can tell upper management that they vetted the agency properly. It’s disgusting and unprofessional…yet it happens all the time.

  5. I guest blogged several months back on serial prospects, which may be even worse. You know, the companies that don’t choose your agency the first time – and maybe choose no one – but then come back and say, “We really need you.” Or not. I can now add another company to that list. This one had me absolutely fooled. They’d make a mistake in choosing another agency that turned out not to be a good fit, they were definitely going with us,etc., etc.