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Michael Hart, Creative Director of The Union, ponders the perplexing challenges for agencies tendering for new business and the absence of ‘chemistry’ in the process.

Michael Hart

I found myself ruminating on the dark art of pitching and tenders today, particularly as the latter is becoming the norm.

In a pitch you have three things to focus on: story, content and chemistry. That’s not to say it’s an easy thing to master but a clear narrative and a solid idea presented by likeable people is a pretty good foundation to land (or keep) an account. If you win you get all the gushing reasons why. Lose and you’ll be informed by phone or email that you were a close second – they don’t want to hurt your feelings. Dig a little deeper and you may uncover the reasons for your failure. And you need to learn from those reasons because sometimes you can trick yourself into believing the decision has nothing to do with you.

The excuses:

  • The new marketing director wants a new agency (often the old one they’ve just been working with).
  • We’ve had the account too long and it’s time for a fresh approach (no matter how good we are).
  • We didn’t stand a chance because they had no intention of moving it in the first place (from the agency that’s had the account for too long).
  • They want a London agency.
  • Most of the above will be accompanied by choice expletives as the agency howls for fairness. Now there’s nothing new in any of this and many people will have their own stories of how victory and defeat unfolds.

But tenders are a little different. Here it’s all about ‘weighting’. Question 1 is worth 5% but Question 4 is worth 40%. And Question 7 is a three-parter worth 10% each. Everything is scored. Everything has some kind of undefined value. You do your best, slavishly sticking to word counts and praying that your virtual tome will upload before the mystic portal shuts.

Then, silence.

In secret rooms people set to work. Your efforts are totted up and you win or lose by a handful of percentage points – and we all scream ‘Procurement!’ to convince ourselves, once again, that we lost because our Relevant Case Studies only got 11 out of 20.

In my staggering naivety I struggle to believe that the client only discovers the winner when they finish adding up the scores – if it does happen this way then God help us all. No, I think they make their decision based on who presented the best solution and then apportion scores retrospectively.

“Well, the team bios are quite witty so I gave them full marks. And the interactive bit with the wireframes was clever so they scored highly there too.” 

“So they’ve won?”

“According to my calculations…yeah.” 


You will win or lose a tender for all the same reasons you win or lose a pitch.

Except one.

If a pitch is about story, content and chemistry then a tender is about story, content and probably formatting. Not that formatting isn’t important but to remove chemistry as a measure is, at best, odd. Yes, there might be follow up meetings for the shortlisted hopefuls but not always. And this is what I find most bewildering about tenders. We’re dehumanising the way we work. Business is all about people, empathy, like-minded thinking – it’s about staring into the eyes of the person you’re talking to and knowing that they get what you’re talking about. It’s about knowing they’re not charlatans, ego-maniacs or industrial psychopaths. It’s about knowing that their smiles are genuine. For most businesses that must score pretty heavily.

The tender process suggests people aren’t that important. Or not important enough. It allows us to hide from making decisions and deny others the right to discuss, challenge and question.

We all agree that the interview process is critical when we’re employing new people. We do that because it’s vital. Because it’s common sense. Because you wouldn’t dream of taking someone on you’d never met.

So why isn’t it mandatory in the world of business?

If you are considering putting out your marketing business for pitch or tender, or are seeking an agency to help with your marketing, why not get in touch with Michael to discuss how to get the best out of the process?