Allison+Partners (A+P) China team recently won a series of eight major pitches, a particularly impressive feat under the pressure from the COVID-19 pandemic. Managing Director & Partner of A+P in China Jerry Zhu shares the secrets behind their eight-pitch winning streak.
Editor: Congratulations on your eight -pitch winning streak!
Jerry: Thank you. Actually, there is no better way to start the year with so many wins, especially in the face of the pandemic. I am very grateful for the trust our clients have shown in us and the extraordinary effort our teams put in to achieving this. This also proves that A+P has won a seat at the table with the best-in-class and has gained considerable recognition in China.
The clients we won cover a wide range of industries, from B2B to high tech, from agriculture to real estate, from luxury and consumer goods to finance companies, which demonstrates the depth and scope of our service. We also have a good balance between multinational companies to local listed ones.
The success A+P has achieved in China is a good reflection of our success worldwide. Over the past few years, A+P has grown from a medium-sized PR company to a large, multidisciplinary integrated marketing agency. We have just been named one of only seven “Best PR Companies of the Decade” by industry trade outlet PRovoke, and according to the agency’s rating score, we are also one of the only two PR companies to receive a score of 10/10 score by the same organization for 2020. This year we were also named the “Best Place to Work” among all the large agencies. All of this is thanks to the efforts of all A+Per’s globally.
Editor: In today’s ever-changing PR environment, how do you think we can best get to grips with client needs?
Jerry: As an agency, you must put yourself in the clients’ shoes and consider their points of view.
There are four main reasons why a client turns to an agency – the need for strategic consulting, looking for fresh ideas, utilizing the agency’ expertise, and seeking unique resources.
Some client’s inhouse team are also veterans in communication, and they may also have a good sense of PR and developed great PR strategies for their companies. However, an agency’s strength lies in its rich professional experiences across several industries and disciplines, and it is an inspiring reference for client to cross check if their strategy is on the right track, or taken all factors into consideration. This is particularly true when it comes to crisis and issue management or government relations.
When there is a difference of opinion between you and your client, you need to have a certain level of flexibility, as there can be aspects that you don’t see as an outside consultant. But this does not mean blindly following the client’s direction, and you shouldn’t immediately concede for the sake of easy business cooperation. Only by having a professional opinion can you show the client the true value of your agency.
There are also clients that are counting on an agency for fresh ideas. With many years of experience with different clients, the agency is at the forefront of newest and most compelling communication ideas. Therefore, clients can get a better marketing plan and more effective solutions than they can devise on their own.
The third type of client is seeking an agency’s expertise. Even though some clients may have their own ideas for how to meet individual communication needs, they may be unsure of how effective a certain method is or whether their desired results can be reached in this way, so they look to draw from an agency’s experience to answer these questions.
These cases include creative consumer campaigns, social media viral marketing, design of sophisticated H5 functions or WeChat mini programs, or large-scale offline events. For example, we have met quite a few clients who want to tap our experience in the China International Import Expo (CIIE) as they may participate for the first time and want to avoid possible pitfalls in order to maximize the efficacy of their communications.
The last kind of clients is seeking resources necessary to effectively implement a plan. To meet this kind of client demand, the agency needs foster relationships with influential organizations and industry insiders, such as associations, key opinion leaders (KOLs), and partners, a network they have often accumulated through previous client work.
Only when your agency’s capabilities match client demands, can the collaboration be long lasting and mutually beneficial.
Editor: Since clients have a diverse set of requirements, what do you do if your agency’s ability doesn’t match their needs?
Jerry: In the current environment, there is no company that has absolute superiority and is able to take on all cases. An agency mainly aims to combine its direction, staff, and previous experience to build a team that is able to meet market demand and make itself competitive. Therefore, it is only natural that sometimes your experience does not meet some clients’ demands. When this is the case, the most important thing is to build trust. From the time when you first become acquainted with a client, they may provide you with opportunities to build a professional relationship over the period of a year or even a decade.
When you are awarded with the contract, the client is not only giving you their trust, but also putting their name to your corporate reputation and future. It’s therefore ill-advised to go after a project and break that trust just for the sake of a service fee.
If you find yourself in this kind of situation, you should politely explain to the client why you may not be a good fit for this project and excuse yourself from the pitch. If possible, you can even introduce the client to another agency that is better able to meet their needs.
Editor: We, of course, don’t live in a perfect world, and we often hear about fake bids, accompanying bids, and under-the-table deals, how would you judge whether or not you can meet a client’s demands when you receive a request?
Jerry: The first step is to be honest in your own abilities when you receive an RFP. You need to judge whether your capabilities match the client’s needs, but it’s also very important to pay attention to the RFP itself to avoid losing sight of what the requirements are.
By communicating with the client, you can quickly work out the authenticity and feasibility of the RFP. You can refuse an RFP if the client cannot provide a budget range, a written RFP or a Q&A section, or in the case that they invite six or more agencies for submit the proposal, limit the presentation time to 30 minutes, or have 10 departments that jointly evaluate the bids.
That said, once you decide to accept an RFP, you must be “all-in” to develop the proposal.
Building trust with the client starts at RFP process. At this point, you need to have full confidence in your capabilities and authentication of the RFP. If you have reservations, you won’t be able to provide a convincing, highly-quality plan. Clients will be able to sense it, and when they see a low-quality plan, they will question your agency’s capability and quickly close the door for any future cooperation. It is similar to dating. When you first start seeing someone, you need to be serious about it. You need to go into the relationship with confidence.
Different clients have their own ways of handling the bidding process. Some clients may give you complete freedom and only want to see the final plan. Other clients may want to follow up with you at every step of the way and ask if you have any questions or issues, wanting to make sure the plan does not deviate from the direction they expect.
Whatever the case may be, as an agency, you should start building a relationship of trust from the very beginning by proactively following up and responding to the client’s queries. Some clients may even make their final decision based on how serious, engaged, and professional an agency behaves in the early stages of interaction.
The third step is to put together your client’s dream team.
During the bidding process, you should put together a team whose capabilities are best able to meet the client’s demands. Some agencies focus solely on their internal conditions and requirements. For instance, they may mainly consider which team needs more business or which team has the bandwidth to cover the new work. However, the company should have a flexible mechanism so that the best people for the job can be invited and teamed together to offer the best value for the client.
This is a great advantage of A+P: we have a flexible mechanism and culture. Allison+Partners has one P&L, which allows us to put the best people on client business no matter which team they belong and which city they are based.
Finally, you need to understand the clients’ requirements.
PR and communications are ultimately there to serve the client’s business. You need to be aware of what challenges the clients encounter in their work, how they would like PR to help deal with these challenges, what obstacles they are facing, and what type of communications the company tends towards. You need to be empathic and be able to put yourself in their shoes, and be aware of their concerns; only then can you become the agency that best understands the client.
To sum it up, whatever the type of client, their reasoning for choosing an agency doesn’t change. They are looking for an agency that understands their industry, provides creativity, has the experience and resources to deliver results, and has a profound passion for the work and an interest in their business. We won this series of pitches because we best met these requirements.
Editor: Thank you for sharing your insight with us. I wish you all the best for the future of Allison+Partners.
Jerry: Thank you.
Jerry Zhu is the Managing Director & Partner of A+P in China.