Blame it on Mad Men. Blame it on those bloated Madison Avenue profits. Or blame it on the first agency executive who uttered the phrase, “Why do this over the phone when we can come and pitch you right there?”
Whoever caused it, the result is the same: whenever an agency pitches for new business, they’re expected to do so in person and, often, en masse. But as someone who’s been on both sides of this strange equation – both pitcher and pitchee, if you will – I’ve long wondered why this strangely anachronistic rite remains at the center of the client-agency dynamic.
It made sense years ago, of course. Faxing over presentations and having both groups gathered around a phone is hardly optimal for creative thinking. However, we now have the technology at our fingertips to easily hold engaging virtual pitch meetings, yet we persevere with expensive in-person pitches. And they are expensive. A report from the UK’s Campaign magazine found that agencies were swallowing costs as high as €83,000 on pitching to a single client.
The problem can be boiled down to a single word: chemistry. According to marketing consultancy AAR Group, the chemistry between the brand and agency is still among the top five reasons that an agency will win a pitch, as is the feeling that “they just get what we’re trying to do.”
It’s hard to argue that it’s easier to build a bond with someone when you look them in the eye, shake them by their hand and maybe even share a meal with them. So, the minute one agency puts its top people into a taxi, train or plane to pitch at brand HQ, all agencies have to follow suit. In that way, the Coronavirus has been a great leveller.
Read through the marketing press and you’ll find opinion pieces from senior agency executives explaining how they’ve adapted their pitches for the Corona era. However, pretty much all these bosses lament the loss of in-person pitching and see the virtual pitch as a temporary, but necessary, inconvenience. This is where the most significant opportunities for disruption lie.
Putting the digital into digital agency
Why not be the agency that not only accepts the virtual pitch as a new reality, but actually embraces it? Build your pitching process around it. Be proud that even when the pandemic is in the rearview mirror and we all head back into our offices, virtual pitching will be your new normal. You might not use it for all your pitches. Still, it’ll undoubtedly be a powerful weapon in your armory.
Just as remote work isn’t less than onsite work, pitching virtually is simply another option and not inherently better or worse than an in-person pitch. Both options have their pros and cons. And it’s worth remembering that, rather than being the poorer relative of the in-person pitch, the virtual pitch has several clear advantages:
- Our very own 2019 report, The State Of Meetings, revealed that 71 percent of professionals lose time every week due to unnecessary or canceled meetings. The typical pitch meeting is way too long, the process is drawn out and both tend to involve too many people. See the virtual pitch as a streamlining exercise.
- Merely finding a time when everybody is available (traveling to the client requires a far bigger window) is a nightmare. If someone on either side needs to cancel last-minute due to an unforeseen medical issue or being stranded in a different city, then the whole process needs to start again. Joining an online pitch is easier, especially when using a scheduling technology platform.
- Travel is expensive and time-consuming. Reassure the client that working and meeting virtually is in your DNA and that you’d rather spend that extra time working on their projects and pass the savings back to your clients.
- Finally, with some of the pitch theatrics now removed from the equation – but not all, we’ll revisit this later – the pitch and the work need to speak for themselves.
However, while there are undoubtedly advantages to pitching virtually, there are certain drawbacks too. In our The State Of Meetings report, we also discovered that three-quarters of professionals prefer face-to-face meetings to calls or video chats. Part of the challenge of pitching virtually is helping clients overcome years of experience of bad online conferences.
Pitching virtually: the basics
In our research, we discovered that the top three causes of ineffective meetings, ranked by participants’ levels of irritation, were:
- Ineffective or poorly organized meetings (89 percent)
- Conference calls with lousy reception (88 percent)
- Video meetings with technical problems (86 percent)
Addressing these issues is table stakes when it comes to convincing executives of the value of virtual meetings and, by extension, virtual pitches. Executives also told us that, in their opinions, the critical elements of successful meetings were:
- Setting clear objectives (72 percent)
- Having a clear agenda (67 percent)
- Not having too many people in the room (35 percent)
- Visuals, such as videos and the presentation (27 percent)
But what are the other foundational tips and tricks that digital agencies should be obsessing over to ensure that they’re delivering top-class virtual pitches?
- Use a scheduling technology platform that allows everyone to choose the best time (and automatically syncs to time zones based on calendars) to make organizing the meeting painless.
- Ensure that all participants have great internet connections.
- Even if you use Zoom internally and you always send out the invites, make sure you all know and are comfortable using Zoom, Google Hangouts, Microsoft Teams, WebEx and any other major meeting platform providers. That means that you have their apps on your laptop, you’ve checked the audio and microphone settings and you know exactly where the ‘Present’ and ‘Mute’ buttons are located.
- Invest in the visuals. Your home office and how you appear on the screen now takes on enormous subliminal importance – a white wall and your laptop microphone aren’t good enough. Take the time to make your background attractive and welcoming – a bookcase in the background is always popular, but you could even add a colorful bunch of flowers. Now is also the time to invest in a ring light and a podcast-quality microphone to ensure you look and sound like the most polished agency in the pitching process.
- All participants from the agency side should join the call separately, even if they’re in the same building as some of their colleagues. As Claude Zdanow, founder and CEO of The Stadiumred Group explained to Campaign US: “Having a group video call, where a bunch of people are sitting around a table staring into one camera, tends to leave everyone feeling like they are staring into an abyss of a room with no direct eye contact, and it takes away from the importance of creating chemistry from person to person.”
- Your entire team should be experts in using the mute button. If you’re not talking, put yourself on mute.
- On a similar tip, make sure everyone has muted all their various pings, dings, tings and rings on all their devices.
Advanced tips for great virtual pitches
With the nuts and bolts taken care of, next comes the fun part: actually winning the pitch. However, maybe the most critical point comes a long time before that. It sounds like a no-brainer, but decide if you really want the account.
The impact of the coronavirus and the ensuing financial uncertainty it’s brought mean that all businesses, digital agencies included, are on less solid fiscal grounds and it’s easy to understand the temptation to grasp for any available accounts. But, remember, pitching itself is an expensive business that takes resources away from other accounts. Decide whether this account is really in your wheelhouse, if the company is likely to be a good match in terms of chemistry and how many other agencies are competing in the pitch (are there 25 agencies pitching?). In short, how good a chance do you have of winning? One Forbes contributor estimates that almost eighty-five percent of clients have an idea who has won the business before a single agency has pitched. Once you decide that you’re in it, then state clearly how much time and energy you’re willing to invest to win it.
Once you’ve scheduled the virtual pitch, the rest comes down to your whole agency accepting and internalizing one simple assertion: just as digital campaigns are not TV campaigns on a laptop, a virtual pitch isn’t just an in-person pitch delivered online.
If you perceive the medium as an advantage rather than a hindrance and focus on what the technology allows that can’t be achieved in real life, then you’ll quickly put your agency ahead of the pack.
- All agency participants could change their avatars to their favorite products produced by the client.
- Use the ability to create backgrounds to show your love of their brand – from their logo hanging on your wall as artwork to a home filled with their products, show your creativity and imagination.
- Augment the pitch theatrics with audiovisual elements that build drama.
- Alternatively, you can turn the technology on its head and use snail mail to send each participant a prop or a printed-out version of the presentation.
Separating the best from the rest
Some agencies will view virtual pitches as an excuse to cut costs and to put less time and effort into the pitch, which gives agencies committed to virtual pitching an enormous advantage. Without the benefit of being able to read a room or see the cues of colleagues, virtual pitches need to be practiced over and over again, with particular attention paid to the handoff from one speaker to another. It’s harder to hold attention in a virtual meeting than in-person, so a clear and clearly told story is essential.
Redesigning your pitch process to be more conversational can also keep clients engaged. With most senior executives reporting that they spend 20 hours or more in meetings – mostly virtual these days – having them take an active part in the pitch will ensure they pay attention and remember your pitch above other one-way presentations.
Finally, profiling the client and their participants can help you build chemistry despite there potentially being hundreds or thousands of kilometers between you. Every member of your team should know who will be in the pitch, what they’ll be looking for from a pitch, how they’ll make their decision and how to build trust with each of them. The Head of e-Commerce is likely to have different needs than the CMO. Make sure both feel seen and understood.
The Coronavirus pandemic has, in many ways, levelled the playing field. The agency that prepares the best and has the best pitch is more likely to win now than ever before. But, if you can convince clients that pitching virtually is in the interest of their time, budget and convenience, you’ll be able to acquire new business through virtual pitches long beyond these pandemic days.
If your organization is making the change to online meetings and looking for ways to master your virtual client pitches, Doodle’s advanced scheduling features can help speed up that transition.