Voices

Navigating the new normal: Exploring the nature of the virtual pitch

Pitching is said to be the lifeblood of the advertising and communications industry. But, under the new global lockdown, the industry has been forced to change its process almost overnight.

Izzy Ashton

Deputy Editor, BITE

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Pitching is said to be the lifeblood of the advertising and communications industry. It’s the adrenaline boosting, creativity driving system that keeps agencies on their toes, brands browsing and marketing fresh. Or so it has traditionally been seen.

In recent years, the industry has been shifting, ever so slightly, as conversations have started emerging about changing the pitch process. Whether that’s exploring respect around the pitch or how to make the process more inclusive when it comes to both the diversity of pitch teams and the agencies chosen, the pitch in its traditional form is largely agreed to be defunct.

But, under the new global lockdown, the industry has been forced to change its process almost overnight. Gone are the nervous run throughs en route to the client’s office and in their place come creative Zoom backgrounds, the danger of a child invasion and the importance of keeping a watchful eye on your mute button.

While the number of new business enquiries has steadily dropped over the last few weeks, there are still pitches being run, tissue sessions being hosted, and briefs being won.

In the spirit of sharing experience and advice, we asked several agency leaders how they’re navigating the new pitching landscape. From the importance of maintaining good chemistry to inviting clients to get involved and remembering good meeting behaviours, the pitch process has been built anew in the past month.

What remains to be seen is how much of it will continue when lockdown has passed, and we approach a return to a new normal.

People buy people, and good chemistry has always been key, but it has never been exposed so starkly as it is right now.

Tracey Barber

Tracey Barber

Tracey Barber, Havas.jpg

Global CMO

Havas

Given the lockdown and all it entails, at Havas we’re seeing probably 50% fewer pitches than we’d typically expect at this time of year. Conversely, taking a glass half full approach, and in new business, god knows you need one, that means that despite the lockdown, around half of all pitches are still taking place. That appetite to maintain pitches, especially in these immensely challenging circumstances, is heartening.

It’s important to remember that nothing has fundamentally changed, and the key factors that establish then underpin a healthy client/agency relationship remain the same. That said, the means by which you initially create that relationship, namely through virtual pitching, HAVE changed, and that has brought with it some interesting dynamics.

The nature of from-home pitching, the fact you’re essentially being invited into people’s front rooms, and vice versa, breaks down barriers from the off. It’s raw, and it’s intimate. What might once have simply been a face in a room has become a person with kids, pets, hobbies and passions, and you’re able to connect with people on a much more personal level. People buy people, and good chemistry has always been key, but it has never been exposed so starkly as it is right now. This is no bad thing.

Of course, this works both ways and the chemistry between your team is just as important as your chemistry with the client. In this environment, it won’t take long to root out which are the genuine teams, and which are merely groups of individuals. Clarify roles and rehearse, rehearse, rehearse, although this should be a given regardless.

The other significant change brought around by virtual pitching is a shift from presentation to collaboration. You simply cannot present an entire deck virtually in one unbroken spell, or, at least, not if your ambition is to keep the client’s attention for more than 15 minutes. Embrace a more interactive approach, and build in time at regular intervals for feedback, discussion and questions, from both sides.

Whatever you do, avoid the big ‘ta-da’ reveal; this was outdated anyway. Instead, bring the client on the journey with you, and work together to find the right solution. If you weren’t already doing this, use current circumstances as an opportunity to start. And then carry on. That would be no bad lockdown legacy.

Ask the clients NOT to mute themselves. In fact, encourage the clients to get involved.

Natasha Hill

Natasha Hill

Natasha-Blue-Square.jpg

Managing Director

Bottle

There’s usually nothing better than that pre pitch feeling; that familiar yet curious mix of a lack of sleep, an overdose of caffeine. As a seasoned pitcher, the butterflies never go away, and nor should they as it’s a sign of desire. Pitching is still one of the best bits of the job.

So, what’s different in remote world? Well, some things are obviously still true - the casting, the need to rehearse, the stage managing – but everything is, let’s say, paired-back. For good reason. With four video pitches under our belt since the 5th March, three of which we’ve won, and the other, hasn’t been awarded yet (can a proposal be furloughed?) we’re adjusting OK.

Some tips we’ve learnt:

-       Tech check BEFORE the start, with at least one member on the client side. Screen sharing is essential, so you remain in control and no ‘flicking ahead’ by the clients. This puts everyone at ease.

-       Less is more. Fewer presenters, so less people gagged with the mute button, less transitions, which makes it more likely to have dialogue throughout with the clients. And less video/stage drama because a client with poor WIFI can make this soul-destroying.

-       Set up with these rules of engagement at the start emphasising the above points, and that there’ll be multiple points to check in and ask questions throughout.

-       Mute yourselves & come off video unless you’re the one presenting so it’s just the presenter and the clients who are visible. No-one wants to be distracted by a lay presenter scratching their head; we’ve found out the hard way.

-       Unmute yourselves in the ‘points of feedback intervals’ to avoid the seven second delays when someone’s realised no-one can hear their pertinent point.

-       Ask the clients NOT to mute themselves. In fact, encourage the clients to get involved. Acknowledge that the screen isn’t conducive to ‘chemistry’ so you’d welcome active listening, nods, smiles, ‘mmms’ along the way.

These new tricks are helping us through, seemingly quite well, so far. Would we like to replicate them when the lock-down is over? No. Please no. Nothing beats the outfit checks, tone right, no dupes, the stressful run through in the coffee shop before, the glimpse of the visitor book, the pitch fever, the less-polished-but-more-natural talking over each other.

And ABSOLUTELY NOTHING beats the finishing line feeling with the real-life PPP (post pitch pint). I can’t wait to be back in the real world, even if we’re still two feet apart.

With a bit of practice, and some decent work of course, you can still get ideas across, build relationships, read the room and even have some fun.

Ian Henderson

Ian Henderson

Ian Henderson, AML.jpg

CEO

AML

It’s been around five weeks since AML moved out of our gorgeous new space at the Tea Building in Shoreditch and that was only three days after we moved in. Along with the new sofas, the long workbenches and the fancy coffee machine, we’d upgraded our technology too. Which, it turns out, was exactly what we needed as the country went into lockdown.

With clients all over the world, we’re used to video calling and working with partners in other time zones once projects are under way. But pitching for new clients or new work had almost always been face to face, in the same room. And with our untried new tech, we were a little anxious when two prospects wanted to go ahead with remote pitches the day before we all started working from home.

We needn’t have worried too much. One of the pitches was a clean win, with that rare but gratifying ‘you’re hired’ response the same day; the other got us through to a second round. We used Zoom for one, and Teams for the other and everything worked; except for one client we sent the video-heavy deck in advance and her PC couldn’t read Quicktime. (Vimeo to the rescue.)

There were a few other lessons to be learned, too. One is that good meeting behaviours go from being just good manners in the boardroom to vital online. There has to be a clear agenda, someone running the meeting, who manages people talking over each other and running time, and everyone in the room needs to have a definite role. And not rehearsing is just asking for things to go wrong.

But apart from weedy home WIFI turning people mute with a gargoyle expression frozen on their face, we’ve found that the actual pitch meeting itself is mostly the easy bit. With a bit of practice, and some decent work of course, you can still get ideas across, build relationships, read the room and even have some fun.

What’s much harder is getting that sustained intensity of collaborative thinking that marks the best pitches. Creative teams can work well over an open video link; strategists positively relish some quiet thinking time and tools like online whiteboards, assembling decks on Sharepoint and regular Teams check ins are all essential.

We’re still working on those moments of conversation that produce a sudden inspiration, or a chance collision of seemingly unrelated insight; that’s what agencies thrive on, and why they are usually highly social places to work. Our virtual pub, the AML Arms, chats and other connection tools get put to good use, but we’re still looking forward to getting back to our new Shoreditch home.