New business plays an outsized part in the culture of advertising. Like the hunting stories of pre-modern tribes, the pitch is a rich source of folklore—the arena in which individuals must prove their mettle and create their own legends. But the advent of social distancing has forced the industry to abandon some of its most precious rituals.
Agencies can no longer invite prospective clients for a stroll through freshly decorated receptions, guide them across floors of creative teams sternly instructed to behave themselves or construct elaborate replications of supermarkets in the boardroom.
Nor can they convene tissue meetings with piles of Post-its, jet in star creative directors from distant continents or deliver stirring speeches in the room where it happens. There is no room where it happens now; just a series of squares on an erratically freezing screen.
The art of winning new business is being reinvented, through necessity, for a virtual age.
This has entailed a fair amount of grumbling—and understandably so. In my conversations with agencies, I frequently hear people bemoan this dull new world.
Social distancing removes much of what made pitching, at its best, so fun, scary and thrilling at the same time. In particular, it shrinks the role of those magical ingredients of the pitching ritual: chemistry and theatre.
For an industry that prides itself on itself on a certain facility with smoke and mirrors, that seems like a serious setback.
As Campaign's Jeremy Lee put it in July, in an overview of the post-Covid pitch process, such intangibles are regarded by agencies as “key differentiators in an era when one agency’s creative and strategic solution to a client’s problem might not be vastly different from that of its rivals”.
Lee put his finger on the real problem with conventional pitches right there: agencies have been differentiating themselves on theatre rather than the work itself.
A renewed focus on what really matters
Perhaps our forced experiment with virtual pitching will lead to a renewed focus on what really matters. If so, that will be good for agencies and for clients too.
A pitch is a little like a job interview, with agencies playing the part of candidates eager to impress and clients working out which is the best match for them. So perhaps we can learn something about how pitching needs to change from the way that job interviews have evolved.
For decades, across most white-collar industries, it was assumed that the best way to conduct an interview was to have a free-flowing conversation.
The chief rationale for this was chemistry. It was thought to be only in conversation that a recruiter could ascertain if the interviewee had those indefinable qualities of likeability and cultural fit.
There have turned out to be a couple of serious drawbacks to this approach, however.
First, it tends to reproduce and entrench social biases in hiring. In her book Pedigree, sociologist Lauren Rivera studied the hiring processes of elite law firms, consultancies and banks. She found that interviewers were more likely to recommend those with whom they had struck up lively conversations about skiing or scuba diving.
Unsurprisingly, people are most likely to feel they have chemistry with those who are most like them. Interviewers at elite employers tended to find individuals from different social backgrounds to their own harder to get along with. So, instead of stopping to reflect on why that might be, they hired in their own image.
Second, and partly as a consequence of this, the unstructured interview has turned out to be close to useless as a tool for predicting how well someone will do in a job.
Decades of scientific studies attest to this fact. Recruitment goes better when the employer focuses on the candidate’s track record and performance on tests, rather than getting distracted by a 45-minute sample of their ability to charm an interviewer.
That’s why data-driven employers such as Google and McKinsey & Company use highly structured interviews with consistent protocols. The aim is to eliminate unconscious bias and focus on fitness for the role.
The unstructured interview is bad for employers and employee alike.
Employers miss out on talent, while excellent potential employees from unconventional backgrounds—or who simply happen to have had one bad morning—lose out on opportunities. Accidents of chemistry get privileged over true compatibility.
It’s not hard to see that the traditional pitch process may have been giving agencies and clients the same bum steer.
First impressions can count for too much. Clients who hire an agency after being blown away by the charisma of the creative director can discover that such charm wears thin when the work isn’t up to scratch.
Agencies that are brilliant at selling themselves get into trouble later on if they don’t sell their client’s product.
By reducing the scope for chemistry and theatre, both agency and client may have to focus ruthlessly on the most important product on offer: the work (by which I mean both strategy and creative). That would be a good thing.
It will lead to better matchmaking, more sustainable relationships and more actionable solutions at a time when clients have never needed them more.
No pitch theatre and flashy reveals
I spoke to Camilla Kemp, chief executive of M&C Saatchi, who has taken part in a number of virtual pitches this year. “Pre-Covid, I think agencies felt the need to lean on pitch theatre and flashy reveals to impress clients,” she said. “But clients are looking for urgent answers to immediate problems and are relieved when that’s what we present. Ultimately, the quality of our thinking and creativity does the selling for us.”
Virtual encounters are inherently more structured and less personal. Anyone trying to compensate for a lack of intellectual substance will be fearful of them—note, for instance, that US president Donald Trump has refused to engage in a virtual debate with Joe Biden.
Those who are confident in the strength of their thinking will embrace them and look for ways to make the most of it. For instance, instead of relying on PowerPoint decks, agencies may want to write strategic narratives, following the lead of Jeff Bezos, who insists that Amazon executives write six-page memos instead of presentations because it forces more rigorous thinking.
Some agencies will squirm in the bright spotlight of virtual pitching. The smartest ones will thrive.
Ian Leslie is a freelance strategist and former agency executive