During a recent pitch for a retail brand, Ben Hui, business development director at UM APAC, turned himself into a virtual director and producer. He found himself not only leading the pitch but also leading a virtual control room to ensure everything went according to plan. Before the pitch call, he checked to make sure all eight members of the pitch team had the same call background to create the illusion of being in the same room.
On the 90-minute long presentation, he helped switch each slide on cue, while a buddy system was designed so that if one person dropped off the call due to a bad connection, someone could pick up that section of the pitch. Lastly, everyone had their mobile phone out of the view of the camera because a WhatsApp group was used to communicate internally if they were running behind schedule or to flag any concerns.
Directing and producing a pitch
“Running a remote pitch is like being a director and a producer at the same time,” he says. “It is normal practice in the pitch room to use props, the team to wear the same colors to represent agency spirit or decorate the pitch room to the theme of the client’s brand. But what do you do when everything is virtual?”
Across the agency ecosystem, leaders and executives are tussling with how to successfully transition the physical process of pitching for new business-or to extend existing relationships to a virtual or remote process—during the time of the global pandemic with offices shut and teams working remotely. As networks and agencies, have cut staff and have compelled staff to work from home to keep business going, they have had to devise new and innovative ways to keep their businesses chugging along.
“The critical chemistry-building coffee before the meeting is no more, so clients and agencies are finding ways to build that slightly more social kick-off back in, with a ‘get-to-know-you’ 15 minutes at the start of the meeting,” says Charlotte Wright, chief growth officer of Wavemaker Asia-Pacific. Agencies are learning on to the go, keeping plan B handy and expecting the unexpected. “We are constantly coming up with new ways to convey our passion and enthusiasm, even when we are restricted to presenting via a very tiny square of video on a call.”
Wavemaker has seen some early successes with remote pitching—it has recently retained L’Oréal Indonesia, also expanding its remit to include ecommerce and search and won new assignments from Epson in China. “However remote working, whilst effective, is generally less efficient for pitching,” she adds. “Everything just takes a bit longer, from getting teams together to work on content through to rehearsing with different technology platforms. Agencies should be able to handle the same volume of pitching as in 2019. However, to gain ‘virtual’ pitch success we must invest more time.”
While pitching for business may be a central tenet of agency life, the changes wrought by the global pandemic have impacted and will continue to alter this facet of their operations in different ways. While some agencies may be using the time gained from skipping travel to do more work, others are instead focusing their energies and picking their battles.
“We’re more selective about committing to pitches. This is something that I believe we will continue to do, in the new normal, and after,” says Anish Daryani, Founder of M&C Saatchi Indonesia. “It does take more time and effort to get multiple stakeholders to collaborate on a pitch while working remotely. So, in effect, the pitch timelines remaining the same, it usually takes more man-hours to close a pitch deck, than teams working physically together.”
Other agency leaders however see an opportunity in this flux. “If anything, we can increase the volume of pitches, without the burden of travel and having virtual teams, we’re more fluid and mobile than ever before,” says Matt Scotton, chief strategy officer at Initiative APAC. “It’s reset expectations client side of what a pitch can look like. How many are feasible is purely dependent on our capacity to deliver the work to the standard we hold ourselves.”
Avery Akkineni of Vayner Media APAC too sees an opportunity currently. She contends that the remote pitch process has been faster in her experience, since everyone is home and few people are on holiday, there are few impediments to advancing the process. “There is more commitment to moving quickly and making decisions,” she contends. “We've gotten a few new clients via remote pitches - including two we've never physically met in person.”
New rules of the game
Despite this optimism, executives across agencies admit that they are all getting used to this new way of doing business. Hui of UM says some of these challenges can be surmounted by having a punchy intro at the beginning of the pitch to show off the agency’s energy and personality and allow the (potential) client to get a sense of beyond the work on show.
“I ask all team members to have their camera on the entire time,” he adds. “Another element missing (and this is a big one) is the ability to “read the room” is near impossible. Most clients would not have camera on in my experience and on a 90-minute call, there is high chance of losing client attention.”
Given this, it may make sense to slip in ways to better engage with the client or prospect—by asking questions, Hui suggests, such as “we conducted a field study for your brand and we talked to 200 people, anyone would like to guess out how many respondent said they love your new product?"
Increase engagement opportunities
Industry experts such as Greg Graham, founder of the Nest Consultancy, a pitch consulting business in Australia, says that virtual or remote pitches result in the loss of much of the personal chemistry built in-person and executives need to work doubly hard to compensate. “Agencies need to use every opportunity to ask for more engagement opportunities and replace the old 90-minute or three-hour meetings with shorter and more intimate interactions,” he contends. “They have to be more concise, have the pitch well rehearsed and have less jazz hands and pitch theatre, while getting quickly to the nub of their proposition.”
At the end of the day, while remote or virtual pitching may be seem an easy substitute for the physical process, the process has to hurdle the challenges wrought by the ongoing pandemic, “The end-to-end process with a client in generally is slower,” says Jeff Franco, head of Initiative Singapore and regional managing partner. “Consultants and clients are challenged to manage the realities of work from home and staff cuts and moving a pitch project is a lot of work. I think this is compounded by uncertainty’s around COVID, needs are changing rapidly, which is impacting already long processes.”