Winning the Virtual Room: How Agencies’ Pitches Are Evolving During Coronavirus

Many remain optimistic about new business opportunities

people working remotely
Agencies are adjusting the way they pitch, relying on building human connections from the comfort of home via the computer screen. Photo Illustration: Trent Joaquin
Headshot of Jameson Fleming

Key insights:

In a matter of just a few weeks, COVID-19 shut down offices across the country.

As agencies work remotely, they’ve found much of the work they do can still be accomplished from their living rooms, bedrooms or even tree houses. However, agencies can no longer meet face to face with potential clients, derailing opportunities to build critical relationships. Instead, they’ve retreated to slimmed down Zoom meetings and Google Hangouts, where mishaps—a toddler banging on an agency exec’s locked door, a cat snuggling up around a client’s neck, a chief marketing officer sitting so still the agency couldn’t tell whether his Google Hangout was frozen or he just wasn’t moving—can hamper their efforts to win new business.

YML CFO Hamish Macphail works from a treehouse in Mill Valley, Calif.

In normal times, such faux pas could tank a potential relationship, but in our new normal, the rule book is mostly out the window as agencies and brands are forced to connect on more of a human level.

“There’s definitely an openness, and it’s adding a little bit of humor and lightheartedness,” says Lindsey Seyman, managing partner, Fancy. “It’s a nice giggle when all of a sudden there’s an 18-month-old who shows you a toy in the middle of a serious conversation.”

In this period of uncertainty, agencies know business must continue, which means pitching for new business via computer screens. Adweek spoke with nine agencies—180LA, barrettSF, Curiosity, Empower, Fancy, Glow, Johannes Leonardo, Madwell and Y Media Labs—about how they’re building pitch decks, rehearsing their pitches and meeting with clients, and why they’re optimistic about new business pitches in general during a sinking economy.

Agencies remain optimistic

Many of the agencies Adweek spoke to for this story remain optimistic that new business opportunities will continue to roll in throughout Q2. Many say few pitches have been paused or canceled so far. But there is more concern over the second half of the year and whether campaigns and projects will have to be downsized.

While work might diminish over the next couple of months, Ben Myers, Johannes Leonardo’s head of business development, says JL is encouraged by clients asking the agency what they need to do in the second half of the year. “Once things turn on, they need to turn on,” Myers says.

Empower president and chief operating officer Rob FitzGerald sees a potential slowdown happening in Q2, but the second half of the year could offset those losses thanks to a “sudden rush to get business back to normal,” he said, “a backlog of pitches waiting to happen and agency contracts coming to an end that are mostly calendar year.”

To stay afloat now, agencies are trying to shift their thinking to find new ways to help their clients.

“We’re looking at every client that barrettSF has as a partner right now, and saying, ‘Hey, how can we support them in the best way?'” says Jillian Davis, director of brand strategy, barrettSF, adding the agency is looking at different projects and one-off ideas clients can do until things return to normal.

Glow president Howie Kleinberg says he knows the agency won’t get through the current situation scot-free. The longer the lockdown continues, he says, the more likely agencies like his are to take at least some kind of hit. He’s exploring ways to pivot his business toward consulting for some clients instead of just creating marketing campaigns.

Building pitch decks and rehearsing from the comfort of home

In the office, building a pitch deck for most agencies doesn’t require a formal process. Everyone knows what needs to happen and in what order. But virtually, agencies are establishing stricter guidelines.

“Every step of the process is defined. What might have been informal, like ‘Let’s all get together in a room,’ is now part of a formal digital check-in process to make sure that all the steps that get us there are actually happening,” says Madwell co-founder and CCO Chris Sojka.

BarrettSF lays everything out in a doc that has in a way replaced what the agency calls its Brick Room, where it typically reviews work and decks. In the absence of spontaneous meetings in an office setting, Davis says, the agency overcommunicates, setting expectations for video conferences—what needs to be discussed, who needs to attend—to ensure the meetings achieve their purpose.

In the process, agencies are finding streamlined operations make for more effective pitches.

Normally, Curiosity gets a lot of people into a room to brainstorm, throwing a lot of ideas at the wall to see what sticks.

“That’s what’s had to change for us is we’ve really had to focus on what is most important, what’s going to get to the business solution the fastest,” says Ashley Walters, chief development officer, Curiosity.

New York-based agency Glow recently cut down a 50- to 60-slide deck to 11 slides to make the pitch less complicated, something Kleinberg says he wants to continue even after the crisis ends. “The processes have changed the concept of alleviating moving parts so something doesn’t go wrong. Sounds to me like that’s situation-agnostic,” Kleinberg says.

During rehearsals, Johannes Leonardo focuses on video conferencing etiquette to make it clear the agency has its “stuff together from the get-go,” even under the current circumstances. Things as simple as establishing an order for introductions to avoid cross-talk can go a long way, Myers says.

Kleinberg says Glow has made handoffs much more of a “hard stop,” instead of riffing off each other. Glow is trying to make its points more concise, getting rid of fluff, or as Kleinberg calls it, a “bullshit-free situation.”

‘The ultimate icebreaker’

Working remotely has eased the tension in the room (now a virtual one) during pitches. Formalities instantly become less rigid as children, spouses, pets and interesting backgrounds become the basis for the opening remarks of client meetings.

With everyone facing hardships at home, Kleinberg says the situation is a giant equalizer. “It’s the ultimate icebreaker,” he says. “It’s this concept of the expression ‘nobody rides first class in the subway.’ It’s sort of a similar concept of nobody’s riding first class in these pitches.”

Even though agencies and clients have never been farther apart, nearly everyone interviewed for this story expressed feeling more connected with their clients. “You get to see what their taste of art is like or a bit of what their life is like at home,” says 180LA global president and CCO Al Moseley. “Weirdly, it makes everyone feel a little bit closer.”

Normally, Curiosity would put a number of questions for clients or potential clients on a wall to help solve the brand's problems. This is what it looks like on a videoconference.
Curiosity

Despite better relationships, creatives are finding two big hurdles when it comes to pitching: developing chemistry and reading the room through a computer screen.

Walters says Curiosity is seeing condensed timelines where a number of different meetings, including chemistry meetings, pitches and tissue sessions, are “being baked into one or two virtual meetings.”

Empower is using footage captured from its content studio to give clients a better feel for the office, since “visiting our office is often the best way to see the agency, our environment and culture in action,” FitzGerald says.

With meetings taking place virtually, getting a feel for the room has been a challenge, too.

“I have relied so much on the unspoken and understanding how the room was reacting and what people are concerned about. That’s been taken away from me,” says Madwell’s Sojka, adding, “It’s really learning how to apply the same technique of evaluating lulls in the conversation, gestures, reactions in a totally different way.”

YML CCO Stephen Clements says gauging client reaction has been difficult, especially when technical problems like bad Wi-Fi or a choppy connection pop up. Stephanie Wiseman, vp of business development, says they try to combat that by simplifying interactions with clients, making it easier to give feedback and ask questions by using chat functions in videoconferences. That takes away awkward cross-talk and the need to read clients on the screen.

Navigating the many obstacles has taught Wiseman how she can work more effectively with clients when this is all over as she’s learned new ways to focus on clients’ needs and connect with them on a human level. And that will be key for agencies as clients have rapidly transformed their businesses during the crisis, according to Clements.

“Ten years of cultural change is happening in one month,” he says, paraphrasing what a colleague recently told him. “Everything was shifting online. It was just happening at a slow pace, and now it’s all happening at once.”


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