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Inside The Virtual Agency Pitch Room

Shift in the advertising Industry

adexchanger article by Alison Weissbrot / Friday, May 8th, 2020

The art of the pitch has changed since the pandemic, with employees having to let go of body language, physical cues and handshakes as they reorient around video conferencing.

While pitches got delayed thanks to the lockdown, now they’re back in full force. So not much has changed in terms of volume, but meetings themselves are shorter due to constraints of working from home, said WPP CMO Laurent Ezekiel.

Agencies have also rethought which of their staffers they want in pitch meetings – though their conclusions vary.

WPP, the MDC agency Doner and indie agency ELEVEN limit the number of people on their virtual pitches and leverage only their best presenters. But Havas Media takes advantage of the ability to bring more people into a chat room than a boardroom, and GroupM agency m/SIX allows more junior talent to present virtually.

“It’s given younger employees confidence and opportunities they wouldn’t normally have,” said Alan Trinkle, president of m/SIX.

Here are the best ways to win business without ever actually meeting anyone.

Be prepared. Rehearsing pitches is even more crucial now with Wi-Fi hiccups, sound quality issues, awkward video lags and the need to manage remote working tools.

“We have to be more coordinated and prepared for awkward moments,” said Michele Perrone-Sileo, managing partner at ELEVEN.

Practicing handoffs is one of the most important parts to get down. “You don’t want to be interrupting people,” said Doner CEO David DeMuth.

To ensure Wi-Fi is strong, Havas Media uses high-power routers, said CEO Colin Kinsella. And pitch teams still kick their families, significant others and roommates off the Wi-Fi to be sure they don’t lose connection while presenting.

When dealing with finicky tech, agencies should always have a backup presenter ready to jump in if someone drops off.

“You always need a plan B, but now you need a plan B and C,” said Dan Reaume, chief development officer at Mindshare. Those contingencies could be a phone number or a PDF sent to the client.

Agencies use the client’s preferred video platform in a pitch, so getting to know all popular remote working tools is also crucial.

Keep it (business) casual. Agencies are walking a line of overly casual and overly dressy in pitches. Men are wearing simple button-downs, while women find an excuse to put on a nice blouse and makeup.

No one wants to look like they’re trying too hard.

“If I was to go on with a full suit and tie, it would be disingenuous,” m/Six’s Trinkle said. Good lighting is also key. ELEVEN tests lighting the day before a pitch and adjusts where people sit for optimal picture quality.

As family members, pets and roommates wander in and out of the background meetings, agencies can be more human with clients.

“If my kids walk into a pitch meeting, they walk into a pitch meeting,” WPP’s Ezekiel said. “I’m at home, everyone is doing what they can.”

Others are stricter about interruptions. “On pitch day I told my house, ‘nobody come near me,’ and I locked my door,” ELEVEN’s Perrone-Sileo said.

Leverage digital features. In a room, it’s easy for clients to ask questions during a presentation – so it’s important to set aside time for a Q&A or do it via chat in a virtual meeting.

“You can’t read the room, so you have to pause and solicit feedback,” Mindshare’s Reaume said.

Mindshare and marketing consultancy TWO NIL use the hand raise feature on Zoom to keep Q&As orderly. Havas Media encourages clients to ask questions over chat and responds after the presentation. ELEVEN asks clients not to ask questions until the presentation concludes.

Chats can be useful for internal conversations, too. Havas Media uses WhatsApp for side chats to avoid interrupting the flow of the pitch. Others use Slack to keep the presentation running on course. “It’s a lot of moving things around in real time,” Kinsella said.

Also, be sure to use the mute button. No one wants to talk over each other – or worse, their client. Most agencies mute everyone in the meeting besides the presenter.

It’s easy to get sidetracked with tech talk, but Havas NY keeps conversations about video, sound quality, Wi-Fi and other remote functions to a minimum.

“The more people apologize for things that are out of their control, that becomes the lead narrative,” said president Laura Maness.

Keep it simple. Pitches are full of sizzle reels and product prototypes. But in a virtual setting, less is more.

WPP, Havas NY, Deutsch and Havas Media avoid sending videos during a meeting as that can crash the video call. Sending links to assets beforehand can drum up excitement for the pitch, Maness said.

Agencies want to showcase their personalities without overdoing it. Depending on the client, m/SIX’s pitch teams change their backgrounds to silly images or pictures of their kids. A Jellyfish executive papered over his laundry room with a virtual mountain landscape to add some visual excitement during a recent pitch, said chief growth officer Kevin Buerger.

“You don’t want to come off like a robot,” DeMuth said. “You have to keep it engaging.” But agencies should take client circumstances into account. You don’t want to be too cheeky with a company that just laid off or furloughed staff.

Most clients aren’t looking for entertainment right now anyway, said Mark Zamuner, CEO of TWO NIL. “There is a greater focus on specifics, deliverables, case studies, capabilities and providing examples of output,” he said.

Will virtual pitching stick?

Agencies find some elements of the virtual pitch both more efficient and effective. Seeing everyone’s faces at once can be easier than taking in different parts of a room. “You can still see people’s smiles, which is a nice redeeming factor,” Trinkle said.

Presenters are more relaxed without the pressure of standing up in front of a room, and they can keep their notes up on screen.

Minimizing business travel saves time and energy, said Talia Arnold, head of strategy at media agency Exverus. It’s easier to meet more frequently with global teams. As people get used to working remote, cash-strapped agencies will likely want to continue minimizing travel in a recession.

“Things we were doing before, we should’ve been doing on video,” Ezekiel said. But there will always be a place for the physical pitch room.

Body language, communal laughter and visual cues can’t be replaced, and building chemistry is best done in person. And while it’s possible to virtually toast a win over video, nothing beats celebrating hard work in person.

“We’re going to miss that,” DeMuth said “That’s a really nice moment.”

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