Making the most of virtual pitches: 9 practical tips and tricks for agencies and brands

In the second of a four-part series on virtual pitches, Ebiquity’s managing director for South East Asia, Leela Nair, sets out a blueprint for agencies and brands detailing how to get the most out of pitches run online.

Pitching is a process of courtship in which agencies look to impress brands that their future needs are best served by forming an enduring relationship with them instead of other potential partners. During the process, the onus of responsibility and performance shifts from brands briefing and outlining their needs and agencies listening, to agencies proposing their solutions to the brief and brands listening and evaluating the agency response.

One dynamic that hasn’t changed as all parties have rapidly adjusted to the new world of virtual pitching is brands’ desire to brief their agencies in the best way possible. Brands want agencies to understand their business and objectives and give the best possible account of their capabilities. Here are nine top tips we have identified from running virtual pitches in 2020 to help both advertisers and their agency partners make the most of virtual pitching.

Tip 1: get active even before the pitch

Virtual pitching allows you to get some elements of a traditional pitch out of the way before you hear the agency’s strategic and creative recommendations. Offer all agencies the opportunity to have equal and fair access to some key members of your team between first briefing and final pitch. Encourage tissue meetings for agencies to share initial thinking with you, and try to get as much of the technical and commercial negotiation out of the way before the pitch itself, not afterwards.

Tips for agencies: if your potential clients don’t offer access to their team between the brief and the pitch, ask if this can be arranged. Look to hold at least one (and maybe more than one) meeting with them before the pitch, and embrace the chance to negotiate on commercials – either with client-side procurement and finance teams or via an intermediary consultant – in the run-up to the pitch. Not only does this approach allow you to focus on your ideas and strategies in the pitch; if you win the pitch, you can start working with your new client right away.

Tip 2: choose and use the right presentation and meeting platform

Be sure to let prospective agency partners know early in the virtual pitching process if there are any platforms that your organisation is unable to use, or indeed if there is a platform that you favour. Some clients – particularly government, financial, and legal bodies – mandate Microsoft Teams over Zoom for security concerns. Although Zoom is now encrypted and ‘unbombable’, the lingering security concerns about the platform mean it is not acceptable for some. Invest time in training your team to use the platform so that team members can see and hear presentations easily, know how to mute, how to ask questions, and so on. The more familiar they are with your platform of choice, the more naturalistic the virtual pitch will be.

Tips for agencies: choose the right video conferencing platform to display your team and talents to the full – and at the same time one that your prospective clients accept. Ensure that all team members know how to use it without needing to be reminded to do so.

Tip 3. prepare and rehearse both to give and receive a pitch

In the days before you receive a set of pitches from prospective agency partners, be sure that your team receiving the pitch meets to get into the right mindset and has read any pre-reads to support the pitch that the agency may have sent through. Throughout lockdown, many of those working from home have grown used to multitasking – attending a budget meeting while dealing with emails or similar. Client teams multitasking is unfair on agencies pitching – they deserve your full attention for the work put in to prepare the pitch. More importantly, to make the right selection, the whole team needs to attend to what is being proposed by the agencies tendering. It’s a combination of good pitch etiquette and commercial common sense.

Tips for agencies: make sure you rehearse virtual pitches, in real time, to ensure the pacing and technology work as expected. Rehearsal enables team members to visualise what the actual pitch will be like, ensuring that the right people are delivering the right content. When showcasing technology, be sure you have a back-up plan to your back-up plan; have a plan A, B, and C. Have multiple users able to access the platform remotely. If that fails, show screenshots of the platform in operation. And if that fails, have a video testimonial of a client already using the platform to deliver third-party credibility. Systems and connections fail, and you need to prepare for the worst.

Industry perspective: the media agency view

Kim Berkin, client managing director, dentsu X: “We’re now well versed in the art of virtual pitching at dentsu X. At first a novelty, it very quickly became a necessity we had to adapt to. Of course, there are the usual considerations of tech; running around three minutes before a pitch trying to borrow next door’s Wi-Fi is not ideal. Your environment: thinking about lighting, if you’re sitting in a spot that will still be comfortable in 90 minutes. Dealing graciously and authentically with inevitable interruptions; my toddler actually hit me in the face while I was presenting our creds early on in lockdown.

“All of that aside, what has worked well for us is being brave and not being afraid of allowing calculated elements of uncertainty into the process. It is imperative, but very difficult, to build great chemistry and relationships with prospective clients, not easy when presenting 150 slides virtually – so we believe you shouldn’t. We have had success thinking creatively about getting genuine engagement: not using PowerPoint at all, sending reading materials in advance, creating a second screen experience to share additional content, even letting the clients dictate their way through the presentation choosing what to hear, when. We will take these adaptations into 2021 and beyond.”

Tip 4. hold commercial negotiations before the pitch

Appointing a new agency partner can be held up by the commercials. You meet a team with the right ideas and you decide you want to work with them. But before you can start the new relationship, your finance and procurement colleagues have to negotiate media, creative, or platform rates and costs. Because pitching virtually is less time-consuming than pitching in person – essentially because of the lack of travel, particularly for big regional and global pitches – this gives finance, procurement, and third-party consultants the opportunity to effectively negotiate commercial terms before the pitch.

Tips for agencies: seek out the opportunity to negotiate with prospective clients – on FTE staff allocations and day rates, platform costs, and third-party tech fees – before the pitch. In-house procurement teams and procurement consultants will be willing to let you know how your proposed fees compare with your competitors, at least in relative terms. By negotiating before the pitch, not only are you saving time once the formalities have been completed. You can also identify early whether the prospective client will generate sufficient return for your agency or agency holding company.

Industry perspective: the procurement view

Tina Fegent is an independent marketing procurement consultant with almost 30 years’ experience. “I’ve been impressed with how much time senior, influential people both client and agency side have made available for pitches during the pandemic. With no commute and no international travel, they have more capacity and diary management is more straightforward. What’s more impressive is that many have dedicated time to the expanded, virtual pitching process. No chocolate biscuits, of course, but you can’t have everything.

“Some agencies have clearly adapted to the new reality better than others, running well-rehearsed, well-signposted pitches to time, giving everyone a meaningful role. Others have made the most of the technology, using breakout rooms, polls, and quizzes to great effect, keeping clients engaged in what could easily have become ‘yet another Zoom call’. I’d characterise virtual pitches under lockdown as better value, more engaged, and quicker.

“One real plus of virtual pitching from a procurement point of view is the timing, order, and quicker resolution of commercial negotiations. In the pitches I’ve been involved in since lockdown, we’ve had all the commercial discussions and negotiations covering fees and the contract terms before the final pitch. Because on both sides of the negotiation table no one has to travel and take a week to get the usual face-to-face meetings in the diary to have a commercial negotiation, we have been able to have those two-to-three discussions with each of the agencies over Zoom and work through the negotiations at faster pace in the weeks running up to the final pitch presentations.

As the commercial responses to the pitch come in, we’re able to compare offers, ask the questions that matter, and to do so early. Agencies can respond accordingly. But what is very clear is that by the time we reach the final pitch presentation stage, we know exactly what the agency would charge and the decision on the final agency can be made a lot quicker than normal. Since the commercials have all been done, both parties can start working together, subject to the contract being signed.

“Negotiating by phone or video conference call is also easier because it’s slightly less personal and often a lot less emotional than face-to-face. There’s much less reading body language, interpreting silences as meaningful, or trying to read notes upside down – on both sides. This means we tend to focus on facts and rational details, which makes logic, bargaining, and compromise more straightforward. It also removes the role of both emotion- and threat-based negotiation, which I’ve never favoured anyway.”

Tip 5. ensure pitches run to time

Allow all agencies a fair and equal amount of time to present their ideas. Appoint one of your team as the timekeeper, whose role it is to let everyone know how you’re doing for time. If you allocate two hours per agency, allow up to 10 minutes for set-up, introductions and pleasantries, and build at least a couple of quick comfort/leg-stretching breaks into each pitch. Indicate to agencies beforehand how long you are allocating to the pitch, and the fact that you’re planning on quick breaks. It’s really challenging to concentrate as an audience member for more than 25-40 minute blocks, particularly online, so respect this in setting the ground rules for the pitches you run.

Tips for agencies: make a virtual pitch presentation shorter than it would be in person. Be sure the pitch runs to time – and ideally finishes a little early. It’s much better not to overstay your welcome. Rehearsal and practice with presentation platforms should mean agencies are ready and able to start at the appointed time. To enhance sign-posting, it’s worth marking different sections, saying “We’re now about half way through” and so on.

Tip 6: evaluate pitch performance fairly and equally

Agencies often put their heart and soul into pitching for your business, so be sure your evaluation criteria are rigorous and applied consistently and fairly for all agencies pitching. This is as true for virtual pitching as it is for pitching in person, and as virtual pitching is still a relative novelty, build time into the process to provide meaningful feedback to all agencies pitching on what worked and what could have been improved. As ever, avoid telling all unsuccessful agencies that they came “a very close second”. Be specific in feedback workshops on how they can do better next time.

Tips for agencies: as early as the briefing stage, be sure to ask your prospective clients to build in time and a formal mechanism into the process to give you proper feedback on your team’s performance. All parties are learning the dynamics of virtual pitching, and given how much time and effort you and your peers usually apply, the more, useful feedback you can gather quickly, the better.

Tip 7: engage more deeply throughout the process

Both brands and agencies have welcomed the opportunity for more of their teams to spend more time with each other during the pitch process. More interaction throughout the process seems set to stay, with briefing, Q&As for clarification, and tissue meetings likely to stay online. This will allow agencies to focus exclusively on client ‘exam questions’ during the formal pitch meeting.

Tip 8. be realistic – but not over-ambitious

Brands need to make sure they give each agency pitching for the business the attention their presentation deserves. Try to resist the temptation to book three or even five pitches in one day, just to get it out of the way; you’ll generate extreme fatigue in your team and be unable to judge fairly. Much better, try to hold them at the same time each day, one in the morning, one in the afternoon, so you can consider each agency’s approach equally.

Tip 9. whenever possible, try to meet in person during the pitch process

Although both advertisers and their agency partners have made the most of very difficult circumstances under lockdown, both parties are known to favour in-person pitching as soon as that proves to be practical. As Martin Jones of brand-agency matchmakers AAR Group said recently: “Nothing trumps being able to meet face-to-face to help read the room and be aware of the power of the ‘knowing look’.” As economies emerge from lockdown and both brands and agencies return to offices for a day or two each week, key stakeholders on both sides will really benefit from meeting – even if only for a socially-distanced coffee – during the pitching process.

In tomorrow’s article, Ebiquity’s managing director for global events and partnerships, Debbie Morrison, details the pros and cons of virtual pitching. Ebiquity has published a comprehensive guide to virtual pitching. Download it here.

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