There is opportunity in crisis, including the chance to re-invent the pitch process
As the coronavirus hit, those of us in agencies found ourselves busier than ever – moving through tough yet somewhat familiar territory. Tough in terms of turnaround times, increased workloads and client expectations, familiar in terms of being on call and highly responsive to our clients in a crisis.
Clients were in need of new strategies on a daily and weekly basis as we moved through the phases: from lockdown, to recovery and now hopefully into a full rebound. The nature of these phases means we’ve had to be focused on the short term while also planning for all the possible rebound situations.
There has been some slowdown in client activity, generally around the timeliness of communications and whether it’s right to be advertising right now. But now we’re firmly in the recovery or rebound planning for most of our clients, and some are also planning for the future beyond the pandemic.
Switching between near and far future is easier when you know your clients – but what about new business? Initially, pitching was expected to freeze. But within the first week of lockdown, I was contacted by a pitch consultant inquiring about our ability to pitch from home.
My answer was a resounding yes, as we’d just proven to our clients, and ourselves, that we could operate from home. New business shouldn’t be any different. In fact, I believe how we’re experiencing new business now will change the way we pitch in the future and help evolve the services all agencies offer.
Most of our current pitching opportunities were in train before Covid-19 and I’m glad to say they continued through the lockdown. We’ve been successful in recent pitches, over video call, for Burger King and the Bord Bia Talent Academy, and I’d like to take this opportunity to welcome them to TBWADublin.
Early on it was difficult to manage a pitch over video call, it requires extra prep time and more rehearsals. The task itself requires innovative use of technology to do creative concepts justice. We’ve had to be more directive on video calls – calling out names for specific questions and directing clients to go to “gallery view” for the discussion elements of the presentation so that all the faces are present on screen.
Not having these meetings face to face can make client engagement more difficult, with less opportunity to create the all-important chemistry and read the room (and change course if required). Yet it seems to me, there is more openness on video calls.
As you sit at your screen talking to someone in their bedroom, kitchen or shed, the barriers come down, you catch a glimpse of their authentic personality and connections happen on a more human level. There’s a certain light-hearted tone and closeness that may not have been present in formal face-to-face pitch meetings.
This openness allows everyone to focus on the creative process – direct feedback creates more dynamic conversations about the things that really matter. The trappings of corporate cultures and office dynamics fall away as children unexpectedly pop into a meeting or the fire alarm starts blaring because you forgot to take a pot off the hob!
Another positive of pitching from home is that the process is more streamlined. Agencies pitch on their own dime – therefore it’s significantly more efficient for an agency not to have to travel, take flights and take on the hard costs of hosting multiple pitch meetings when they can be done via video. That expectation is now gone and I hope it will continue into the new normal. In addition, if we can be more flexible about the pitching process, not being so location-specific, we’ll open new doors for Irish agencies.
We’ve found that large pitch decks are no longer fit for purpose. It’s more important to make your point and then allow for discussion of that point – reading the ‘virtual’ room is key.
We’ve also noticed the quick turnaround responsiveness required by clients during Covid-19 is now also coming through in pitches. One pitch we’re in at the moment is due to the urgent need for a rebound strategy for the brand, and what would have taken about three months will now take three weeks.
Video pitches are here to stay and should be retained as a positive tool to help agencies in the pitching process.
Pitching opportunities are certainly thinner on the ground, with an expectant surge in Q3 and Q4 according to most pitch consultants I’ve spoken to. Recent pitches, which began post-Covid-19, are more project-based, instead of larger accounts, and tend to specialise in digital and social media.
These can sometimes be easier to move than the creative or media account. So while these pitches are a very important sign of green shoots, they also don’t provide the larger new business opportunities that agencies require to get a return on investment for their free time spent on pitches.
In general, now is not the time most clients are thinking about replacing their agency – this provides an opportunity for agencies to really step up and be both pro-active and responsive to the clients they do have.
When we’re looking at new business prospecting we have to review the sectors we think will recover sooner. For example, initially the automotive industry was deemed a sector that would be hardest hit – but we’ve seen from other countries further along in the rebound timeline, like China, that actually the demand for electric vehicles is driving a recovery in demand in this sector.
Post-Covid-19, clients are going to need big disruptive brand platform ideas that work across the entire customer journey. When we start to see these types of pitches coming through we’ll know things are back to normal.
Agencies are now much more selective about clients with unfavourable payment terms and credit scores. These pre-checks have become even more important and we’ve increased our requirements to ensure we’re not pitching for a business that may have underlying issues and may not be able to provide the scope of work it is pitching out.
Finally, I think that the coronavirus impact on our industry could actually accelerate some of the recent trends we’ve seen – such as in-housing of digital services. During times of crisis, clients become much more aware of where they are getting their ‘value-add’ from – and some digital services will be accelerated in-house.
This will continue to have an impact on what clients are looking for in an agency partner. The opportunities for agencies will lie in providing more margin-driving expertise, such as experience design across the entire customer journey.
According to the global client survey carried out by TBWA worldwide, clients, having come through the initial shock of Covid-19, became overly optimistic. They are now firmly back in reality. I like this new phase of realism, as it means we can continue future planning knowing the virus will have a lasting impact on brands and what consumers want from them. But it will also impact on our industry which services these brands around the clock.
This can drive change for good, and pitching is top of the list of things that needed to change. Gallery view, anyone?
Deirdre Waldron is chief executive of TBWADublin