A post-Covid chemistry lesson: transformation of the pitch

The coronavirus lockdown has inevitably changed the pitch process, so how will the 'theatre' return as we emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic, and might some of the enforced shifts in the way they have been run in recent times be adopted permanently?

"People buy people." Well, so the hoary old cliché goes, and it’s certainly true that in advertising they don’t buy agency presentation decks. But since the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, people (clients) have, at best, been forced into buying miniature digitalised versions of people (agencies) in ad pitches, as well as looking at decks.

Agencies were quick to adapt to the limitations of using video-conference tech to pitch for business, and made quite a lot of noise about it. It was an expedient move, driven by lockdown, although, arguably, it could have been adopted at any time over the past decade, given the tech has been available for a while. And, while some self-congratulation on their adaptability is understandable, when compared with the complex supply chains and logistics for clients trying to shift products to consumers, this service industry got off quite lightly.

While video provided a sticking plaster to help agencies stay in touch with intermediaries and prospects and present their work, as well as talk to colleagues, the experience is generally suboptimal. For the pitching process, in particular, something has been lacking – the adrenaline rush, the sight of the whites of their eyes has been difficult to replicate. Moreover, who doesn’t like a bit of international travel on expenses? So, as agencies drift slowly back to the office, what does the future of pitching look like?

Not remotely appealing

Research from Creativebrief has shown that clients don’t particularly like remote pitching. In a survey, three-quarters said that they did not feel comfortable running a pitch this way. The efficiencies – in terms of time spent (for both parties) – as well as cost of theatre are clear. But Martin Jones, managing partner at AAR, which has been running an ad account review for Three during lockdown, believes that once a Covid-19 vaccine is available or herd immunity achieved, there is little doubt that both clients and agencies will want to return to seeing each other in person for domestic pitches, certainly for the first "chemistry" meeting.  "Nothing trumps being able to meet face to face, in order to help read the room and be aware of the power of the ‘knowing look’," he says.

Nonetheless, many international and global brands are used to running pitches remotely, Jones points out. "Global pitches have a different order of calibration of what’s important – common working and reporting practices across territories, cultural market understanding, ideas and work that can be delivered efficiently and cost effectively are, arguably, more important than chemistry when it comes to appointing an agency," he says.

"Chemistry" and "theatre" are the two words that agencies mention most often, when asked what they miss from the old, pre-video days of pitching. They may be intangibles, but many agencies see them as their key differentiators in an era when one agency’s creative and strategic solution to a client’s problem might not be vastly different from that of its rivals.

"Nothing trumps being able to meet face to face to help read the room and be aware of the power of the ‘knowing look’"
— Martin Jones, AAR

Justin Billingsley, global chief marketing officer of Publicis Groupe and chairman of Publicis Emil and Publicis One Touch, says: "A chemistry session is not only about the chemistry between a client and their potential partners, but perhaps more importantly, for a client to feel the chemistry within the partner team. Do these people like working together? Are they committed to this? Do they care about each other’s success? Are they one team, organised for me? Great clients know this matters more. Marketing, digital and business transformation is hard work, and you need a real and committed team to drive it, because when it gets tough, and it will, they will support each other. Clients cannot feel this, cannot effectively observe this, in a 2D world. They cannot truly feel or see the chemistry of a team.

"Is it fair that this is such a critical part of a review? Absolutely. We are focused on getting not only an unfair share of talent, but ensuring that they work together, without silos, as partners, to help our clients achieve their objectives. We can compete on the table stakes, but we differentiate with talent and team. And to properly engage on this, we encourage workshopping a real problem together, in person. Sure, there will be social distancing and PPE needed for this – but the sooner we can get together, solve together and support each other as a team, to win and to show our commitment, the better."

Angus Crowther, a founding partner at Alchemists, which ran a brand and customer experience pitch for Halifax during lockdown, agrees with another of Creativebrief’s research findings that revealed that clients were increasingly looking to review their agency arrangements, after a period where coronavirus put this intention on hold. "The dust is perhaps beginning to settle after the sheer pandemonium over the last three months, when a lot of clients had to sort out various crises, which meant many pitch processes went into a holding pattern. But now things are seriously kicking off again and, having taken stock, clients are keen to press on and try to make up for lost time," he says.

As for global pitches, Crowther agrees that tech has always played a bigger role in them than in domestic pitches, due to their increasing complexity. "We are often briefed initially by the central team, usually by marketing and procurement together. There is then often a regional marketing department and then there are the local country teams, all with varying agendas."

With international travel now being increasingly supplanted by video conferencing and little prospect of global Gold Card jaunts returning this year, one suggestion has been the death of "the suit" – the international account person who flies around the world assuaging the different client stakeholders and helping guide the agency through these complexities. But Crowther thinks that rather than seeing their role diminished, it could be more important than before, meaning agencies will cut them at their peril. 

"Less time in the air, though, should or could allow more thinking to solve the problem. And less time-wasting could mean more ‘working sessions’ rather than a final pitch à la ‘showtime’," he adds.

It’s a view echoed by Stuart Pocock, Crowther’s counterpart at The Observatory International. "Their role [as the senior account person] in managing the day to day and co-ordination of activity will have never been more important – especially with team members operating in isolation/at a distance," he says.

Jemima Monies, deputy managing director at Adam & Eve/DDB, also believes that chemistry is difficult to convey during on-screen pitches. "When they are held in your office, which more often than not they are, it gives clients an insight into the culture of the agency they are potentially buying into," she says.

"Seeing people in their own environment can break down barriers – one minute you’ve never met, the next you are in their kitchen"
— Jemima Monies, Adam & Eve/DDB

But despite the limitations, she claims that video calls can allow agencies to have a more intimate understanding of clients. "Seeing people in their own environment can break down barriers that office settings can put up – one minute you’ve never met and the next you are in their kitchen or bedroom." 

This is not without its risks, however, as Jones points out. Although he says that video conferencing has led to a breakdown of the traditional "client" and "agency" positionings, becoming more a case of human beings working with human beings, such meetings need to be undertaken with care. "Both clients and agencies need to be aware of what is visible on their video link – for example, a person not realising that everyone on the Zoom call could see a reflection in a mirror of their partner in the shower."

Technological advantages

So while agencies and clients refine their techniques, how about actual negotiations? Tina Fegent, a marketing consultant, says that, despite a proliferation of digital procurement tools – quantum computing, machine learning, enterprise blockchain, human augmentation and robotic process automation – all ideal for the buying of goods, they won’t make much of an impact on the marketing pitch process.

Other techniques from commerce could be more useful. "Diesel has just unveiled a 360-degree online selling platform and showroom, called Hyperoom, which is going to ‘create immersive and emotional engagements with buyers and vendors’," Fegent says.  "So will the pitch of the future be able to do that? We know how important the chemistry element is in pitches, so can the technology we have been using over the last three months still provide our marketing version of an immersive and emotional connection between agencies and clients? In short, yes, for the majority of the process. I hope the future is very similar to the last three months with a few tweaks."

Focus is key, and technology has allowed this. "I would like to see automation used here so agencies don’t have to repeat themselves on their last three years of accounts or their procurement policy on managing production costs on every single tender.  Can we look to use blockchain for this and have some form of central repository and the agencies get a blue tick like the Twitter verification tick?" she posits.

Pocock thinks that on financials, costs and confidentiality, this shouldn’t be an issue with online pitching. "Money should never be discussed in pitch presentations. It should have been sorted beforehand and off the table on the day when the creative agency (of whatever type) is there to stun and amaze," he says. 

Agencies are broadly optimistic that a hybrid of single, face-to-face chemistry meetings, with all the attendant PPE and social distancing requirements, along with pitching that can be carried out remotely presents a new future. 

Nina Jasinski, global managing director, new business, and chief marketing officer at Ogilvy UK, says: "Going forward, pitching will be even more about how we can pivot this situation to the advantage of the brand we are pitching for – and thus to our advantage, too. One of the key ways is, with the increased reliance on remote working, we can develop new shaped teams. It’s super-easy now to bring together a tailor-made team from across our global network of creatives and strategists, who have exactly the right experience for the brief. Location barriers have fallen away. No client wants a cookie-cutter solution and now it feels like we are able to offer even more bespoke teams."

Annie Gallimore, managing director of Engine Creative, says that the necessity of online pitching has helped crystallise thoughts that the old format was no longer fit for purpose anyway. 

"Even before we all found ourselves housebound and scared, the pitch process – its intensity and expense – was being debated and discussed, and rightly so. Too lengthy, too time-intensive for both client and agency, and too costly. A shake-up that was in the offing, now seems inevitable," she adds. "We have seen opportunities come from brands who don’t wish to go through the rigmarole of a pitch, and it has thrown up questions around the necessity and ‘waste’ of long, drawn-out and expensive pitch processes."

Agencies might miss the old ways of pitching but a model that combines the efficiencies technology offers, while including the importance of developing a personal and trusting business relationship, could be the future. The days of agencies decking out their buildings or dressing their staff as brand spokespeople as part of the theatre of the pitch might be behind us. Only some will mourn their passing. 

An era of professionalism has been forced on agencies by coronavirus – the best will seize it, while showing in new, more creative ways the magic that they can contribute, and have some fun along the way. People buying people – and ideas. That’s grounds for optimism.

Finding the right formula

Larissa Vince, chief executive, Now

We’ve all been talking about changing the pitch process for years and years but we’ve never managed to do it. And, regrettably, I don’t think the pandemic has created much positive change, because all we’ve done is move an existing rather broken process and made it remote. This hasn’t really improved much – in fact, it’s made chemistry harder to achieve, and for the clients a bit harder to judge.

It has also made clients a bit more likely to buy an idea off the deck than buy into a team – and I’ve heard anecdotally from clients that they definitely find it harder to buy an agency without actually meeting in person.

On the positive side, it has at least shown that it’s possible to do pitch meetings remotely, so I imagine we’ll see a hybrid approach in future – perhaps with chemistry and final pitch face to face, but with tissue sessions on video conference. But really, this isn’t much of a change at all. We all still get asked to do full creative pitches for projects of small value, we rarely get paid for what we deliver in pitches (even if we win) and we sometimes get asked to pitch against several other agencies.

I don’t believe that clients are trying to take advantage of agencies, at all. But we pitch all the time and they don’t, so, often, they don’t know what an alternative looks like.

We’ve all been part of pitches that have been run differently from the "normal", whether that’s selection post chemistry, workshop pitches or the (sadly rare) clients who are happy to choose an agency after simply seeing a proposed approach and past experience.

So if you are approached by a client to pitch for something and you don’t think the process they’re suggesting is right for the brief, it’s worth suggesting an alternative. In my experience, most clients are happy to consider different ways of approaching a pitch once you take the time to chat them through other options.

And in the end if you don’t think a process is reflective of the opportunity, and you’ve suggested an alternative to no avail, then we all have the power to say no.

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