Game of pitches goes virtual in adland

Industry observers share that the ‘new normal’ has led to advertising agencies developing streamlined operations for successfully conducting effective pitches 

e4m by Misbaah Mansuri
Updated: Apr 28, 2020 9:20 AM
Virtual pitches

COVID-19 shut down offices across the country in the matter of a few weeks, but Indian advertising agencies lost no time in figuring out new ways of getting back to work, albeit from their homes.

 Also, if there is one thing that shows no real sign of slowing down despite the lockdown - it has been pitches, a quintessential part of agency life that is now going virtual.

 Industry observers share that this ‘new normal’ has led to agencies being forced to adapt to new ways of pitching and in the process are developing streamlined operations to successfully conduct effective pitches.

 Hence, we decided to delve into how our agencies are going past hurdles like choppy connections and awkward cross-talk to keep the show going.

The glitch in the pitch  

With meetings taking place virtually, industry observers suggest that the larger challenges include developing a chemistry, and reading the room and client reactions through a computer screen. Arvind Krishnan, MD, BBH India, says pitching is the closest that you can come to competitive team sport in this business. “You want to be together, working through the problems. A lot of magic happens beyond the planned reviews and via chance meetings in the corridor. Of course, this isn't happening during the lockdown,” he asserts. 

Krishnan signals that the pitch theatre has moved from doing something with the space, to doing something with the work. He observes that the opportunity to read each other (read reactions) is a lot lower when presenting to a screen. “Surprisingly, there is less (er) talking over each other when pitches happen over a video call. I would like to think that we quickly adapt to newer ways of finding a connection. So whilst chemistry takes a back seat, it is still in the room,” he added. 

According to Anil K Nair, CEO, VMLY&R India, pitching in this virtual homebound world, like everything else, has two sides to it. Nair notes that this new setting has brought in extremely different dynamics to the process of pitching and the pitch itself. “I am not for a moment comparing the two scenarios but pitching during Covid times has brought memories of that ‘knot in the stomach’ feeling which we all experienced during our early pitching days. Will the slide projector work? Are the slides put on right? Do I have enough acetates?”

 Nair further said the virtual pitch process does lose out a bit on the human connection. “That little water-cooler joke with the client. Passing of pitch cookies. Projector snag ice breakers. Acute client reaction-catching and pivots.”

 However, he advised, “Be aware that lead times will be longer - for creating everything from prep to logistics - but keep your shiny smile and lucky shirt on. And most importantly check your internet connection.”

Business As Usual 

Despite this period of uncertainty, agencies know business must continue and hence are giving their best and pitching for new business - via gadgets.

Talking about some interesting pitches that he saw unfold over the last month, Nair remarked: “Some of them are even transnational, with multiple people from different time zones. All captive in that little virtual room. Listening to your argument.”

Work From Home has brought in its own earthy flavour to pitch insights and ideas, said Nair. “Now we have Zoom, Teams and Skype. More importantly, we have both our clients and our people in a captive embrace. So that’s more thinking time for pitches.” He goes on to say that it is also teaching agencies to pitch within the time given, which is a tough proposition for most agencies on most days.

Meanwhile, Hari Krishnan, CEO, Mullen Lintas, asserts that the preparation for a virtual pitch is not very different from a non-virtual one. The strategy and biz team does all the legwork in terms of secondary research, the primary work happens through phone conversations, chats with client partners and desk research. The creative team is then brought on board with the strategy, way forward, approach and scope of work, Krishnan explained.

 He further revealed that while most sectors are getting ready for a post-lockdown scenario, the pandemic has led to increased relevance for some businesses or categories in the eComm and FMCG sectors. “Similarly, in FMCG there are some sub-sectors which are suddenly finding themselves higher on relevance,” Krishnan added. 

The brainstorming part is something that the creative folks have found quite challenging because it’s just not the same, but they have come to terms with it, Krishnan pointed out. “The power of personal interaction can never be undermined in the creative business. Finally, it all comes together in the final internal review and, of course, the magic and thrill of the last day and last hour, still remains.”

Transforming to pitching digitally does not happen overnight for an industry that is used to doing it in an office environment for years. However, some see the shift to virtual as a silver lining and a much-needed change from the traditional ways of pitching.

Ajit Devraj, Executive Vice President, Dentsu Impact, believes that the lockdown has just fast tracked what would have inevitably been the future. “We have been very busy since the lockdown came into force, pitching for new business. We have had pitches involving global teams, introducing innovative technologies to clients, digital ideas, creatives and also brand positioning concepts presentations. Typically, all this would have entailed a lot of travel, and a lot of coordination and of course what we call “war rooms/jamming/brainstorming sessions which at times I felt were not the most productive.”

 Sectors like Automobile, CPG, Oil and Gas, Government, eCommerce/Tech and Insurance seem to be the ones calling for majority of the pitches, Devraj shared.

The Pitch Perfect

While an office setting enables the creation of endless opportunities for the pitching theatre, it’s interesting to see how agencies are cooking that up online and taking the same level of magic into people’s living rooms.

 According to Devraj, it all boils down to getting the “virtual” pitch theatre right which has now moved away from putting on a show in an office board room with food platters etc., to clearly defining the role of each “pitch actor” with a “director” taking the lead to control the proceedings of the virtual process. “Whether it’s about taking calls during the pitch, which could include dealing with technical glitches, a curve ball from the client, making sure all the team members are on mute, it all needs to be looked at closely,” he shared. 

With respect to managing virtual pitches, Devraj indicated that the agency has set up a cadence around areas like preparation, structuring and showcasing. “Now, with the lockdown, virtual pitch presentations mean all the prep work has to be done remotely. At the same time, we now have opportunities to bring global experts on calls when it wasn’t the norm before,” he revealed. 

Meanwhile, Kishore Tadepalli - Managing Partner and Senior Vice President, Branch Head Mumbai Operations, Wunderman Thompson, says: “In a pitch, the client evaluates you on parameters such as strategic thinking, power of the creative idea and last but not the least the ‘chemistry’ that the team brings to the table. In a virtual pitch, communicating to the client, the passion, enthusiasm and belief that the team has in their ideas gains top priority as one is unable to ‘see’ the client and ‘read’ the client’s reaction to the ideas one is presenting.” 

However, Tadepalli adds that this has led to creative solutions like recording presentations at home on phone cameras and stitching the various parts together. The entire presentation is visual alongside a lot of existing footage and online material, cartoons and GIFs, all used to land the point more effectively. It has even come to doing away with PowerPoint presentations entirely and talking directly to the client. 

 “Pitch opportunities are being seen across many sectors. But the move is for comprehensive brand solutions, including online, to keep communicating with the consumers. So we have participated in several pitches recently where the emphasis is on a total integrated solution as opposed to just the traditional media,” Tadepalli further said. 

Of course, beyond the potential awkwardness of a hand-off or speaking over each other, adapting to doing everything virtually can be tricky.

With regards to eliminating the awkwardness of a virtual pitch, Hari Krishnan advises that presenting to strangers and blank screens can be tough but one has to put the blinders on and soldier on.

 “Setting some housekeeping rules for speakers/non-speakers within your team and laying down some guidelines for the client team as well at the start helps. Humour always helps break the ice and usually everybody is actually quite understanding if there are any tech glitches. These do, however, break the flow and the thought process. So it’s important to dust yourself off and be ready to pick up from where you left off. Small things can sometimes make a huge difference. We have at one point even requested the entire client team to keep the video turned on throughout so that we could see their reaction,” Krishna shared. 

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