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My new relationship with the virtual pitch that’s here to stay

By Jon Lonsdale on 16th December 2020

Nearly 10 months in some sort of lockdown and we’ve all got used to a new kind of agency life. And sure, It’s not what any of us signed up for. But on the whole we’ve coped and adapted.

Those big, celebratory get togethers that are so intrinsic to our culture have gone online (or at least partially). Instead of spending a lot of time missing the office, we’re actively planning for a change in how we use it. And we’re actually now seeing value in managing certain types of meetings in different ways.

One of which is the virtual pitch – something I definitely think is now a permanent fixture, rather than a temporary workaround.

As someone who started an agency quite early in my career, I’ve spent most of my working life pitching one way or another. In fact, most of my best stories on working life start with, “We were pitching for [insert big brand] in [insert either random European capital] and we’d pulled an all-nighter…”.

Many of them are in OG folklore. And if you believe Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, the amount of time I’ve spent giving people good reasons to spend their marketing budgets with us means I should be bloody brilliant at it. Unfortunately, in contrast to The Beatles and Bill Gates, my 10,000 hours still don’t always cut it.

For all the times I’ve been through it, I still love the big pitch itself. And see it as almost the cornerstone of what makes agency life so exhilarating – from the thrill of the first call from a brand you admire to the courting phase, the creative process, and the ebbs and flows to nail that big idea. I even enjoy the last minute panics, travelling, wondering whether go for denim or a dress shirt, dodgy tech, reading the room, and that difficult question that no one could answer before we wait for the result.

My heart rate is going up now as I think about it. So I have mixed emotions about such a big part of my working life changing after all these years. On the one hand I do miss it. But on balance, I’ve begun to recognise the value of the Zoom pitch. And have noticed a few things in how it’s changed the process:

  • Choreography rather than drama – I’ve heard folks bemoaning the lack of theatre in the virtual pitch. But for us, it’s more about choreography. Those moments of spontaneity are hard to do on Zoom – interjection, humour and quips are tricky when someone controls the mic. But I think we have tried to practice how we choreograph a key point or slide to make it hit home. It might be the big reveal, or just a key juncture of the presentation. Practicing the ‘banter’ and lighter moments is as important too. 
  • Less show, more dough – Yes I miss the pitch paraphernalia, but we only pitch to win new work, right? I can honestly say that the time from getting a brief to being awarded the work and starting the project has been dramatically compressed for us in 2020. And our win rate has gone up. I think it’s as simple as clients becoming more available and way more focused on getting going with a piece of work. Gone is the ‘let’s meet in the next two weeks for a chemistry session if diaries allow’. In its place is ‘are you free this afternoon for a call?’ It also tends to remove time wasters, and briefs tend to be better prepared, budgeted for and ready to start.
  • Don’t bore us, get to the chorus – I heard this recently from someone and I’ve nicked it. Good presentation advice generally of course, but on a Zoom of usually no more than an ‘hour with time for questions’ there just isn’t any time to waffle. We’re drastically cutting down what we try and cram in and I’ve found our pitches way more on point, structured, and with better pace and energy. 
  • Playing the confidence trick – One thing we’ve found is the nerves go on Zoom once you acclimatise. A golden tip is to hide your own self view on the screen as standard. It’s amazing how distracting and exhausting seeing yourself talk is (depending on if you’ve managed to get to the hairdresser before lockdown). Try it, it’s transformational and allows you to just talk like you would in a meeting. Zoom has also been a real leveller for those who are newer to pitching. A lot of that physical etiquette of pouring coffee, shaking hands, and (ewww) air kissing goes away.  
  • Where is your shed? – No one cares where you are anymore and that can be a benefit. I have a shed in the garden where I’ve spent most of the year, and it’s a question I get asked a lot. Location really doesn’t matter now. And as an entrepreneurial agency that has many exciting possibilities. We even have one member of our team who has sold up and bought a camper van, spending the summer roaming around Devon somewhere while getting his pitch on.    

As communicators we must always think about the audience we’re trying to influence. And remember that all this virtual stuff is new for them too. None of us has made the conscious decision to do things this way as a pitch challenge. In my view that’s made everyone a bit more tolerant and less judgemental of the agencies they meet.  

We’re all used to the kids popping into view, the delivery driver coming to the front door and the cat’s arse obscuring the screen – and instead of it being seen as unprofessional, it gets a smile and makes building empathy that bit easier to achieve. Everyone has to be open, honest and themselves.  It means pitches are more grounded, practical and compassionate – all good things.

Now, please don’t get me wrong, I want my human contact. I desperately miss so many things about being in the office with colleagues and friends, but I’ll be happy keeping pitches on Zoom for a bit longer.

If you want to take a look at Jon’s shed, get in touch to see how Octopus Group can work with your business.

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