Shreyas Kulkarni

Pitching for business on Zoom: Temporary fix or permanent practice?

What if your Wi-Fi connection conks off in the middle of a client pitch on Zoom? And, it’s just one of the things that can go wrong. We explore the imperfect virtual pitch.

"Can you see me?"

"Am I audible?"

"Can we please move on to the next slide?"

These three questions have, more or less, become a part of our daily work conversations lately. Since most, if not all, of us are working from home because of the nationwide lockdown, for agencies, Zoom pitches seem to have become more important than ever. They have, in fact, become the flagbearer of all virtual pitches taking place nowadays.

Things, however, can go wrong during a virtual pitch. We recently heard about someone who was in the middle of a pitch, and suddenly there was a power cut at his place. His team and the client had to wait for a good 15 minutes, because no one else had the file. In another instance, just as the speaker uttered a keyword, his colleague smoothly moved on to the next slide (to avoid the third question above).

A virtual pitch is a whole new ball game, and it takes time to get the hang of it. We take a look at, among other things, the stress and learnings, the clients, the Zoom pitching fatigue, and if this may well become a hybrid model with online and offline pitches, going forward.

The first opinions, learnings, and stress

Virtual pitches come with new learnings, and even moments of stress, that none of us saw coming.

Pranav Sabhaney
Pranav Sabhaney

Pranav Sabhaney, director of strategy & planning, Dentsu India Slingshot, says, "Because of the work conditions, the number of milestones (regular checks on the progress of a pitch) has increased... say, from three to five. That's the first additional thing we've done in our virtual pitch process. Otherwise, the process remains the same."

Kishore Tadepalli
Kishore Tadepalli

Kishore Tadepalli, managing partner & senior vice president, branch head Mumbai operations, Wunderman Thompson, talks about the 'tech' challenges. Technology 'trips' at the wrong time, and one is unable to ‘see' the client’s reaction to various points of view, ideas, and creative executions. "While the client sums up the feedback, in the end, you do not get a sense of the spontaneous reaction from the client."

Neeraj Bassi
Neeraj Bassi

Neeraj Bassi, chief strategy officer at Havas India, however, feels that these virtual pitches are here to stay and everyone should experience it, from newbies to traditional folks. "Until you actually experience it, work on it, get better at it, and reach a place of comfort, it grows bigger and seems like a no, I can't do it. But, once you get into it, you will find ways to engage."

 Arvind Krishnan
Arvind Krishnan

Arvind Krishnan, MD, BBH India, says that people, who run global businesses, are used to presenting on video calls and there's a lot of learning... "Some of them would be to make sure that the slides are written to be read, rather than presented in the room. One word slides are only impactful when you're in the room."

Virat Tandon
Virat Tandon

Virat Tandon, Group CEO, MullenLowe Lintas Group, feels data analytics and online research through proprietary tools are the key winning tools in these virtual pitches. "... Built by our digital planning team, it has armed us with updated consumer knowledge and insights."

Preparation is key

Benjamin Franklin said, "By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” And while this is true for any pitch, it‘s even truer for a virtual pitch – it's only your face that's visible, and your body language, which plays a key role, is absent.

Says Krishnan, "Body language is a great way of reading the energy in the room because people can't go on mute when they're in a room. You'll have to compensate with your voice to bring that energy to that conference. It is important because it still sends a very strong message."

"The preparation is easier than the presentation, so we rehearse. When you're in the room, you do it with eye contact and it's a lot more organic. But, in a virtual room, you need to know who does what, who answers what, you don't want it to be a cacophonous session, you want to feel like things are planned out," added Krishnan.

For Tadepalli, "... do 'several' dry runs so that the entire pitch process is well orchestrated." After all, without any dry runs, you might actually end up falling flat on your face during the actual pitch meeting.

Bassi, instead of talking about dry runs, spoke of his first Zoom pitch experience, "... was thinking, "Kya Hoga?". The block in the head was bigger than reality! And there were technical issues, the video sharing did not go as well as expected, but we managed."

Meanwhile, Sabhaney, too, values the importance of dry runs before the pitch meeting. "... the way you interact, eye contact, speaking up on things a client would ask you while you're presenting and then building on it, and taking it somewhere else, those purposeful digressions which happen, are missing now. But, that's how we keep ourselves ready. We've accepted the fact that there is a lack of face-to-face interaction, but yes, things must go on."

So, the consensus is that dry runs are valuable. But, what about the clients, whom these pitches are being presented to?

Clients during the virtual pitch era

According to Sabhaney, the clients understand that people need to take in and understand fully this new environment. Their work expectation hasn't dwindled at all. "It may seem harsh, but as our partners, we need to empathise with them because they're losing big bucks due to a fault that's not theirs, and at the same time, business still needs to run as usual."

Tadepalli added, "Clients' expectations have not changed. They're still looking for strong strategic thinking backed by powerful ideas. But there is an inclination to look for what can be executed in the current environment – which is where the integrated solutions come in."

Tandon pointed to the impact that COVID-19 has had on all of us. "COVID-19 is creating a huge disruption, not just in the consumers‘ preference for categories and brands, but also in their entire journey. Clients are looking for strategies and insights that will reflect this understanding."

It seems that clients, too, are in the same boat as the agencies, but they're still looking for people who can deliver quality work, despite the unusual circumstances we’re currently living in. So, what happens now?

The hybrid future?

We won't go back to how things were before lockdown, or we may. Does that mean virtual pitches are just here for the time being, or will they stay and co-exist with offline face-to-face pitches?

Bassi certainly thinks so. He believes these pitches are here to stay, and if the present circumstances continue for a month or two or more, even the traditional clients, will (finally) come around.

Sabhaney, too, echoes the same sentiment. "Going forward, meaningless meetings can be avoided. For instance, a brief that can be given on video versus a face-to-face interaction. Also, the time spent at a meeting is going to be more important. Zoom and Microsoft Teams have shown us the power of the virtual screen."

Tadepalli, however, disagrees. "... I think clients will continue to prefer meeting agencies face-to-face for pitches because it gives them a better understanding of the ‘team’ that has worked on the business. In some unavoidable circumstances, they may settle for virtual pitches."

But, Krishnan seemed to be all in. "I would go for in-face pitches (hybrid models) that are already here. And while pitches will happen in person because that's how you build relationships, the handling of it will move online."

Tandon and Krishnan spoke on similar lines. "The hybrid model of online and offline pitches always existed. We used to have a couple of VCs or telecons in between the initial briefing and the final presentation. Going forward, I see many more virtual pitches happening. Travelling between cities for a pitch will not be a necessity."

How's the grass on the other side?

Prerna Nagpal
Prerna Nagpal

We‘ve looked at how marketers feel about virtual pitches. Prerna Nagpal, chief marketing officer, Lifelong Online Retail, has this to say, "... At the end of the day, what matters is the body of the pitch. When I give out the brief to any agency, there are specific things I have in mind. If the pitch is exactly what I'm looking for, I don't think other things will make that much of a difference, like a poor first impression due to technical difficulties.“

"I don't miss out on the body language of the presenter because it's a video pitch. What matters more is the way a person goes about doing the pitch. When they're explaining to us, the clarity of thought is the most important aspect. If the agency has this when they're explaining the pitch, I know the presenters understand what I'm asking for. Clarity of thought is important and you don't need to sit across the table to understand this," Nagpal added.

As far as the hybrid model of offline and online pitches is concerned, she's all in. "I think it should become a hybrid thing. One of the things I've kind of realised is that if you do an online pitch, you can make the first selection and you won't waste the time of other people. It should become a hybrid model. The first cut should be done in a way where you have an online meeting."

Aren't you fatigued?

At the end, we asked about fatigue. Nagpal is not (fatigued), while Sabhaney says he's worked more in the last three months than he has the whole of last year.

Tandon says, "As of now, there are no such concerns and our teams are quite enthusiastic about virtual pitching. While pitching is happening with surprising frequency, the closure is taking time. If this trend continues, then some cynicism is likely."

Bassi, however, seems to be a big fan. "... I've become a fan of Zoom kind of meetings. I think we are becoming more efficient and personally, my managerial and efficient side is happier, but the joy of advertising is sitting down with people, jamming with them, and that part is sorely missing."

So, to each his own, but one thing is certain. We're not going back to the old ways anytime soon.

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