In early March, Berk Communications was preparing to make what would be one of its biggest pitches of the year. With the slide deck finished and the team clear on who would say what when, Berk was about to visit Mini U.S.A.’s headquarters in Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey, and vie for its North American AOR account. Yet as the day of the presentation approached, the COVID-19 pandemic was picking up steam, and staffers on both sides were growing concerned about the risks.
Even though incumbent Peppercomm pitched in-person on March 10 and competitor Shift Communications went the next day, Berk and Mini got on the phone on March 12 and decided to not only reschedule, but also conduct the meeting remotely.
“Right up to that morning, we had been planning for them to come in,” said Mini head of corporate communications Andrew Cutler.
Since the lockdown began, Berk has pitched virtually a half-dozen times, something it rarely did before, and won at least three accounts. Berk founder and CEO Ron Berkowitz says that meeting in-person is preferable, but pitching remotely is as good, and in some ways even better, than shaking hands around a conference table.
“It’s been a pretty interesting transition in the sense that both PR companies and clients will save a good amount of money on travel,” he explains. “It helps the environment; it helps everything. You don’t necessarily have to get on a plane. Between Google Hangouts and Zoom, you’re right there. It saves a lot of time and money.”
Catherine Merritt, founder and CEO of Spool, agrees, noting that her agency pitched several accounts virtually before the lockdown and it had some staffers working remotely even before COVID-19.
“We get approached by companies and folks all over the country, but we’re still a small startup and a growing agency and we don't have the resources to just hop on planes,” she says.
The pandemic also forced Spool to rework an in-person pitch into a remote presentation after the country shut down. Since remote pitching became mandatory, Merritt is learning that virtual presentations can sometimes be even more revealing than the traditional dog and pony show.
“We’ve been using Zoom more often, and the tiles of the clients are up while we are presenting. They keep them up,” she says. “Sometimes people forget they are being filmed, so there’s additional transparency there, too.”
Tech-focused shop SourceCode Communications also pitched virtually before the pandemic and has done more since then, says agency partner and founder Greg Mondshein. He agrees with Merritt that video conferences are often revealing, and says that’s a good thing.
“[The process] has become more human,” he says. “People have learned you can be a smart PR practitioner and also show that you are human and have a dog or have kids, and I think to a certain extent, it gives the potential client a better sense of who you are.”
However, remote pitches, Mondshein adds, tend to be all business, which ironically can be bad for business.
“When you walk into a building for a pitch, you often get a tour, and then they’ll give you coffee before you go in to pitch, so you have those moments to build rapport,” he explains. “You don’t have that on a teleconference, so make sure you have the opportunity in the pitch and leading up to the pitch to engage, because if you’re relying solely on the caliber of work and the presentation, it’s a missed opportunity.”
Large agencies are also learning to live without in-person presentations and finding some pleasant surprises. It was rare for Allison+Partners to conduct a virtual pitch before the pandemic, says Scott Allison, global chairman and CEO.
“What might happen then is we would bring a team member or two in remotely, and frankly that’s not a great way to pitch,” he says.
Now that everyone is working remotely, Allison acknowledges that “it’s better in some ways. People have really gotten into a groove and we have some pretty engaged discussions.”
Golin also rarely pitched remotely prior to the pandemic. “If we did, it was really infrequently and it tended to be for smaller agreements,” says Carrie von der Sitt, the agency’s global head of growth. “Certainly if a prospect is going to be entering a large, integrated relationship, those marriages are always made in a face-to-face fashion.”
As Golin entered the final rounds of pitches in March, many went virtual, and “probably 50% that were on track to finish in March...were put on permanent hold,” she says.
In some ways, virtual pitches are making agencies up their game. For one, they force firms to be very careful about who they pick as presenters, von der Sitt adds.
“The key to remote pitching is casting: making sure we are putting people on the business that have a track record with each other and trust working with each other,” she says. “You don’t have the benefit of everyone building chemistry by sitting in a war room for days on end. You have to be much more efficient in doing the work and you have to trust in the work they are doing independently and that they will come [to the pitch] with a product that will presumably knit itself together.”
On the other, she says, virtual pitches can allow a firm to bring more senior talent to the presentation if it is organized carefully.
“Breaking the presentation into subsections means you are able to bring senior people in the room or introduce the global leads who will manage the work that is particular to [the clients],” says von der Sitt. “In the past, bringing someone like [Golin CEO] Matt Neale or other senior folks to the table meant a lot of travel time for them. Now, in a virtual environment, it is much easier to block out 90 minutes on their schedule instead of two days.”
Another advantage of virtual pitches: they don’t require the same actor-like performance skills that in-person presentations often demand.
“The rehearsals are more logistical now than performance-based,” says von der Sitt. “It used to be you rehearsed and had all the talking points memorized and while you’re standing up in front of people you don’t have the benefit of notes. You were really focused on remembering the exact 12 points you were going to make for one slide rather than sitting, like I am now, at a card table in a hallway.”
For his part, Berkowitz says he doesn’t ask staffers to conduct formal rehearsals or memorize lines, calling it “too staged,” and notes that bringing senior leaders to the table during a pitch is usually not an issue for smaller agencies like Berk.
“I’ve never been one to mind spending the money and flying out to meet the [in-house] team and telling them a little about us,” he says. “That goes such a long way and will never be replaced by Zoom.”
Despite Berkowitz’s fondness for the personal touch, remote pitching has been good for his agency. Since the lockdown began, his shop has won clients including an ecommerce brand, a remote learning software company and the Natural History Museum of Utah.
What it didn’t win was the Mini U.S.A. account, which incumbent Peppercomm hung on to even though Cutler said that Berk’s presentation was good. Part of the reason the auto brand stuck with Peppercomm is that it wasn’t prepared to switch agencies during a pandemic.
“Again, you really miss the tactile face-to-face handshakes and the eye-to-eye contact, but we got a good sense of that from relying on the voice only, and the agency had a good, competent chance at the business,” Mini’s Cutler says. “They brought some really good ideas.”