By Sam Bradley | Senior Reporter

September 21, 2021 | 12 min read

As offices reopen amid an uneven economic recovery, some clients are again inviting agencies to pitch for their business in person. What lessons have been learned from 18 months of remote reviews? And will the industry retain any of them as it struggles to establish better ways of working in the wake of the pandemic?

The London Underground is full again. Tired people are toiling in gray offices again. Normal service has – maybe, potentially, sort of – returned. For adland, that has included the return of pitches and client review meetings in person, at least in some parts of the world. But according to review specialists from across the global industry, it‘s unlikely we‘ll ever see in-person reviews and pitches make a permanent comeback.

Tom Denford is chief executive officer of management consultancy ID Comms. Based in upstate New York, he‘s become used to managing these processes at a distance. Over the last 18 months, ID Comms has run reviews for T-Mobile, Hershey‘s, Facebook, Burberry, Lindt and IMG – all of which were entirely virtual. Despite having seen the pitching and review process evolve over 12 years in the job, he‘s been taken aback at the willingness of clients to make big-budget calls without ever meeting prospective agency partners, and the capacity of competing parties to adapt.

”The biggest test was T-Mobile. It had two incumbent agencies, Horizon and Publicis, and all bets were on one of those coming out triumphant. How could you possibly award a $2bn contract to a company you’ve never met in person?”

However, Denford says eventual winner IPG blew him away with a ”brilliantly organized” pitch for the cell network’s business. ”It‘s testament to the process, but also testament to the agency‘s ability to perform.”

Priya Patel, principal consultant at Ebiquity, says ”it’s all virtual at the moment” in the US. ”There’s no consideration around face-to-face meetings, and that’s pretty much going to be for the rest of the year.”

Across the pond in London, Creativebrief chief executive officer Charlie Carpenter says the picture is mixed. Of the five reviews the company currently has under way, three are entirely remote, and one is being run face-to-face. In the English capital ”quite a lot of people have begun to make the transition back to some kind of office environment,” he says, allowing some pitch meetings to be held.

And according to Patel’s Paris-based colleague, Laetitia Zinetti, a similar transition has begun on the European continent, where workers are back at the office in greater numbers.

”In countries like Germany, France, Spain, Italy, people are getting back to the office – I would say more than 50% have come back. From a pitching perspective, clients are happy to have parts of the pitch virtually ... when it comes to presenting strategic capabilities of agencies, or their tools, that’s going back to face-to-face.”

The new rules of pitching

Despite the differences between national and regional markets, the new rules of remote and hybrid pitching have become firmly established.

From entirely remote processes last year, reviews now incorporate face time for chemistry meetings between local teams, though any discussion requiring stakeholders from several locations – a chief financial officer in New York, or a procurement manager in London, for instance – are also still remote.

”It’s a blend of virtual and physical meetings,” says Zinetti. ”For international, it’s remaining virtual because people are not traveling. But for local pitches, then physical meetings are coming back and taking place at the RFP stage, when agencies are presenting their capabilities.”

The shift to remote-first reviews has cut much of the fat from the process, says Denford. Where previously clients would evaluate agencies’ presence in regional markets in person, escorted by the same team leading the pitch, that process no longer means crisscrossing the globe. ”Everybody flies out to Beijing or something, even though we all just met in New York last week. It enables consistency, but it’s all a bit indulgent and ridiculous,” he says.

It’s also led to leaner presentations, according to Wendy Dixon, chief growth officer at M&C Saatchi Group. ”Casting has always been key and there’s always the debate about who goes in, balanced with trying to keep numbers down,” she says.

”But in a virtual world that’s even more challenging, because as soon as you’re in deck mode, the face-to-face connection is virtually gone. Hence the need for less copy on slides, less slides, less everything on screen and more talking, more asking questions, more time relating, inspiring, connecting.”

Carpenter avers that hybrid reviews will be the template for the future. ”There will always remain some degree of hybrid as we now move forward.” Denford agrees, saying: ”I don’t think it’ll be wholly virtual forever. But face-to-face moments are going to be highly meaningful uses of time. I would expect them to be on agency premises – a client spending some time working with the agency or something.”

ID Comms has already been staging trial working drills between prospective partners for programmatic buying, so that a client can witness in person the media buying process. ”It’s fascinating because you can do it remotely, but it’s quite good to go and sit in with a team.”

What’s gained – and what's lost – in a remote pitch?

After 18 months of the pandemic, the benefits and downsides of remote pitching are clear to both brands and agencies. According to Ebiquity’s Patel, the absence of small talk skirmishes has helped both parties get down to brass tacks far quicker than before.

”Being able to strip that all away gets an advertiser to better understand what they can actually get from an agency and how that will be delivered. And an agency can really focus on being quite clear about what capabilities they have, and how that will actually make a discernible difference to an advertiser’s business,” she says.

For some agencies, this narrow-band focus has been beneficial. Kev Chesters, a strategy partner at Harbour Collective, tells The Drum that remote pitching has been ”a brilliant leveler” amid fierce competition.

”When using Zoom it’s just the client and you. It comes down to who has the best thinking or idea and how good your agency product is. Since March 2020 we haven’t lost a single project that we’ve ‘pitched’ for. It’s been great to strip away the pointless theatrics and irritating window dressing, and just rely on strength of personality and response.”

It’s also enabled more inventive forms of judging to be trialed. Zinetti recalls that Ebiquity staged a 24-hour performance challenge for one beauty brand – essentially a stress test of the competing agencies’ abilities.

”We tried to replicate what happens day-to-day from a client perspective. You’d get a new brief on Monday and have to have a campaign ready to align on the Tuesday. It’s not about having 20 slides, but about which agencies had understood that brief.”

With less travel involved, account reviews have become far more environmentally sustainable. And video conferencing has made it easier to get the right people together at the same time, in the right frame of mind.

Carpenter says: ”We’ve often seen a bit of a fight to get really senior stakeholders involved at the RFP stage, the chemistry stage ... whereas in a remote pitching environment, when those senior stakeholders haven’t had to get on the train from Manchester and travel halfway around the country for chemistry meetings, they’ve been more present and able to commit to the time required because of the efficiency of the process.”

Denford concurs. ”I can’t think of a marketing team that’s all in the same city. They’ve often got stakeholders dotted around the US. It’s enabled more of the agency to be seen. These meetings aren’t just dominated by some egotistical chief executive talking for too long ... it’s very democratic. Everybody on the client side, everybody on the agency side, has equal space. Everybody’s equally present and there’s no status of hierarchy to us. I’ve really enjoyed that.”

In many cases, agencies and clients have been able to get more time with each other.

Melissa Dorko, chief growth officer at Wunderman Thompson North America, says: ”We’ve had great success dividing briefings, capabilities sessions and check-ins into smaller groups. Creating shorter meetings focused on specific capabilities or pieces of the process allows us to focus on how we can work together, versus telling clients how we’ll work with them.”

Chief marketing officer Amy Bryson reports more participatory pitches have borne fruit for Iris London. ”We believe participation is key to creating progress, and we’ve run some epic virtual workshops (using platforms such as Miro) where global teams have collaborated across time zones and produced speedier solutions to client challenges like never before,” she says.

For Five by Five creative director Ravi Beeharry, the ability to pitch for new business without having to get dressed up is an underrated one. ”There’s something I like about the virtual pitch. My notes up where no one can see them, sitting in my pants and being in the comfort of my own home. It all just feels less stressful and easier via Zoom.”

The negatives, putting aside well-publicized issues with video conferencing, are more subjective. Body language, corporate architecture and personal charisma have been edited out of the process.

For the consultants and clients, that’s no bad thing. ”Chemistry is still something that’s done face-to-face,” says Patel. ”Being able to shake someone’s hand ... building chemistry and getting a better understanding of people. Those elements really do add up. The other side of that is, from an advertiser’s perspective, the concern of the theatrical nature of the way agencies present. They rehearse, they dress up offices, they create a lot of elements to demonstrate their creativity. And sometimes the actual capabilities, the scope of the work that the client really needs to understand if the agency can deliver, can get lost.”

But what about agencies, now expected to perform without their stage magic? For Jaime Robinson, co-founder and chief creative officer at Joan, it’s a welcome change. ”The theatrics are gone, and it may just be the thing that saves our industry. What clients need now are expertise and energy. Expertise, because the world is shifting – digital transformation is accelerating, brands are built differently – and we are in a unique position to bring clarity and perspective. We also bring energy, because let’s face it, everybody is facing some kind of crisis of meaning.”

Gabby Ludzker, chief exec at Rapp, says: ”It’s easy to believe that chemistry loses out to cold hard data in the context of Zoom, but compelling storytelling transcends medium. I believe the pitches that stand out now are the ones that respond to briefs in a much truer way.”

And though there may be fewer theatrics, stage management is still important. Ed Palmer, managing director at indie agency St Luke’s, says: ”It sounds obvious, but rehearsing thoroughly is critical. Only when you’re fully confident in what you’re saying can you let your true personalities come through, and work on those extra creative flourishes and memorable moments that make you stand out from the crowd.” According to Palmer, pre-pitch drilling has helped the business win 11 remote pitches since the first lockdown began.

Could remote pitches be better than face-to-face meetings?

The art of the remote pitch – or how agencies learned to nab billion-dollar accounts from thousands of miles away – has to date rested on a series of compromises between personal safety and comfort, broadband connections, human patience and corporate due diligence. Taking a long view, could it be better than the face-to-face pitch ever was? ID Comms’s Denford certainly thinks so.

”I really struggle to identify what’s lost. It’s just better: it’s more effective, cheaper for everybody and it takes less time ... it’s just good for everybody. I don’t have a downside.”

At Creativebrief, Carpenter says real evidence of results from remote pitches won’t be available for many years to come. ”One of the significant KPIs of success is the longevity of a relationship between brand and agency, and how successful the work is.”

Regardless, he’s hopeful about the potential of remote pitching. ”The pitch process in its current form is still effectively the same as it was 25-30 years ago, yet the market is incredibly different. It’s not really fit for purpose any more and it needs to be leaner, more streamlined, run over a shorter period of time and more iterative. We would like technology to be at the heart of the pitches process ... and to really harness some of the efficiencies we started to see come through amid Covid-19.”

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