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Next slide please: a guide to pitching in lockdown

From tech troubles to toddler tantrums, experience tells us that whatever can go wrong on a virtual pitch usually will. So, how can you head-off Zoom gloom and deliver a pristine presentation from home? That Lot’s creative chief David Levin invites his fellow agency survivalists to share their hard-earned lessons for giving a remote pitch without a hitch. Here are their top tips.

Virtual pitching is a bit like eating hummus with chopsticks: entirely possible, maybe even a little exciting, but definitely not normal.

Our agency has done a lot of it during lockdown (pitching, not chopstick-hummus). Despite the twisted hellscape of 2020, RFPs seemed to keep popping up like Joe Wicks doing star-jumps, and it occurred to me during our most recent one (while I was attempting to kick a pair of pants out of shot in the middle of my rousing introduction) that virtual pitching is – to use a technical term – batshit bonkers, and that we’ll probably be pitching this mad way for the next seven lockdowns.

So, I put out a tweet to see if seasoned pitchologists from other agencies wanted to share lockdown-pitch experiences – a bit like an inter-agency self-help group – and lo and behold, I was inundated with gold. (Note: I would’ve gladly included all your responses in this article, but sadly The Drum wouldn’t let me submit 29,000 words.) So, kindly place yourselves on mute for the next few minutes. If there’s nobody still waiting in the lobby, I shall begin. Next slide please.

Firstly, hello. I’m Dave, one of the founders of That Lot, a multi award-winning social media agency making super-relatable, thumb-stopping, platform-specific content that cuts through… (sorry, I slipped into pitching mode there) and in the spirit of getting our inter-agency self-help group rolling, here’s my first tip. If you decide to get your one-year-old dressed during a Zoom presentation with 107 people on the call, make sure you haven’t accidentally unmuted yourself before you ask said daughter “ooh, have you done a poo?”. Apologies again to the presenter.

OK, my first real tip is: the people in the room/Zoom are only as good as the team behind them. We’re lucky to have a passionate, brilliant, focused team who seem to be able to go without sleep for several nights before a pitch and survive on a diet of crisps, Nespresso and PowerPoint.

I think it’s also worth taking a minute to applaud every agency person reading this who has been involved in delivering a pitch during lockdown. Whether you won it or not, if you step back for a second and think about the challenges you’ve had to overcome to pull off an actual pitch during an actual pandemic, it’s pretty staggering. And most of you who won those pitches have gone on to deliver great content and campaigns for people you’ve never actually met in real life (despite them seeing your bedroom). Which, again, is nuts. We don’t spend much time as agencies recognising other agencies, but this article is a virtual Covid-safe elbow-tap to all of you.

The hard stuff

Fundamentally, pitching is about people buying people. And the most common complaint about lockdown pitching is the lack of chemistry. It’s a lot harder to read the room and often you can’t see or hear reactions, which means banter can go down like a maskless cough in a lift. As Brian Brady from TMW notes: “Watching 12 webcams get turned off in quick succession when I started talking – that was a highlight.”

On this note, Katie Buckett from One Fifty has an appeal to clients. “I would like to ask everyone client-side to turn their cameras on – it’s odd when they don’t. Also consider not muting, or definitely interrupting. Otherwise it’s like presenting to your cat.”

If you feel it’s too difficult to build chemistry without a physical connection, perhaps you could courier a plaster mould of your hand for the client to shake just before the presentation? OK no, that’s a terrible idea. Which is fine because James Crawford from PR Agency One thinks “chemistry matters less now, and pitching is more about the strategy, creativity and your reputation”.

Carrie Rose from Rise At Seven says it’s all about the energy: “Getting enthusiasm across a screen has been so much harder than in real life.” She adds: “Best piece of advice: spend the first 15 minutes chatting without a slide deck taking over the screen. Let people be people and connect.”

Another issue is unpredictability. Tech hiccups are pretty standard in all types of pitches, but your microwave exploding behind you just as you reveal an important slide (Jennifer Robinson at Spey), your four-year-old crashing a virtual pitch “to hand me a bunch of flowers she’d picked for me for ‘being the best mummy’” (Kristina Ryan at Mr H), or a workman falling off a roof mid-pitch (Ten Thousand Hours) is quite different. Perhaps the workman took “next slide please” a little too literally.

But the award for Best In-Pitch Improvisation goes to… Steven Strickland from Talker Tailor. “I couldn’t get my Teams to work properly because I hadn’t updated my computer,” he says. “So spent the first 10 minutes doing a pitch by writing it on a pad and showing it at the screen.”

Lockdown pitching definitely requires a lot of thinking on your feet. Pitch innovation used to be about unveiling a unique strategy or a cutting-edge piece of content. Now, it’s about your Ocado delivery arriving mid-pitch and you incorporating the driver into your presentation.

The smart stuff

Virtual pitching requires a higher level of coordination, communication and timing. Pitch structure is more important than ever because it’s so much easier to lose people on a video call than in an actual room with biscuits. If things start to drag, their attention will disappear quicker than Donald Trump’s Twitter account after a coup. So, it’s unsurprising that so many of you flagged the importance of keeping slides to a minimum. Having hundreds of pitch slides is like having hundreds of tequilas. It may be tempting at the time, but it’s guaranteed to end in tears. And trust me, being stopped mid-pitch because you’re out of time is more awkward than watching episode five of Bridgerton with your mum.

“Nobody has ever said ‘there weren’t enough slides in that presentation’. Ever!” says the AAR’s Annual Report. “The best agencies are cutting down on the number of slides in favour of encouraging more discussion.”

Garrett Deary from We Are Social feels lockdown has taken us back to basics. The lack of schmoozing means “everything is stripped away and it is all about the work. Is this such a bad thing? I’d say, emphatically no.” He adds: “I would argue this has sharpened the focus on the response, the detail, the clarity, the rigour and the roadmap to solving the problem within the brief.”

Many replies, such as one from Mark McMeekin at Agy47, mentioned the need to avoid trampling on the flow of your pitch-mates. Constantly interrupting each other won’t do you many favours. It’ll make your pitch feel like a bad episode of Question Time. This is where rehearsals are key, obviously, but it’s also worth deciding who in the pitch team will own which areas for questions.

You need to think about your backgrounds. Not just virtual ones if you’re into those, but what’s literally behind you in the room you’re pitching in. It may feel unimportant, but it gives clients a sense of who you are. For example, my novelty pillow with mine and my wife’s faces on it, which someone pointed out during a pitch, potentially says: “This guy is a bit of a bin-lid” (hence the pillow is now facing the wall). Whereas a subtly positioned D&AD pencil on a bedside table, or photo of you high-fiving Michelle Obama, is a different matter entirely.

Even before we went virtual, my co-founder, David Schneider, always joked that you should choose the seat in the room that’s in front of the awards, so the potential client makes the subconscious connection. This may be why you’ll always find him flanked by impressive books and comedy awards on calls. Even if it’s just Sainsbury’s ringing to confirm his click and collect.

Charlie Martyn, from Wunderman Thompson, has some rousing words about the new normal: “Yes, everyone has said it, but tech transformation has accelerated. Good news! It was always going to happen, it just happened more quickly and we bossed it.” He adds: “I now cannot imagine not having 12 people editing the same deck at the same time while our hero of a designer mops up behind them all. And juggling 17 devices at once, a Teams presentation, a WhatsApp side chat and a live feedback form. Easy.”

One big plus to virtual pitching is that you’re able to secretly chat with your pitch team during the pitch. A benefit praised by Lee Beattie from Wire. “We’ve absolutely loved pitching during lockdown,” says Lee. “I love that we can all WhatsApp each other during the presentation. We once changed an entire idea while mid-pitch. We’ve won more work pitching over Zoom this year than in any other year – shows you that when the bells and whistles of paying for expensive ‘dressing’ and lunches are gone, people are more likely to just buy the best ideas. Mainly ours. Don’t include that last line. Or do. Because I meant it.”

The contrast between our calm smiling on-camera faces and the WhatsApp chats happening secretly out of shot (“Mate, you need to hurry up! We’ve got 47 slides left to do in three minutes!!!”) is remarkable.

Another talking point was whether pitch theatre has a role in virtual pitching. Many said “hell no”, stating it feels weird or pointless in a remote setting. But us lot have found there’s still room for creative stunts despite the shackles of lockdown. One of our biggest pitches last year, for Spotify, contained a Google Hangouts music-themed gameshow as a way to intro the team. It definitely helped with the aforementioned energy and chemistry, and we won – so it can’t have been too horrendous. (Unless we won despite it and they were too polite to say.)

Notorious V.I.D

If, like us, video output is a huge part of your offering, it’s likely you’ll want to include some killer video in your pitch – possibly video-based pitch theatre. In non-pandemic times, that’s something we focus on pretty heavily. For example, in our Prime Video pitch, our mighty production team edited us founders into a superhero trailer inspired by the Amazon Original series, The Boys, culminating in Dave S falling out of the sky and landing outside Amazon’s office.

But at present, video comes with risks attached. Will it be able to play properly, without lag, on the designated virtual pitch platform? Will it land virtually like it would have done in a meeting room on a huge screen with fat speakers? Is it worth the investment? These are questions we’ve been asking ourselves ahead of recent pitches and to be honest, I think we’ve got it right in some and wrong in others.

My main advice, if you are considering a hero video, would be to double/triple/n-tuple check the best practices, tips and hacks for playing video on the platform you’re pitching on. And practice it. Just hoping it’ll be fine on the day is, as Jamiroquai might say, virtual insanity.

Tips of the top variety

Before I leave you, here are a few tip-top shit-hot lockdown pitch tips. You’re welcome.

Pitch not going well? A full-bodied malbec pairs perfectly with the discreet capacity of a Sports Direct mug. Or you could just abandon the deck and do your ’Pick of the Poptastic 70s Quiz’ you made for your uncle’s birthday.

It’s worth having a dedicated team member focusing purely on the chat function, replying to any mid-pitch questions that are posted by the client. At present, you essentially need to community manage your own pitch. We hadn’t planned for that in one of our recent pitches and thusly found ourselves clambering to respond to the questions between us while trying not to cock up the actual presentation.

“Check your username on your profile if you’ve been using it for night-time family quizzing,” says Karen Lewis from Strat7. “My colleague managed to Zoom-pitch to a client as ‘I’m dad’s favourite’…”

Agency legend Barney Worfolk Smith has this nugget: “I’ve used a bespoke Zoom background with an agenda written on it before a pres. Bit cheesy, but you know me!” (I know him)

Hannah Schneider from That Lot (great agency) has a schitt-hot tip. “Tell your parents to not be streaming an episode of Schitt’s Creek during the pitch, otherwise you’ll be pitching to what looks like an audience of Minecraft characters.”

Meanwhile, Gasp agency spoke of using virtual rooms to structure the session. “Meet n’ greet in reception, through to boardroom, dive into studio, back to boardroom etc,” they said. “Helps prompt the right focus. Haven’t found a way of booting them down the stairs though.”

Bit more gold from AAR’s Annual Report: “Seeing your name in your picture tile is good, but seeing what you do is better! Remember, clients will be meeting your team alongside others and they’ll appreciate it if you can help them to remember who you are and what you do.” AAR also recommends setting up a private virtual meeting room for clients to huddle in before the pitch and before the Q&A so they can consolidate thoughts/questions/insults without requiring a separate chat.

James Whatley at Digitas has a cracker. “Yeah, sex is good, but have you ever figured out how to present on PowerPoint through Teams and have the video of your participants visible on the second screen? Because I have and the world has changed!!!” See James for details.

Or there’s this from Joel Symour-Hyde at Octagon: “A tactical appearance by a small child can work wonders to lighten the mood in a pitch, but is fraught with risk.” This wisdom is seconded by James Cuff at BrandContent who tweeted: “I joined my agency in May. I did my first pitch, to my old employer, with my daughter on my shoulders. We won it though, so lucky charm. Although I won’t be trying to replicate it any time soon.” (See here for photographic evidence of James’s triumphant shoulders.)

And David Fraser from Ready 10 has a simple recipe for victory. “When I wear shorts, I win pitches. It’s taken me 17 years to work out my superpower.”

Final thought

One last piece of advice from me. If you have a big virtual pitch coming up, remember the same rule applies as normal pitching: if you’re feeling nervous, imagine everyone on-screen is naked. And if they are naked, you’ve probably got the wrong tab open.

And on that note, we appear to have run out of time. Happy to send you this article in PowerPoint form to look over at your leisure, with costings, an appendix and 26 blue-sky stretch ideas.

Any questions? OK great.

Bye!

PS: This just in from a client who shall remain nameless. “We can see you WhatsApping each other. It’s impressive that you don’t need to look down to do it, but we can tell!”

David Levin is executive creative director at That Lot, the social agency for the likes of Prime Video, Spotify UK and Have I Got News For You.

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