Industry experts share their view on how to create chemistry in a virtual, COVID-19 landscape.

There is one thing that shows no real sign of slowing down amid the coronavirus madness: Pitches.

Aside from a shift to video conferences and a few meetings which have been put on hold, industry insiders paint a picture of full steam ahead.

But this new world will require a new way of working. We asked those in the know to share best pitching practices for the foreseeable future.

As coronavirus continues to spread, many marketers are moving their in-person pitches to phone calls or video-conferences. How can agencies still create chemistry during these virtual RFP processes?

Stephanie Nadi Olson, Founder of We Are Rosie

Since I’ve been working remotely and facilitating remote jobs for the last two years, I feel called to emphasize that remote work isn’t “less than” physically present work. It just means tweaking many of our old-school processes and assumptions about how work has to happen to accommodate virtual working styles. Creative collaboration is absolutely possible without borders. Creativity at We Are Rosie is abundant, and I see it every day on our Slack, video chats, and the creative solutions we deliver to clients.

My best advice is to have fun with it! Personality and authenticity are such an important part of building and marketing a brand right now. This is actually a great time for agencies to showcase their ability to go with the cultural flow to continue to deliver timely, thoughtful, emotionally connected solutions for their clients.

Video chats to prep and workshop are going to be critical at this time, acknowledging the COVID-19 elephant in the room both internally and with the client are musts, and showcasing personality in unique ways are going to show the client that your team has their head in the game, even in the midst of all of this uncertainty and change. This is not business as usual and we should be trying to make our pitch fit into the old pitch-paradigm. Times are changing, so put those creative chops to work.

Lisa Colantuono, President at AAR Partners

Bottom line – a camera on a conference room table with a group of people on screen doesn’t create engagement. Agencies need to rethink their video capabilities and start with making sure each team member is front and center and clearly expresses their enthusiasm for the brand and more importantly, assignment. It is also vital for each team member to highlight a sense of who they are as a person since you’re not in-person. Suggestion – take an on screen acting class!

Joanne Davis, President at Joanne Davis Consulting

Virtual RFP processes aren’t new and many consultants, other service providers and even agencies are hired sight unseen.

You can have better chemistry by phone and video conference than in a flat or over produced in person meeting.

Many enjoy music for the ear regardless of seeing it. Of course Hamilton, West Side Story and any great musical is for both senses but you still enjoy and appreciate if only hearing.

For clients reading this: offer technology to at least see them on a video conference.

For agencies reading: Bring the chemistry to your voice and use dimension in your voice so they “see you.” Send a video, photo, something to make a connection.

Years ago, one of our clients asked me why agency semifinals had to be 90 minutes long. He said: “I know in the first couple of minutes if I like someone and have confidence in them.”

Agencies: Use your first couple of minutes wisely.

Greg Paull, Founder and Principal at R3 Worldwide 

Chemistry is a natural, authentic process. The best teams exude it whether it is face to face or over a video call. Agencies need to show the power of real collaboration amongst themselves first before they extend that to their clients and prospects.

Daniel Jeffries of Jeffries Consulting

Be succinct
It’s hard enough to keep clients engaged and interested when a pitch is in-person, but that challenge is multiplied when the pitch is remote

Be clear
Test your pitch in a remote environment (get someone to dial in and listen) and see how each of your speakers sound/present remotely.  Ditch the speakers who are not clear as there is nothing worse than mumbling to lose the client’s interest

Shorten the deck
Keeping the client interested will be tough enough so don’t drown them in content – remember that they will be easier distracted than normal (kids at home, multitasking etc.)

Make it more of a conversation
Engage, engage, engage!! Do all you can to bring the client’s into the conversation – they will feel more engaged if they are able to take part – you may need to redesign your approach for this but it will be beneficial

Use this opportunity as a way of demonstrating your ability to operate remotely with success

This is the best test case for clients to see how they will work with an agency remotely so use it as a platform to show off your tech/processes and approach

Don’t let the tech let you down!
Nothing worse than tech that doesn’t work so test test test!

Tracey Barber, Global CMO, Havas Creative Group

These are unprecedented times and all of us are adapting rapidly and rethinking approaches and expectations. However, what is clear, is that culture and talent are the two fundamental components which differentiate agencies. Afterall aren’t each of us just buildings full of people? Chemistry is created by a team – how they interact, how much they like and support each other, how passionate they are about a client’s business. I am obsessed about creating winning teams and a ‘gang’ who work together.

That’s why Havas is successfully getting on more and more pitches. I believe that the same rules apply whether you are face-to-face or virtual. Agencies need to ensure they have the best people together, that they genuinely get on, and that they give a damn about the client. To be honest, we may learn some interesting lessons through a greater use of technology and using more virtual tools for client and agency engagement.

What about one-to-one Zoom calls, more personal interaction, and a lot more open discussion and transparency? It feels to me that collaboration is even more important – quicker feedback, smarter responses, real time changes, engaging creative more directly. We need to be agile and smart. We need more partnership than proposal.

Tom Denford, CEO, ID Comms Inc. 

Chemistry and empathy can still exist, whatever the channel of communication. In fact denying ourselves face to face contact right now may make us pay more attention to the smaller things, the tone of voice, the kindness, the gestures, a turn of phrase, a nice page layout.

Brands that are familiar and trusted will matter more and relationships forged in these testing times will be the most solid. Even those created using Webex.

That sense of a shared experience, of overcoming challenges together will bring us closer and make us all more human to work with, and more empathetic.

We may look back and consider that we created some of the best, most productive and creative and inspiring business relationships we ever had.

Marketing is an industry vastly adaptable and doggedly entrepreneurial. Operations and locations may be unusual, but we are largely business as usual. The meetings will continue. The pitches will be won and the resulting great work will inspire success in new ways we would not have considered were it not for this current disruption.

Andy Nathan, Founder & CEO of independent creative agency Fortnight Collective

We have multiple pitch meetings this week. One was ported over to video conference while the other is most likely going to be postponed. While a virtual RFP process is not ideal, the best thing you can do is put on a brave face and stay the course. With that said, lean into tech.

Lay out your pitch plan in advance – speaking roles, anticipate potential issues before they happen, etc. And keep it moving to avoid the expected dreaded silent pauses. And avoid the mute button – it is just an excuse to get distracted. That said, you need to stick to what got you to the RFP in the first place.

In our case, I believe it’s our strong reputation, our creative work, our collaborative business model and our ability to adapt in all situations. And be human. Show empathy. Provide levity. Don’t sweat a small glitch that most likely would also happen in person. Any agencies true colors will come out in the virtual RFP process – for good or for bad.

Maggie O. Connors, EVP, Head of Business Development, Deutsch NY

It’s important to have a moment of humanity and acknowledge this unprecedented situation we are in. Don’t breeze over the difficulties, acknowledge the possible anxiety and reassure that we’re going to get through it together.

Be Calm and pitch on
It’s important to show your prospective client that you remain calm under pressure. Zoom not working perfectly? Laugh it off. One of your team member’s connection isn’t clear and they keep cutting out? Chime in and help to fill in the blanks. Cool and collected under pressure always speak volumes.

Always be responsible
No matter what, virtual will not be as seamless as in-person. Be reasonable about what you think can work. Have videos to show? Send them prior so clients can download vs. playing over WIFI where buffering may be an issue. Have eight people presenting? Cut the team in half, if not more. Be reasonable about what your team can do and what is truly essential to win.

You’ve got mail
What can you make, print and send? It may seem archaic, but can you print out a portion of your presentation, so they have something non-digital to review? Something about a tangible, hefty piece of paper seems so assuring in a time when we’re all at the mercy of WIFI.

Make it fun
Your kids run through your home office, or your dog jumps onto your lap? That’s perfect! It becomes a moment to still have fun and laugh! Be yourself, as nothing creates more chemistry than a smiling face on the other side of the screen.

Michael Goldberg, CEO, Zimmerman

Attack the problem, not the opportunity. Think about it. If a pitch continues in the age of Corona, there is likely a real issue to solve for not just an ambitious itch to scratch. It is not about the “want” deliverables (output based), it is much more about “need” deliverables (outcome based.) Now more than ever, you earn the opportunity by showing a real, projectable solve to the problem. Pitch meetings in the age of Corona should transform from getting them to buy to helping them believe.

Sure, we send more content in advance. Sure, we understand the value of icebreakers. Sure we try and make them at ease so chemistry can take over, but genuine business empathy is more important than any of that. And while we all hope that this condition is a very short chapter in our path, the lessons to business can be more profound.

Bill McEllen, Partner, Fingerpaint

Before you can create chemistry with the people on the other side of the phone or screen, you need to make sure there is good chemistry with the people on your own team. We are very lucky at Fingerpaint that our people-first approach fosters a natural foundation for a cohesive, team-oriented community among all of our offices.

During a virtual RFP, especially when it’s a telephone-only one, make sure you keep the people on the other end engaged. To help achieve this, make sure your presentation easily translates over the phone, and identify potential problem areas, such as one person talking for too long. Keep it simple and to the point.

Constantly check in with your audience. Reading the room is an important part of creating chemistry. I typically encourage questions and interaction during any of our presentations. When your audience is remote, it’s important for you to facilitate that. I told the group last week, “I know there will be a number of people politely raising their hands, but I won’t be able to see them.”

Stand up during your presentation, just like you would if it were in person. It’s very difficult to present passionately from a seated position. Put your chair in the corner, and walk around the room.

Claude Zdanow, Founder & CEO, The Stadiumred Group

We are in a time where we are pitching clients now either on the phone or through video calls. For Stadiumred Group, we always try to go for video calls but avoid doing group video calls with multiple people featured in one camera. Having a group video call, where a bunch of people are sitting around a table staring into one camera, tends to leave everyone feeling like they are staring into an abyss of a room with no direct eye contact, and it takes away from the importance of creating chemistry from person to person. Even if we’re all sitting in the same room, we encourage our team members to each dial into the video conference with their own cameras. This way, when someone is speaking, we can really make eye contact and develop relationships directly. Another thing we encourage is making sure everyone is focused on the meeting and avoids being in commute or calling in when they can be on video instead. Overall, it is easy to be on a computer and be distracted by other things going on, but it’s imperative that everyone turns off nonessential notifications going into a virtual pitch meeting and that everyone who is on the video call has a speaking role as part of the meeting. This keeps a good flow and strong engagement despite being virtual.

Leeann Leahy, CEO, The VIA Agency

It certainly is a wild world we are living in! The conference calls and Zoom meetings are in full force and in so many ways it is business as usual.

Pitches are continuing in this new world as well. We are getting RFP’s daily.  Admittedly they have new and shifting timelines because no one knows what’s happening next in this environment. Yes, the pitches are different because we can’t meet in person and we’re at the mercy of technology. So that’s the first thing agencies need to ensure…that the technology works! We need to be seamless and select systems that become invisible so the team and the content shine.

The team is crucial in a virtual pitch. When you start with a great culture it translates online naturally. Casting people who are a genuine team who can already finish each other’s sentences is key. There is no interrupting in video conferences so the team needs to have a sense of natural cadence and know when their teammates are ready to “pass the baton” intuitively. You can’t fake this.

Rehearsals are important. See above points about technology and team.

Finally, this is a time and virtual is a format where simplicity matters. Show only the most focused thinking and ideas that can be communicated quickly and in the most concise way.  Of course, these are usually the best ideas anyway…if you have to over-explain it, what are you making up for?