In a matter of days, the agency world turned upside down because of the coronavirus. Suddenly, everyone was working from home, events and travel were canceled and the traditional in-person pitch meeting went virtual.

Agencies needed to act fast. 

Pitch meetings have been the same for many years: travel to the client’s location, set up the room with food, freebies or pieces of creative and be sure to make eye contact. But in a virtual environment, many of the usual tactics are off the table.

“It’s all about perfecting the art of live video,” said Wendy Lund, CEO of GCI Health. “We would get really creative bringing in things like food or placemats, those things that you bring into the room to create some drama or theater, but you can’t do that. For us, it’s been about keeping it simple and making sure the ideas come through, the technology comes through and the passion comes through.”

With Zoom pitches, sometimes the little things are what can make the meeting more engaging. VMLY&R Health chief business officer Howard Courtemanche offered a few tips after participating in more than 10 virtual pitches.

“It’s everything from the angle of the camera, standing up rather than sitting down, make sure the light isn’t coming behind you,” he said. “There’s also things like having just one person clicking the slides, who knows the cadence of the speaker. Our new business person knows when I stop talking, they count ‘one-two’ and then click, as opposed to saying ‘next slide.’”

The solution is simply rehearsing. Courtemanche said his teams have never rehearsed more for their pitches. Even with all the extra preparation, making connections via video chat is much more difficult.

The typical pre-meeting chit-chat is often lost in video calls. Even designated time for Q&A can go unused, Courtemanche has noticed. Potential clients simply aren’t asking as many questions in video pitches as in an in-person pitch.

In order to help the potential client get to know the team, pre-submission videos have become much more important.

“Knowing that it can be harder to convey chemistry in a virtual environment, which is really crucial to selecting an agency, we created a video of each person on the team that’s shared with prospective clients in advance,” said Jessie McDonald, VP at Imre Health. “That gives them an idea of our personality and helps our capabilities and creativity shine through.”

A perk of the virtual environment is that it allows more people to participate in the pitch. Courtemanche has been able to bring in people across offices to virtual pitches and has found it still “comes off like you’re in one room,” he said.

Lund has found virtual pitches allow more time to focus on the content, rather than travel logistics, booking meeting rooms or ordering catering.

“All the behind the scenes things that the client never sees, we take that time and throw it back into the presentation,” she said. 

A major drawback can be the technology itself. Video conferencing software can be finicky with dropped calls, spotty Wi-Fi and wonky audio and video.

McDonald said her teams always have a backup prepared. If the video call crashes, they are all ready to dial in on their phones in order to keep the pitch running smoothly, which she said has happened. With everyone working from home, there’s also the constant risk of dogs barking or kids barging into the room.

“We have definitely had our fair share of interruptions, like cats meowing,” McDonald said. “Sometimes it’s actually nice. It brings some levity to the conversation. This pandemic and the need to conduct virtual business has leveled the playing field and reminded everyone we’re all human.”

Lund has noticed a similar trend. She has found prospective clients are far more understanding and patient with technology issues or unexpected interruptions then ever.

“When we have had technology meltdowns, clients are very understanding of how hard that is,” Lund said. “When there was a technology glitch in the past, I don’t know if they had the same patience as they do now. We’re all perfecting the technology. Clients have been really amazing and extremely patient and understanding. Everybody wants it to work. Everybody wants these things to go well and we’re all learning from it.”