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Going Virtual: Technology Not Seen as Substitution for Touch

Despite Proliferation of Video-Conferencing Tools, Teams Still Require Personal Contact

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If the need arises, Dojo's team in San Francisco can have face time with clients in Europe at the drop of a hat.

That's the beauty of the 2-year-old agency's extensive video-conference setup, said Managing Director Tiffany Coletti Titolo. "We can present to a client in Fremont, Calif., or in Switzerland without losing days to travel or wasting a client's money."

Dojo uses a Logitech product for video chats.
Dojo uses a Logitech product for video chats.

Dojo has invested in telepresence (where table-level screens make it appear that those attending and those tuning are sitting at the same table) and other tools. It also uses technology from one of its clients, Logitech, for video chats a couple of times a day.

In an industry once famous for three-martini lunches, virtual communication has become ubiquitous as more agencies and clients scale back on travel. The question is if something's lost when business is done virtually.

"Face-to-face contact is important," said Jessica Birk, senior VP-group director of media strategy at ID Media. "You brainstorm and have think-tank sessions, and while you can do that virtually, there's something about the bonding when you're in the same room."

Industry execs report a spike in new-business reviews conducted via teleconference. But McGarryBowen said it largely declines to participate in pitches without meeting with clients personally, and Interpublic Group of Cos.' Mullen agency echoed that .

"We need to meet to see if there's good chemistry between the teams," said Kristen Cavallo, Mullen's chief strategy officer. "But we're willing to do a teleconference briefing, especially for a global piece of business, after meeting in person."

Still, there's a sense that virtual tools can help tighten agency-client bonds.

"We're seeing a high level of collaboration, not just for selling products but for selling ideas," said Henry Dewing, principal analyst for next-generation communications at Forrester Research. According to a 2011 Forrester report, video is used more to aid collaboration than to replace in-person meetings.

Virtual agencies, with no fixed offices, go further. Red Rocket, the U.K.'s Drew Agency and a consortium of creatives called The Virtual Agency launched to connect ad people in different regions to serve clients anywhere.

As early as the 1990s, Jay Chiat tested a virtual office, arming staffers with mobile phones and laptops to do business remotely. Employees revolted, and TBWA/Chiat/Day returned to a physical-office operation.

CEO Tom Bedecarre of San Francisco-based AKQA said that he believes "human behavior hasn't changed" -- and one of his high-tech clients would seem to agree.

Toward the end of a pitch process full of teleconferences and Skype sessions for Verizon Wireless' digital account, John Harrobin, its VP-marketing communications and customer-relationship management, showed up at AKQA last month. He wanted a conference call with his teams in New Jersey and Atlanta for a routine check-in.

It was anything but routine. Mr. Harrobin "pulled out a card that said "Welcome to the Verizon family' and handed me a box of Droids for the pitch team," Mr. Bedecarre said. "The personal connection meant a lot to me and the agency -- that [John] wanted that big moment to be a human moment."

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