Last month, the shop -- the interactive unit of Austin, Texas-based advertising and marketing agency SicolaMartin -- pitched and won business to overhaul IBM Corp.'s eNetwork On-Demand Education CD-ROM without ever meeting face-to-face with any eNetwork executives.
Instead, the agency used a password-protected extranet that only it and IBM could access to deliver its presentation. Only after IBM awarded SicolaMartin the job did the two sides meet to sign the deal.
Admittedly, doing everything online "was a first for us and for IBM," says Pete Hayes, VP-general manager, SicolaMartin Interactive.
In the last several months, the company has won new business using similar pitch approaches. The division has picked up Citrix Systems, which markets multiuser application server software, and Du Pont Photomasks, which markets high-precision quartz plates that contain microscopic images of electronic circuits and are key in the manufacture of semiconductors.
But that doesn't mean personal meetings are becoming less important, especially in the relationship-driven world of marketing.
"I don't think that face-to-face meetings with the client will ever disappear, but this certainly showed the client our ability to do the job just by viewing the work site," says Mr. Hayes. "In this case, it was just what this client needed."
Within a week of receiving the project parameters from IBM, SicolaMartin posted its proposal, complete with primary market research, a breakdown of tactical phases and a detailed budget.
A happy client
"It's like my own personal Web site," says Carol Smith, manager of the IBM eNetwork Software Interactive Education unit, Raleigh, N.C.
"They clearly showed me they could work in the media I wanted, which was a Web- and Java-based implementation, as well as handle the content I wanted."
Ms. Smith had previously heard of SicolaMartin Interactive from another IBM subsidiary and made the first contact with the agency.
From there, "everything was online," she says.
"This is the first time we've done business this way, but I felt extremely comfortable for two key reasons," Ms. Smith says. "Although they were not known to me, they had a good reputation within IBM. Also, they were able to respond very quickly to my bid, in a timely fashion and in a professional manner."
For IBM, SicolaMartin is redesigning the existing Enterprise Communications CD-ROM. This includes new navigation, new architecture, interface and some content, culling 14,000 pieces of content down to about 5,000.
The new eNetwork On-Demand Education CD-ROM, aimed at both IBM employees and resellers of IBM software, will be designed as a hybrid disk, with access both to the Web and a direct link to the IBM site. Content updates will be delivered to users via the Internet.
IBM declined to say what its budget is for the eNetwork CD-ROM; SicolaMartin Interactive accounts for 25% of the entire agency's $44 million in billings, says Mr. Hayes.
Face-to-face still reigns
These Web-only pitches are still in their infancy, and clearly companies that are already immersed in high technology are more likely to feel comfortable using the Internet for such purposes.
"There's absolutely no reason why Web-based pitches couldn't apply to any client," says Mr. Hayes. "What it comes down to is whether it is a convenient medium for the client. It's not convenient if the client has to dial into the Internet or doesn't use the Web in daily work, but for a growing number of companies, whether they're in high tech or not, it's standard to be on the Web during the day."
However, there is no substitute for face-to-face meetings to establish relationships, and for this reason, Michael Donahue, exec VP, American Association of Advertising Agencies, says: "I don't think that virtual pitches will become a major trend. I can see where the use of an intranet or extranet could be useful in the credentials part of a [new-business] pitch, where an agency needs to get a lot of information to a client quickly.
"It's conceivable, too, that when bandwidth becomes greater than it is now, agencies will be able to transfer full-motion video and other sophisticated graphics. There's no question that at the early stages of a pitch, a virtual relationship can save valuable time," he adds.
Beyond Stage 1
"But once it's beyond the initial stage, it becomes very much a relationship between the client and the agency," Mr. Donohue says. "Many times work is done and pitches are made over the Web, but there is a previous relationship that exists."
What the Internet truly does is allow projects to move forward rapidly, agrees Mark Templeton, VP-worldwide marketing, Citrix Systems, Fort Lauderdale, Fla., another SicolaMartin client, which is "virtually" working with the ad agency on a complete overhaul of the company's marketing communications.
"Frankly, at first I didn't think it would work," he says "I thought it was just a trendy thing to do, that nothing substantive could happen nor could anything really replace face-to-face communication. I have been pleasantly surprised at what we can accomplish over the Internet and the telephone."