Nothing breeds innovation like adversity, and this year has brought a wave of challenges that have pushed agencies to tweak and fine-tune—or rethink entirely—their usual way of doing things. With in-person meetings ruled out and budgets tightened up across the board, agency leaders have had to come up with novel ways to connect with and meet the needs of prospective clients—whether that means shifting offerings, spreading the word or giving a human touch to a seemingly endless stream of Zoom calls. Agencies also have a duty to guide clients through the current cultural moment, helping them evolve in meaningful ways.
“As an agency completely dedicated to helping brands authentically reach people of color, we understand that the social unrest and injustice in the U.S. finally needs to be dealt with,” says Marissa Nance, founder of Los Angeles-based Native Tongue Communications. “It’s during times like these that brands have a unique opportunity, and even a responsibility, to connect with diverse consumers.”
Ultimately, the agencies that have soared above these hurdles have been those willing and able to remain nimble. For some, the key has been finding strength in numbers. “We have started working with other boutique agencies to pitch on bigger projects and make our collective offering more competitive,” says Gina Michnowicz, CEO and ECD at The Craftsman Agency.
Others have found ways to thrive by staying focused on client needs. “Whether it’s an influx of new business or a total shutdown of operations, catering pitches to the way the current moment is impacting brands’ bottom lines has been extremely successful,” says Douglas Brundage, founder of Brooklyn, New York-based Kingsland Consulting, currently in its second year of operation. “Simply put, we abandoned the toolbox, listened to what our clients need to succeed and cater our thinking to address those issues specifically.”
Breaking with monotony
Virtual meetings can feel like a drag—precisely the opposite emotion you want to elicit from a pitch. To beat the boredom, agencies have come up with inventive ways to infuse energy into client meetups. “We’ve focused on ways to include a physical and/or personal element,” says Scott Cullather, president and CEO at New York-based [INVNT GROUP]. “Think virtual trivia, mock-ups in the mail and tech to enhance the experience.”
At Baton Rouge, Louisiana’s ThreeSixtyEight, CEO and Co-Founder Kenny Nguyen has set his sights on the lead-in and the follow-through. “When a proposal is sent, we accompany it with a short video that explains the highlights, and after a pitch, we record ourselves recapping the conversation and how excited we are to work together,” says Nguyen. “These personal touchpoints mean so much more when we can't see each other in person.”
Agencies have also had to grapple with the limitations of the medium—what can and cannot be communicated over the ether. “Not everything plays over video conference the way it does in a room full of people,” says Al Patton, CCO at Atlanta-based Dagger, whose team has gone as far as setting up meeting participants in different conference rooms with complementary backgrounds, lighting, art and plants to create a beautiful screen for clients to look at. “Art directing your Google Meet screen may seem a little over-the-top, but when you think about how tight pitches can be between agencies, every little differentiator matters.”
Repackaging and rethinking offerings
As much as what happens during a pitch matters, so does what occurs behind agency doors long before that meeting takes place. Shifting product offerings has helped agencies account for changing client needs and budgets. “As a small agency, we have the flexibility to explore new tactics continually, testing out a more productized approach to new business, including offering price-tiered or time-boxed engagements to find a mutually suitable starting point to a new relationship in a time of great uncertainty,” says Elliott Phear, CEO of New York-based Night After Night.
Similarly, the approach at Division of Labor has been to repackage services in ways that reach new markets. “We have added a few things that new clients are pretty intrigued by, like flat-rate services that allow smaller clients to see exactly what the engagement will cost and lets them experiment without breaking the bank,” says Founder and Chief Creative Director Josh Denberg, who describes the Sausalito, California-based shop’s new offerings as sort of an “à la carte menu, but for marketing.”
For others, that shift has meant catering to the prospective clients who need support most. “We’re targeting specific types of challenger brands,” says Travis Peters, CEO at Austin, Texas-based EightPM. “To further help these brands during these uncertain times, we are offering more flexibility with contract terms—this seems to be a growing trend.”
The decline of the RFP
Drawn-out, expensive pitches may be a thing of the past by the time this chapter in history comes to a close. “Like other market staples, the pandemic is advancing the decay of the RFP process,” says Hector Silva, CFO and COO at Austin’s Bakery. “It has never really been our practice to take part in competition RFPs, and we don't intend to start now.”
Agencies have been showcasing what they can do for clients in new and inventive ways, successfully side-stepping the typical pitch process. “We are creating a limited run of brands in six divergent industries to demonstrate exactly what we would do in each, so clients can see the approach and there’s no need for an RFP,” says John Trahar, leader of Greatest Common Factory in Austin. This movement away from the traditional approach has benefited smaller, leaner operations—those without dedicated pitching teams and resources allocated to schmooze sessions.
“What’s cool is that in many ways the current environment is a great equalizer,” says Brandon Friesen, CEO at Just Media. “Of course, a critical component is leading with a strong and informed point of view, and we are diligent about adding value beyond the basic RFP response requirements. We developed POV decks on the changing marketing landscape, which we use to help educate clients.”
Agencies like New York’s Lanfranco & Cordova have likewise seen new opportunities crop up. “Big clients are now open to work with smaller but highly skilled agencies like ours. Being flexible and highly creative is actually a great position to be right now,” says Co-Founder and CCO Rolando Cordova.
New rules for pitching in a pandemic
Several agencies have taken a top-down approach to revamp their pitch strategies, putting in place a new set of ground rules. For Brooklyn-based Work & Co., the new rule book involves setting expectations early, using a suite of lightweight tools—think Zoom, Figma and Slack—and embracing informality. “Focusing on a tighter feedback loop and more iterations lead to a better final result,” says Mai Nguyen, the agency’s managing director. “The pandemic is benefiting the client-agency relationship in some ways. We’re less separated from our clients, so we are a true extension of the team, rather than an outside partner.”
At Chicago-based Blue Chip, it’s all about being selective—“Why make the pitch if it’s imperfect?” asks Senior Business Leader Hillary Lytle—providing recommendations beyond the ask, and adjusting casting based on screen appeal. “Screen fatigue compounds the challenge of building chemistry over video chat,” explains Lytle. “By putting forward people who match presence and punch with expertise, we’re able to engage clients with a higher energy. The faster we make the value clear, the livelier the discussion gets and the more scales tilt to yes.”
For Louisville, Colorado-based Voltage, the game plan revolves around sticking to proactive ideas, concise five-page pitch decks and getting serious about discovery sessions. “As a digital agency, we’ve gotten more disciplined about engaging the client in paid sessions to deliver a technical road map and scope before we price anything,” says CEO Eric Fowles. “Unless they already have technical specs, we’re finding this is almost always crucial in setting the right expectations and having a successful project.”
Getting back to what matters most
One upside to all this change—and a common thread through periods of upheaval—has been a return to core values, whether that means a spirit of transparency, a user-first approach or a commitment to creativity. At Brooklyn’s Huge, the pitch process has remained unchanged. “We consider our existing pipeline, the organic growth of our accounts, where we want to add strategic partnerships—in different verticals and core competencies—and then determine what to invest on a per-opportunity basis,” says President Matt Weiss.
Elsewhere, the pandemic has highlighted a need for greater communication. “The biggest change we’ve made is to be even more direct and clear about who we are and what we need,” says Kate Higgins, chief growth officer at San Francisco-based Erich & Kallman. “If the relationship is going to be successful, we need a sense of what that relationship looks like—and it definitely doesn’t look like all of us on camera presenting to 10 client video boxes with and without faces that don’t really engage.”
At Norfolk, Virginia-based Grow, CEO and Chief Creative Officer Drew Ungvarsky attributes their recent success to a renewed commitment to what they do best. “We’re doubling down on our user-first mindset and our core commitment to help brands address real human needs, instead of simply satisfying a brief,” explains Ungvarsky. “This approach also ensures that the business we win now will last beyond the unique COVID environment we all find ourselves in.”
Similarly, at Birmingham, Alabama-based Big Communications, the pandemic has provided an opportunity to showcase their strengths across geographical divides. “The importance of proximity has been replaced by capabilities. The question is not, ‘How can an agency in Alabama work with us?’ It is now ‘Tell us how you plan to solve our problem,’” says Niki Lim, director of business development. “We have to bring the creative energy, agility and sense of urgency to showcase our willingness to get in the trenches with them.”