Time to Kill the Agency 'Lunch and Learn'

Why Do We Have to Sit Through a Sales Pitch to Get to the 'Learning' Part?

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Are there any two activities agency executives like more than lunching and learning? It's a staple of agency culture. And it may be time to kill it off.

Here's how the lunch and learns typically work:

1. A vendor keeps pestering a media planner, strategist or some other contact to do a meeting with the team.

2. At some point, the agency executive gives in and accepts it. Lunch usually becomes part of when either the vendor or agency executive fears that no one will show up unless the meeting is catered.

3. The meeting starts, with better-than-average turnout. There's casual chitchat as people grab lunch for 10 minutes. Then there are introductions, which take longer with the better-than-average turnout. Add another five minutes to get the projector warmed up, and it's 20 minutes before the presentation begins. At the 30-minute mark, some people duck out to their next meeting. The vendor saves the live demo for last, when the room empties. A few more people show up at the end to pilfer a sandwich before the tray moves to a common area.

4. A couple days later, the vendor gets around to sending the deck. A couple days after that , the agency's meeting host gets around to sending it to the attendees and invitees. The collateral is promptly filed to that proverbial cabinet that includes "War and Peace," "The Economist" and all of those other things one will read when there's more time.

There are two big problems with the lunch and learn, both of which can be fixed, albeit with some creative effort.

The first problem is waste. Most of the people showing up to the session are nominally curious in what's going on, which is great -- curiosity should be rewarded as a virtue. But they're not motivated to lean forward and participate. If it's catering that 's getting people to show up, then it's the extrinsic reward rather than intrinsic drive that shapes their experience. Yes, a couple people may walk away a little bit smarter, but often no smarter than if they reviewed an email with a link to the vendor's site and a 10-slide deck. That self-paced learning takes five minutes rather than an hour. In the lunch and learn, the only thing that isn't wasted is the lunch.

The second problem is education. There is very little teaching going on in a lunch and learn. At the risk of triggering all kinds of defense mechanisms from thin-skinned salespeople, why does learning usually involve sitting through a canned pitch? The learning needs to be about more than how great a vendor's company is . What problems is it trying to solve? What are the broader trends that will shape the vendor's future? What's the vision that will not just help agency attendees do their jobs nominally better today but will excite them to build the groundwork toward a more fulfilling future?

There are ways to overcome both of these challenges.

The first need is to minimize waste. As someone who books a lot of vendor meetings, I've been trying to continually narrow the focus on who attends and work with department heads to make sure the most relevant individuals are in the room. This could mean inviting just a handful of individuals from specific departments, or it could mean matching up the vendor with a core team working on a specific account. There was one vendor I've been casually talking to for years whom my agency never worked with. Recently, we both got smarter, and during a phone call we discovered one client that seemed to be the best fit. The account manager scheduled a meeting a few days later, and a couple weeks after that the media manager came by to tell me a trial is in the works. If it proves promising, the results will then spread internally.

The second need is learning. I caught up with someone who just joined one of the better known mobile startups recently, and she was trying to figure out how to best serve our agency. She wanted to craft some specific ideas for select accounts, and we came up with the top targets, so the first challenge was addressed. Yet it was also clear that there were some significant shifts in consumer behavior that were driving the success of her company, and she had the data to show how. During what I thought would be a typical sales call, I was learning something, and I wanted more. She agreed to put together an educational presentation, and I will schedule a lunch and learn where attendees really will learn something. Lunch may be a lure to fill up the room, but attendees should wind up leaving there remembering what they learned rather than what they ate.

The lunch and learn doesn't need to die. It just needs to be true to its name, even if it means there are fewer lunches as the focus shifts to learning.

David Berkowitz is vice president of emerging media at 360i and spearheads the agency's Startup Outlook. .
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