At the start of this year, our working lives changed forever.
Suddenly, there was no need to get up early, drag yourself onto public transport and rush to a crowded office the opposite side of London to where you live. No more office gossip over cups of caffeine in the kitchen. It was now dining room tables, video calls and iffy home broadband connections.
PR was one of the industries that was able to transition to a work-from-home environment seamlessly, or so we thought, and to an extent we slipped into this ‘new normal’ with minimal effort. Cool, user-friendly platforms like Zoom and MS Teams became our shiny new toy for interacting with each other and most employees actually believed they built stronger relationships with their clients since COVID-19 as a result. But the real telling point came when we needed to create new relationships, which were previously established through social interaction. Were we able to do achieve the same via a video call?
Mixology Communications launched right in the middle of a global pandemic (this was not the founders’ original plan; the date was, just not COVID-19!) and we, like everyone else, have had to find different ways of sourcing new business. We zeroed in our personal networks - trusted connections who already knew and respected our counsel - no amount of ‘cold’ LinkedIn messages can replace that.
David Clarke from Richmond Events puts it simply – "People buy people." And this can be backed up by the 200+ clients that have signed up to attend the Communication Director’s Forum networking event in November, even with the risk of a second wave at the back of everyone’s mind.
So, do agencies like pitching virtually?
“Virtual pitching will always have a role to play, particularly when the clients are in another country. But for me, I will always prefer face to face pitching if there is an option,” explained Jenna Keighley, Managing Director and Chief Thinker for Mixology Communications.
“With virtual pitching you always run the risk of technical issues getting in the way of the conversation. It's also impossible to read body language or really establish a rapport with someone through a screen and the presentation play-off between colleagues interjecting, adding to a point, and generally adapting your flow in response to the room's vibe is less natural and free-flowing. I'll take virtual pitching at a pinch but I'm not a fan.”
So will virtual pitching help to level the playing field where market research, behavioural insight, creative ideation and, dare I say it, strategic direction will champion over agency size and low balling on budget? A client can only judge an agency on its presentation and now that many PR professionals are working from home, will personal relationships between the client and agency still be important?
Perhaps, we can view virtual pitches as a positive, it might even allow the industry to shake off its ‘AbFab long lunches’ stereotype. Virtual pitching is certainly more time efficient for clients and cost effective for agencies who don’t have to parachute in pitch teams for a one-hour presentation. Scheduling a few Zoom calls over a couple of days is much easier than trying to book meeting rooms and work around busy schedules.
As we begin to adapt to this strange new world of ours, I think it is safe to assume that virtual pitches will be around for a while longer, whether we want them to be or not. But I think it will be a shame for them to stay as the only option. A client can never truly understand an agency’s culture and values, let alone establish a rapport and trust, without social interaction and face to face meetings. While the days of the long lunch may be behind us, we might want to start a little earlier and take a leaf out of the book of acclaimed American journalist John Gunther who famously said: “All happiness depends on a leisurely breakfast.”