What impact is the lockdown having on new business?

Getting to know clients over Zoom is changing dynamics of agency/brand relationship.

Pitching: rise in use of video conferencing
Pitching: rise in use of video conferencing

The new-business landscape amid the coronavirus lockdown has changed significantly. What once looked like a year in which there would be a lot of movement has slowed down, and for those that are reviewing, the whole pitch process has had to change as people continue to work from home.

AAR’s Lockdown New Business Pulse – which it has been running weekly – shows that the number of new-business enquiries dropped to 1.2 per agency last week, down from 1.7 the previous week and 1.6 in the week before that.

"The lockdown is clearly giving everyone the opportunity to pause and reflect on what they had accepted as normal practice," AAR managing partner Martin Jones says. "And the approach to pitching will definitely change as a result."

Havas' group of agencies are currently working on around 18 RFIs (across 22 shops) – something that global chief marketing officer Tracey Barber says is half the amount the company would usually have at this time of year.

A majority of the new enquiries are coming directly from clients, Barber says. AAR’s research of around 50 agencies backs this up, showing that approximately 80% of new enquiries have not been from a third party.

Vickie Ridley, head of new business at Lucky Generals, has also noticed more brands asking for advice on how they should run a pitch. "Of course, we want them to just work with us," she says. "But everyone is helping each other out – there’s a lot of goodwill."

With the lockdown expected to last for another few weeks – perhaps even longer before everyone goes back to the office – there are some clients that are continuing with their pitches. O2, ITV, Manchester City and Clipper are just some of the brands holding meetings over video. "There’s very much an appetite from brands to maintain the pitches," Barber notes.

Changing dynamics

As brands and agencies adapt to a new way of working, many new-business leaders have noticed a change in the relationship. Agencies can no longer rely on their office environments or fancy platters of food to impress chief marketing officers.

"The interesting side is that there’s a greater awareness," Barber explains. "The background [in video calls] enables that and as soon as you know someone is sitting next to a cuddly toy, you know they have children. It’s changed the dynamic.

"We are usually putting on a show – the journey through the agency, for example – and we are trying to do that with virtual pitching, but the door may open or the doorbell rings and something unexpected happens, so it turns the meeting into conversational mode."

Tracey Barber, global head of brand at The Brooklyn Brothers (and no relation to Tracey Barber at Havas), agrees, saying that she has found it easier to connect with clients and to get to know them better over video.

"The conversation doesn’t sit completely with business any more," she stresses. "It’s ‘How are you?’ and ‘Are you safe and well?' It’s on a more personal level. The challenge will be how can we retain this new way of connecting when we go back to normal."

This sentiment is also resonating with brands, according to Charlie Carpenter, chief executive of pitch consultancy Creativebrief: "We’ve had several comments from brands who, after initial worries, have observed that seeing agency teams in their own homes, surrounded by families and engaging on a more human level, has brought greater insight into them as people than any meeting in a grand agency boardroom."

The power of preparation

Everyone knows by now that video calls are never perfect, but when you have a team pitching with everyone in different locations, the last thing you want is to talk over people. It’s for this reason that agencies are taking more time in preparing before client meetings.

"When you’re in a meeting room together, you can judge each other's body language," Alex Best, founder and chief operating officer at Wonderhood Studios, says. "So you have to be more buttoned down in getting the information across. There’s loads more preparation involved."

Even though he has always known preparation is key, Best hopes that this will carry on when businesses go back to the office.

Ridley says she has also noticed that people are more up for practising. "People are realising that it’s a useful thing to do and when we go back to normal I hope it will continue."

So what does this mean for the future of pitching? "The most obvious behaviour change is likely to be in a greater use of video conferencing to run some meetings," Jones predicts.

While international pitches are invariably run remotely up until the final stages, the lockdown could lead to changes in domestic pitches too.

Jones continues: "You should never replace face-to-face chemistry meetings for the initial engagements, but there will undoubtedly be smarter ways of running meetings, particularly at the mid-stage of the pitch programme."