The Art of the Virtual Pitch, Part 2: Prepping the Creative Brief and Getting to Work

This is Part 2 of a 4-part series on The Art of the Virtual Pitch. Let’s cover what happens after you’ve accepted the RFP, and now need to develop your pitch without the benefit of in-person meetings. There are two guiding principles to live by when drafting a creative brief to get all members of your team ready.

This is Part 2 of a four-part series on The Art of the Virtual Pitch. In Part 1, I laid out some strategies to help you cut through all the virtual noise and stand out to potential clients. Now let’s cover what happens after you’ve accepted the RFP, and need to develop your pitch without the benefit of in-person meetings. There are two guiding principles to live by when drafting a creative brief to get all members of your team ready to brainstorm:

Principle No. 1: Invest Your Time in Organizing

Now that you don’t have the luxury to kick things off in person, it’s critical to have documents to keep people aligned. You need to spell out roles and responsibilities, and create a work plan with clear owners and assignments for each deliverable. You’ll also need a new way to handle onboarding a bunch of different folks.

Instead of picking up the phone again and again to launch into your onboarding spiel, devote your time to developing a robust creative brief. In one document, you lay out:

  • all the relevant research,
  • the problems you’re trying to solve,
  • the details of the RFP, and
  • anything else you don’t want to find yourself repeating ad nauseam.

This briefing document becomes the foundation for briefing people moving forward and gives you the landscape analysis you need to craft the insight that will be the jumping-off point for your strategy.

A thorough creative brief gets everyone marching in the right direction, but the toughest element of pitch development to pull off in an all-remote setting is brainstorming, which brings me to my second principle.

Principle No. 2: Don’t Treat Virtual Meetings Like In-Person Meetings

We’ve all been at brainstorming sessions when many or all attendees are calling in to a conference line. The remote brainstorm is nothing new. It’s just that actually doing them effectively and ensuring participation is still really difficult.

Leverage that creative brief you already worked on! Everyone should have it well in advance, and they need to be held accountable for really knowing it. This isn’t just another email attachment in a meeting invite. It’s what everyone will be working from, and it’s absolutely required reading for every meeting.

In fact, successful virtual brainstorming generally requires the team to put more time than usual into meeting prep. Exercises that you’d normally depend on teams to do together in meetings, you might now have to have people do in advance. To help quickly ideate on a bunch of different things, give people two to three action items to brainstorm against on their own. They can present those ideas in a conference call, and the team can build from there instead of starting the call from the ground up.

Also consider assigning more structured brainstorming exercises in advance. One of my personal favorites is called “Pass It Along.” Here’s how it works: When I’m working on those big multi-million dollar pitches, I set up four to five teams consisting of four to five people each, and they have their own mini brainstorm.

First, one person writes down the germ of an idea. Then the second person builds on it, making it even bigger. The third person goes wild, making it so big they could get fired. Then, the last person brings the idea back down to being realistic. This approach forces the big, bold thinking you need. Later, the groups can present their hero idea to the larger group, which jumpstarts your process.

Adjust your brainstorming process to follow my two principles for virtual pitch development and you’ll have a winning deck in no time.

Next time, I want to discuss the finer points of presenting online and helping your team’s chemistry shine through. If you have questions about the art of the virtual pitch, tweet me @RumEkhtiar.



4 Tips for Choosing a Marketing Automation Tool

The selection of a marketing automation tool is not an easy process. There are a ton of factors to consider — from integration to process to workflow and much more.

For the past few months, I’ve had the chance to work with several companies on either improving their marketing automation processes or defining the need for a marketing automation tool. From those conversations, here’s four key tips for walking through the marketing automation tool selection process.

Tip #1: It Starts with You

Like many technologies, there is a clear buzz in the market around the rollout of marketing automation tools in the media sector. That buzz makes it easy to say, “I need this to solve my problems.”

But, the question publishers must ask first is, “What problems am I trying to solve?”

Like any other technology rollout, the successful rollout of a marketing automation tool starts with first defining your needs. It’s easy to say, “I need drip marketing capabilities” or “I need a marketing automation tool to improve subscription renewals.” But, if you’re going to succeed, you need to be a lot more specific up front. Take the time to walk through the areas where you see marketing automation as an option and walk through potential workflows. For example, if you’re sending an email promotion to generate event attendee registration, there are several flows to consider:

  1. A user opens, clicks, and registers
  2. A user opens, clicks, but doesn’t register
  3. A user opens, but doesn’t click
  4. A user doesn’t open

In each case here, you can set a different workflow and a different messaging scheme.

In the case of a subscription renewals, you may want to set up a process where a user receives a special pop-up message to re-subscribe if their subscription is up or to subscribe if they are not one already.

These are both solutions where marketing automation can help. But, they may only be a few of the scenarios you have. So, to the best of your ability, identify the different use cases. You can then use these use cases to set up proof of concept campaigns with vendors during the RFP selection process.

Tip #2: Easy Workflow Set Up

One way in which today’s marketing automation tool vendors excel is in the breadth of features they offer in their product. But, that large feature set is a blessing and a curse. Just like many analytics tools, it’s easy to get lost and overwhelmed by the amount of capabilities found in today’s modern marketing automation products.

But, no matter what tool you use, one feature stands out more than most — the ability to easily set up workflows. Workflows lie at the heart of the marketing automation tool and are the keys to building a successful automation campaign. When looking at tools, search for one that offers a visual experience where workflows can be created or adapted by dragging and dropping blocks. This makes the workflow process more intuitive to a user and quicker to implement.

Most modern tools offer this capability. If you’re looking at a tool that doesn’t, you may want to look at additional options.

Tip #3: Get a Dedicated IP Address

Here’s the number one mistake some publishers, especially smaller ones, make when selecting a marketing automation tool. Marketing automation tool providers will push for all emails to go out through the tool. They have good reason for it. If you’re going to truly automate marketing efforts, then it’s critical to understand how users are interacting with all emails.

However, this is where some publishers have made a big mistake. To save on cost, some publishers are leveraging one of the shared IP addresses from the tool provider. That means that your emails are traveling on the same channels as other marketing partners that may not be following the same best email practices you are. So, if they do something wrong, it can have a direct impact on your marketing efforts. And, when you add in a higher-value email product like a newsletter to the mix, then you are opening yourself up for potential issues from both an editorial and business perspective.

Free Marketing Advice: How Far Is Too Far?

How much of our intellectual property should we be willing to give away to win a client’s business? Many prospects are willing to pay for creative ideas — some have been shamed into it, while others have finally placed a value on the time an agency will have to invest in conceiving, writing and designing creative ideas.

Email Roundtable: Creative Insights You Can StealAnyone who works in business development at an agency has encountered this dilemma: An RFP includes a request for a detailed set of strategic and tactical marketing recommendations that would solve some very specific business challenges.

But a recent RFP went even further: Forecast the response expected from each media channel recommended, and include proof of concept by detailing how that idea in that channel delivered for another client. Anyone in their right mind who answers this question is giving away proprietary results! Yet, we all know that if we don’t comply with the RFP, we can pretty much count ourselves out of consideration in the next round of reviews. But how much of our intellectual property should we be willing to give away to win a client’s business?

Many prospects are willing to pay for creative ideas — some have been shamed into it, while others have finally placed a value on the time an agency will have to invest in conceiving, writing and designing creative ideas (although we all know we never get adequately compensated).

However, there are other challenges facing our industry on price, value and just plain old fashioned respect. For example I’ve noticed that if someone does ask for some free marketing advice in a public forum, many experienced marketers will provide very thoughtful and insightful answers. But others are quick to dismiss the ideas that others present in order to promote their own answer. After I was publicly shamed for one of my recent responses, I decided the public forum may not be the best place to participate in a thoughtful discussion on marketing challenges.

Many new startups in Silicon Valley spend time on a site called Founders Dating, seeking advice and counsel on everything from marketing to HR, technology to investor-related challenges. Even after I responded to a question that was right in my wheelhouse of expertise, there were over 200 “experts” chiming in with their advice – so how could the individual raising the question possibly know what they should do next?

I’ve heard loads of complaints from creative freelancers about clients who were unclear in their initial direction, but were unwilling to pay for round after round of revision. And other freelancers admit that they’ve done work at a cut-rate price because the pipeline for new work has dried up, so they’re giving away their expertise. Still, others are complaining that all the new grads flooding the marketplace are driving costs down.

Are you feeling the same pinch — the same lack of respect for your experience or ideas? Should we all just retire and open a food truck?

How (Not) to Run an Agency RFP

Over the last several years, I’ve noticed an alarming trend in the RFP process – and I’ll boil it down to three words: Lack of respect

Over the last several years, I’ve noticed an alarming trend in the RFP process—and I’ll boil it down to three words: Lack of respect.

Agencies are always delighted when invited to participate in an Request for Proposal (RFP) process. While many may choose not to engage due to client conflict or the belief that their likelihood of being awarded the contract is nominal—or the budget outlined in the brief doesn’t come close to paying for the amount of work that will be required to achieve the client’s objectives—those that do participate have an expectation that the process will be fair and somewhat transparent.

Any agency worth its salt invests significant time, energy and out-of-pocket expense in a new business pitch. Whether it’s the early stages of completing the “competency” response (where the focus is on written information that provides an overview of the agency, some case studies that are relevant, industry experience, team bios, etc.,) or it’s a later stage when preparing for a face-to-face pitch, net-net, it takes a lot of hard work to prepare a smart, tightly integrated response that will help put your firm in the best possible light with the target decision makers. After all, we’re all supposed to be marketing experts and if we can’t market ourselves properly to a target audience of our peers, what kind of marketers are we?

That aside, recently we were included in three separate searches for a new agency and they shared a common trait—the big, black, hole.

We received the RFP, spent countless hours researching the brand to fully understand their point of differentiation, talked to past and current customers, participated in the Q&A process, coordinated with partners to fill in some capabilities gaps, and attempted to understand the financial metrics to ensure we could provide intelligent and thoughtful solutions that would actually yield a positive ROI. After weeks of work, we carefully assembled our response, printed multiple copies, bound the decks and invested in a courier to deliver it on the designated date to the clients’ location.

The next milestone on the RFP was to notify agencies that made it to the next round by XX/XX/XX.

Despite emails and phone calls to the RFP contact, we never heard a peep … even weeks and weeks after the deadline had passed.

In one instance, we finally got a junior staffer on the phone who told us the search had been cancelled and they renewed their contract with the incumbent—apparently they shopped around and convinced themselves there was no one better, but didn’t have the courage to let each participant know of their decision. But why? Afraid we’re going to try and talk them out of their decision??

In another instance, we finally got an email from a procurement officer advising us that the RFP had been cancelled—period—no other explanation. After a little sleuthing, we figured out the company hired a new marketing director in the middle of the search, and they probably wanted to regroup before proceeding. Fair enough—but don’t leave us all hung out to dry!

In a third instance, we finally tracked down an insider who told us the marcom team was going through a reorganization, and no one knew what was happening. Gosh. So glad I invested in THAT opportunity!

I’ve also noticed that many clients running RFPs are often ill-equipped to conduct the search properly. When we go through the Q&A process, they can’t seem to answer key questions that will drive strategically smart solutions. Or even basic things like:

  • Why are you looking for a new agency?
  • What are the biggest marketing challenges you’re facing today and, if you know, in the future?
  • What marketing efforts are you executing currently that are working and not working and why?
  • Who is your target audience—SPECIFICALLY?
  • What are your business metrics?
    • What is a new customer worth?
    • What is your churn rate?
    • How many products/services does a typical customer own?

The more you can share during the RFP process, the more likely you are to get intelligent, insightful ideas that can make a real difference to your business. And yes, that takes signing mutual NDA’s, investing real time and energy into the review process, and working with agency teams to discover who feels like a good “fit” and brings fresh ideas to the process that seem viable to your business.

It’s NOT a fishing expedition for free creative. (Would you go to a doctor and ask for a diagnosis without paying?) It’s NOT an exercise to freak out your incumbent so they’ll work harder/reduce their fees/change the way they do business. If that’s what you want, tell them that’s what you need, and if they don’t deliver, advise them you’re going to search for a replacement and that they needn’t participate as you have no intention of keeping the business with them.

After all, we’d all prefer not to work long nights and weekends if we don’t have a hope of winning. That’s just plain respectful.