What is your view of the current climate in terms of new business opportunities and process? What has changed in the last few months and what is your forecast for the rest of the year?
I’ve been working at Critical Mass in Business Development for over 18 years, and I’ve never seen anything like what’s transpired over the past few months. From January to early March, our pipeline was full, we were pitching great opportunities, and we had a couple of solid wins right off the bat.
Then mid-March arrived. Pitches stalled or completely disappeared. A few opportunities stayed active into April, but final decisions were delayed. Leads slowly began to reappear in May, and by June we had our first pandemic win (start to finish during quarantine).
Long story short, we definitely saw a slowdown, but we didn’t want to twiddle our thumbs. So, we focused on driving more visibility and thought leadership—turning our SXSW programming into webinars, helping our teams tell a story about Contactless Commerce, and generating buzz for new services that we’re launching.
One thing didn’t change, luckily. Our leadership team charted a steady course and managed a lot of seamless transitions as we all started working from home. I’m very happy to say Critical Mass hasn’t had a single furlough or lay-off. We’ve stayed strong and are still able to do what we do. And we’re all supremely grateful for that.
How challenging was it to develop an idea for a pitch across your creative, research and growth teams, without being able to collaborate in the same physical space? How did you overcome those challenges?
Luckily, we were ready for the change. For a long time now, we’ve been building a Liquid Talent program alongside our One CM model. Liquid talent lets employees work anywhere in the world (without having to be tethered to a physical Critical Mass office). One CM, on the other hand, is a collection of tools and processes that we use to cast teams across office locations.
So, when it came time to work from home, we were prepared in terms of IT, processes, and culture. It was a smooth transition in an otherwise disruptive time, and I never witnessed anyone make an excuse or miss a beat. It also helps having a leadership team like ours, and an employee base that genuinely believes in them. Every step of the way, there was trust instead of doubt, confidence instead of panic, and a spirit of “together, we can do this,” instead of “everyone for themselves.”
One more point: I’ve been working remote for 16 years (after working for 2 years in the Chicago office), so while the pandemic hasn’t been easy, I can’t say that my working life was turned upside down. I just did my best to give people pro tips!
Looking at the pitch itself, what was it like presenting in a virtual environment?
Yes—virtual presentations are definitely more challenging. In the room, you can feel the energy. You can build chemistry and connect on a much more personal level. Over Zoom, however, things can feel a bit more impersonal.
We’ve already found that cutting back our presentation decks and taking more time to talk, listen, and engage really helps build rapport. These days, we think very carefully about which slides are essential for conveying key points, and we’re taking more breaks throughout the presentation to talk candidly.
What technologies did you use to present? How did you handle elements of the process such as the Q&A and the leave-behinds?
We’ve used a range of tools—but Webex and Zoom are the main two (or Webex Events if it’s a larger group). Q&A is trickier. The glitches don’t really come from bugs in the software; rather, they’re features of the medium itself. Inevitably, multiple people will start talking at once, or someone will ask a really important question on mute—sounds familiar, right?
Having a moderator lead the Q&A discussion and then hand things back over to the team helps keep the presentation running smoothly. Doing a little extra preparation and carving out more time for discussion have really helped us keep everyone engaged and focused.
PC, or pre-COVID as is our new vernacular, there was already chatter about the stress of working on a pitch. Preparing for a pitch often involves intensive work 24/7 because of unrealistic deadlines. What do you think can be done to smooth this process moving forward and are there any learnings from the lockdown?
Critical Mass has been really good about telling its employees to take the time they need, find the balance that works for them, and be flexible and patient with each other. Since the lockdowns began, it’s something that’s been rapidly integrated into our culture rather than written in a rulebook. But it’s working. Individuals have had latitude to figure out what works for them so they can do their best work in balance with their overall lives.
More broadly, we’re all realizing great work can happen from anywhere—whether it’s from the office or home. I’ve been working from home for many years, and I’ve learned how to manage the stress of a pitch. I sometimes find that it’s easier to just keep working, but I’ve learned that I absolutely must stop and take breaks throughout the day. Grabbing lunch outside my office. Getting outside for fresh air. Meditating for five to ten minutes or even standing up and stretching every hour (Apple Watch is great for movement reminders). And I’d tell anyone to set a time each day to close your laptop and “leave the office”—even if that’s your living room or bedroom.
Advertising and marketing agencies are notorious for the way they grind up employees, and it’s up to leadership and management to help reinforce good working habits for mental, emotional, and physical health. Pitches have always been stressful and always will be. Unrealistic deadlines and expectations are the rule, not the exception. But the things that made it bearable and sometimes even fun before the pandemic, are the same things that matter most in the post-lockdown world. Having a team with a great attitude, where everyone pitches in, wears many hats, and works collaboratively towards success is what makes it work. And I’m so proud to say that the Critical Mass Business Development, Marketing, and Comms team fits that description to a tee.