Andrew Henry found himself in what’s come to be an unusual setting for most of us lately: a business dinner.
The muscle memory of how to engage with another person in real life returned immediately, he related, but the chief commercial officer of the digital agency Incubeta said the experience was marked by an interesting new variable — that of time.
“Where in the past, time may have been taken for granted as the cost of doing business, time has taken on a valuation for most people that cannot be ignored — time commuting, time away from families, time working after hours,” said Henry, whose advertising agency has worked with brands like Disney and L’Oréal. “Experiences like dining or sporting events will return, but in addition to understanding a client’s business needs, we need to respect and appreciate how people choose to dedicate their time. It may seem that the days of client entertaining will clash with the rise of remote work, but they are not mutually exclusive. Relationships still matter, perhaps now more than ever.”
Across adland, wining and dining clients was a treasured way of life, and traditional way of doing business, before Covid sent everyone underground and shelved the in-person experience. But as the pandemic stalls and we entertain resuming face-to-face interactions, ad professionals like Henry are exploring how to cultivate more intimate relationships — whether in the same room or not.
Most agree with Henry that relationships have evolved into deeper, more human connections.
“Personal connection and chemistry have always been an important factor to a successful partnership. Now that we have seen everyone’s homes, babies and a number of pets, it is the humanity we are struck by,” said Lauren Guss, evp, client leadership at Superfly, an experiential shop that has worked with brands like Bravo and Verizon Media. “The ease of clicking a link has replaced many of the coast-to-coast red-eyes, but only to ensure that when we do get together, the time is focused on building, fostering trust and celebrating wins. We, and our clients savor these IRL moments and meaningful connections even more than before.”
Alex Gardner, head of growth and development at advertising agency Mother Industries USA, said her company highly values and looks forward to resuming gatherings. It has begun encouraging in-person meetings as much as possible, as well as hosting clients at its own headquarters as they feel comfortable doing so.
“As far as wining and dining, we believe in human connection and developing relationships with our clients outside of the meeting room, so having dinner together as a team is extremely important to us, and we are trying to get back to that as much as possible,” said Gardner, whose agency has done work for Target and Cadillac. “After all, our agency was founded around the kitchen table, and we hope to keep working in that collaborative way as Covid restrictions minimize.”
While Zoom meetings and emails will continue to be the norm considering how widely dispersed the agency’s people and its clients are, nothing can replace the energy of in-person connections, he added — particularly where pitches are concerned.
Alexis de Seve, director of client services at Stink Studios, is also eager to return to IRL. “There’s a unique energy and connection that comes from being in person that you can’t replicate online. We’ve proven that we can still be productive from home, but you can’t beat in-person coffee, workshops or roaming the halls of an office meeting people,” she said.
While she hopes that in the future a balance can be struck between being efficient remotely and working in person, arranging face time to get to know clients “beyond agenda-driven Zooms” and on a more personal level is essential, as de Seve, whose company has done work for clients like Riot Games and Google, sees it. That means safely planning ahead for in-person visits where there is opportunity to work, collaborate and learn things about each other that can’t be replicated in a video call.
“It’s awesome to be getting back into rooms with clients, discussing work face-to-face and heading out for dinner afterwards. We’ve handled ourselves pretty excellently on Zoom, but it feels so good to be IRL again,” said Sarah Collinson, managing director at JOAN Creative, which has worked with Facebook and Virgin Hotels. Still, many clients continue to prefer distance, something the agency accommodates, naturally.
There’s been an upside to remote meetings, of course. The past two years have upended the necessity for travel, which is now reserved for “key moments,” observed Collinson. “It’s a less frenetic way of working and is better for everyone’s mental health and the planet,” she added.
“Pitching and onboarding new clients during a pandemic has been a challenge — that initial excitement of kicking off a new relationship is fueled by in-person social events,” added Janet Yen, vp, strategy and partnerships at Good Apple, a media agency that has done work for clients like Merck and Pepsico. With clients being spread across the country, she said, the agency has embraced virtual kick-offs for those who are not going into the office or can’t meet each other in person.
Despite the much discussed “Zoom fatigue,” Yen stressed that the connection matters more than the medium.
“Even a Zoom one-on-one is a lot more personal than your typical conference call,” she said. “The face-to-face interaction — albeit through a screen — still allows for a more transparent discussion.”