In 2020, politics seemed to permeate everything, from get-out-the-vote efforts by companies like Uber and Lyft, to prompts on social media urging users to register and vote. There used to be a sense that politics was bad for business, but it seems we’ve encountered an era where it’s nearly impossible for brands to avoid getting political in some way.
If nothing else, the pandemic has taught us the importance of flexibility and adapting to the moment. With 2021 just around the corner, few in advertising (or elsewhere) can predict what is to come. That said, we’ve learned a thing or two about effective strategy maneuvers that could translate into a better run in the new year.
AdNews, in fact, recently announced finalists for a Resilience Award and Campaign Pivot of the Year Award to celebrate the success stories of agencies that bounced back under extraordinary circumstances and helped their clients navigate the pandemic. Finalists included Digitas for its “Live From Aus” campaign for Tourism Australia, which feature virtual travel experiences across the country from a koala wildlife sanctuary to cooking sessions and live music.
But for most creative and ad agencies, 2020 presented a sea of unknowns and dramatic impacts. The fun and glamour of creatives networking and wining and dining clients disappeared once stay-at-home orders took effect. And the pressures of relentless deadlines and tough clients took a backseat to the realities of PPE, social distancing, and work-from-home setups.
Pandemic mandates made production a challenge (to say the least) and put the kibosh on campaigns that didn’t speak to the new priorities of consumers. With furloughs, layoffs and budget cuts, the industry is being forced to do more with less, as brands from United Airlines to Ford and Coca-Cola cut costs and retailers shutter stores.
Among other pandemic-related agency impacts, AdAge recently reported:
- Independent agency Wieden+Kennedy, which had been on a new business tear before the pandemic, is laying off 11 percent of worldwide staff due to client cutbacks.
- Havas Group confirmed it laid off between 150 and 200 people across mainly its U.S. offices in Chicago, Boston and New York, blaming client spending cuts due to the pandemic. Havas said there were also staff cuts across three of its agencies in the U.K.
- Edelman laid off around 390 people, representing about 7 percent of its staff, as the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a widespread revenue downturn, according to an internal email obtained by Crain’s Chicago Business reporter Dalton Barker.
For some, it’s a time to take stock, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
“It’s the perfect time to have a realistic assessment of who you are, of what kind of agency you want to be, what’s your truth, what are your core values, and live by them,” Anselmo Ramos, founder and creative chairman of GUT, told Digiday. “It’s either adapt or die….The leaner, faster, more adaptable you are, the better chances you’ll have to navigate this crisis.”
So, what to do?
Think long-term. A lot of pandemic changes will stick around even after a vaccine, including remote work, so plan in terms of months and years, not weeks.
Build in lead times. Whether it’s for buying equipment or client deadlines. The supply chain is affected by the pandemic, and so are clients’ calendars. Start campaigns earlier, and make sure your clients can meet consumer demand.
Prospect. Talk to former clients, send proposals to current clients, and reach out to new ones in relatively more secure positions to establish a future pipeline. Be proactive, which means creating stronger briefs and showing that you have the goods to support them digitally—more than any in-house marketing can do. You might even want to temporarily lower your rates for new clients (but not too much) or consider other incentives to bring brands on board.
Restructure payment schedules. Milestones may not work if your client winds up bailing or going out of business. Instead, consider proposing upfront fees or additional guarantees so you are protected.
Evaluate your overhead. Are you going to need that office in the future, or have you and your staff adjusted to remote work? Should you relocate to another city or smaller market? What might you and your staff need to function effectively and collaboratively with each other and clients? Are there additional tools, from software to communications equipment, that should be budgeted for? Or, like some firms, do you want to talk to another agency about consolidating operations?
Develop digital-forward strategies. The shift away from traditional marketing has never been more clear. Innovate (e.g. voice search marketing and hyper-targeted advertising), keep an eye on social media shopping changes, look to short videos (Tik Tok), and know how to talk (and think) in terms like geotagging, retargeting, and non-linear marketing.
Emphasize authenticity. Help your clients speak to consumers where they’re at with compassion and clarity, especially older adults who may be new to e-commerce. No one has patience for aggressive, insensitive marketing in a pandemic.
Keep your team intact, as much as possible. It’s not only the right thing to do, but one study found firms that cut costs faster and deeper during a recession have the lowest odds of coming out stronger than before. Be sure to check in with staff regularly, too, given the reduced opportunities for casual in-person chats.
Move with the times, and the times will (hopefully) move with you. And above all, stay safe.