8 key ideas that marketers should keep in mind in 2021
This week, Ad Age assembled a range of creative pros, including some of the industry’s most prominent chief marketing officers and recruiters, to discuss how they weathered the turbulent year and the lessons they can apply in the future. At Ad Age Next: CMO, a full-day event held virtually on Tuesday, marketing leaders spoke about how they have adjusted to the new normal, renewed pushes for diversity, responded to the COVID-19 pandemic and more in 2020.
The complete Ad Age Next: CMO sessions are available to view in full here, covering a range of contemporary topics addressed by some of the industry’s leading marketers—as well as a special presentation and analysis of our annual World’s Largest Advertisers list.
Here are 8 of the most significant takeaways from this week’s event.
1. In an uncertain world, always be prepared to pivot
Comparing January 2020 to today is like comparing apples to oranges, so it’s not unreasonable to assume that most marketers, regardless of role, have had to continuously change plans this year. For Marisa Thalberg, executive VP and chief brand and marketing officer at Lowe’s, being prepared to pivot is just as important as executing the changes themselves. “The business and the momentum we’ve had [during the pandemic] is very much a cross-functional success,” Thalberg says, citing developments from increased omnichannel capabilities to the retailer’s New York Fashion Week activation as steadying it through 2020. Even minor changes including Lowe’s’ curbside trick-or-treating event, she adds, helped “mobilize and engage consumers” and build brand trust amid the pandemic.
2. Interviewing via Zoom is an art and a science
COVID-19 has taken face-to-face interviews off the table in most parts of the world, leading employers and recruiters to get creative with the hiring process. With many turning to Zoom, candidates should be conscious of the insider tips that may help them ace remote interviews. “It’s television, not Broadway,” advises Lisa Mann, managing director and chief marketing officer at Raines International. Recruiters can pick up on every facial expression and bodily behavior, she says, so candidates should remember to not lose energy, be prepared for multiple rounds of interviews, and have a “tight soundbite” explaining what they can offer a prospective employer. And to ensure consistent, warm lighting: “Go and find a north-facing window, and sit in front of it,” says Richard Sanderson, a consultant at Spencer Stuart.
3. Diverse teams are good for business
When assembling a creative team, Focus Brands’ VP of marketing Seth Freeman has a simple mantra: “I may not be the same exact person as you, but I know that you’ve got potential.” And from a high-level view, the composition of your workforce should reflect the composition of your customers, he says, highlighting the importance of true diversity. “We’re trying to create an ecosystem of having the most diverse talent sit at the table because it’s just good for business,” says Citi’s chief marketing officer Carla Hassan—and it’s not just racial diversity brands should consider, she believes; diversity of talent and background are just as important. “For me, it’s less about where we hire from, and more about if we hire the right person for a role,” Hassan adds. “Who I was looking for before, years ago, is very different from who I’m looking for now.”
4. Responsible marketing is a must amid changing consumer tastes
The Facebook ad boycott that gripped the marketing world earlier this year was likely just the beginning of an ongoing trend—one that may see frequent media disruptions caused by consumer outcry, forcing brands to alter their ad priorities. One well-known takeaway from 2020: the idea of brand safety isn’t what it was a decade ago. For Pam Forbus, chief marketing officer at Pernod Ricard North America, one solution that has gotten traction is the “whack-a-mole effort to combat hate speech” that is EngageResponsibly.org. Another remedy is taking action, says Angela Zepeda, CMO at Hyundai Motor America (which did not participate in this summer’s Facebook boycott). “We did a lot of things globally that I think needed to be said,” Zepeda says, such as setting up COVID-19 testing sites early on and boosting the development of sustainability technology.
5. In-house agencies may be the way of the future
A decade ago, internal creative teams were nearly an anomaly, but in 2020, the in-house model is getting more attention than ever as brands consider (and reconsider) its merits. “There were always good reasons to have in-house agencies,” says Joanne Davis, president of Joanne Davis Consulting Inc., who believes she has identified one primary reason they have been thriving in recent years: a renewed focus on talent. Davis points to Target and Apple as two examples of “phenomenal” in-house creative teams, in no small part because they’re both led by seasoned veterans of major agencies. But while there are benefits to the internal model, such as staying strongly brand-aligned, budget constraints are no reason to switch. “Any company that thinks, ‘I’ll have an internal agency and I’ll save money,’ is absolutely wrong,” she says.
6. Don’t be afraid to get close to customers
The McDonald’s of our youth is not the McDonald’s of today, with the fast-food behemoth taking conscious steps in the past few years to make its brand more approachable. Chief among those changes—which include remodeling restaurants and using quality ingredients—is a renewed emphasis on social channels that can take a conversational tone with consumers, says Morgan Flatley, chief marketing officer of McDonald’s U.S. “The brand [today] is much more human. … It’s the eyes of a human being who loves the brand. It’s human, it’s self-deprecating, it’s empathetic,” Flatley says, noting that before its social shift, McDonald’s “talked through the voice of a corporation, which was more polished and reserved.”
7. Think of COVID-19 as an accelerator, not an obstacle
The new coronavirus is many things, most of them tragic, but one descriptor often used—and perhaps overused—in the industry is “accelerator.” It’s fitting; for many businesses and agencies, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced otherwise slow-going innovations into overdrive, bringing some spaces forward by as much as five to 10 years. For the National Basketball Association, broadcast and audio innovations were accelerated by years, according to the league’s executive VP and chief marketing officer, Kate Jhaveri. For Wieden + Kennedy, the pandemic has boosted creativity “because we just sat in rooms all day long” pitching ideas, says W&K New York’s managing director Neal Arthur. If there’s any silver lining to this pandemic, which is now entering its ninth month and going strong in the U.S., it may be its role as a driver of brand progress.
8. This holiday, remember the ‘reason for the season’
In 2020, consumers have become increasingly vocal about the issues they’re passionate about, and in turn, many have demanded that brands shed their safety-blanket neutrality and align themselves with equitable, progressive values. And words won’t cut it anymore—action is what consumers want, many experts say. Next year, marketers shouldn’t lose sight of the commitments they have made in 2020 and would be wise to use their brands’ influence to push progress forward. “Use your platform to give back and do good,” says Lowe’s’ CMO Marisa Thalberg, pointing to the home retailer’s recent initiatives such as offering grants to minority-owned small businesses and donating pre-lit artificial Christmas trees to households in need as steps in the right direction.