The vast majority of advertising professionals aren’t expecting to have much face-to-face interaction until a COVID-19 vaccine is available, according to a survey conducted by Ad Age.
Even as restrictions wane and people begin to trickle back into the office, the uptick in COVID cases in certain parts of the country, including New York City, have made leaders in the space skittish about jumping back into their normal routines.
MediaLink founder and CEO Michael Kassan, who spent much of his time pre-COVID flying around the world, hosting conferences and attending business breakfasts, lunches, dinners and drinks, says he has done little in the way of in-person meetings since the start of lockdowns. In the past seven months, he has only had one traditional meeting in an office.
And even post-COVID, Kassan doesn’t believe he will travel at the same pace he did, “because I don’t have to.” Instead, he says a lot can be accomplished through video calls.
“I will never make that trip to London again for a dinner meeting. And I have done that more times than I am proud to say. I don’t think people will forget that you have options now and they are acceptable,” Kassan says.
As someone who has built a business on in-person relationships, Kassan’s reluctance to hop a flight for a meeting or to dine out with clients, at least for the time being, is representative of much of the industry’s hesitancy to resume traditional aspects of conducting business.
Reluctance to return to the office
While 21% of respondents had already returned to the office when the survey was conducted in early September, a further 14.5% are not planning to do so until a vaccine becomes widely available. Some 28% anticipate continuing to work from home indefinitely, according to Ad Age’s survey of more than 700 subscribers.
Horizon Media founder and CEO Bill Koenigsberg continues to go into the agency’s Manhattan office, but is allowing employees to work from home until at least March 31, 2021. Horizon opened its office three weeks ago for about 90 staffers who needed a break from their remote work spaces. This week, the agency will welcome back about 300 employees, but Horizon is asking those who live in so-called “hot zones” in New York to wait it out.
Even in a post-COVID world, Koenigsberg says Horizon has told employees they will be able to work remotely at least 50% of the time, even if he believes most people will want to come back into the office once the virus subsides.
There is a laundry list of companies that have publicly said they won’t return to the office until sometime in 2021, or have even implemented longer-term work-from-home policies. Tech giants including Google, Microsoft, Twitter and Facebook, financial institutions including JP Morgan Chase, and automakers Ford and General Motors are among companies that have told their employees they can continue to work from home into 2021.
Frito-Lay North America chief marketing officer Rachel Ferdinando says the company won’t return to the office until 2021 at the earliest. And Panera Bread CEO Niren Chaudhary is working from his dining room table in Boston. The restaurant chain doesn’t plan on asking its employees to return until January at the earliest.
ANA CEO Bob Liodice says he is going to his Manhattan office only “a couple of days a month,” and that most of the time he's working from his home in Garden City, Long Island, putting the finishing touches on the ANA Masters of Marketing conference, the association's biggest event of the year, which will be hosted virtually this week, rather than in Orlando, Fla.
'I have been extremely cautious'
Andrea Brimmer, chief marketing and public relations officer at Ally Financial, says she is still working entirely from home. “It’s hard for anybody to predict when we’ll be back. I wouldn’t be open to live conferences right now. I’m not going to go anywhere where there’s a lot of people—I have been extremely cautious,” Brimmer says, noting that she and her husband, who is high-risk, have dined out only outdoors. “That’s what worries me about the winter months,” she adds.
While a quarter of respondents to Ad Age’s survey expect to resume business travel in about six months, nearly another quarter plan to wait until there is a vaccine. And a majority 65% say they don’t feel comfortable attending in-person events for work until there is a vaccine.
GDS Group, an international events company, which produces CMO Brand Insight Summit, predicts that physical events will not return until at least 2022.
Horizon’s Koenigsberg says he hasn’t boarded a plane since lockdowns. Horizon employees are not required to travel and 99.9% of clients are not even requesting anyone from the agency come and see them at this point in time, he says.
“To me, a post-COVID world is when there is high level of confidence and comfort that the disease has simmered down, the spread has completely lowered, and there are therapeutics and vaccines to protect people,” Koenigsberg says. “I don’t think we will see that at the earliest until next June, and therefore, conferences, traveling to clients, large gatherings—we won’t see that happening in our industry, we won’t.”
This is bound to impact travel budgets, and also reduce expenses that are often baked into contracts.
“Some of those day trips will most likely be cut back a bit,” Koenigsberg says, quickly adding that they won’t be eliminated altogether.
Luiz Barros, global marketing VP for data and media at Anheuser-Busch InBev, is one of the staffers who has returned to the brewer’s Park Avenue office in Manhattan. AB began allowing employees back in July, but capped it at 20% capacity. It is now up to 50%. Barros, who is coming into the office about twice a week, feels a noticeable shift. “I didn’t know how much I was missing the office until I started to come back,” he says.
As much as COVID has upended the way the industry will operate longer term, at the most fundamental level it seems people are longing for the opportunity to once again meet clients for drinks and resume brainstorming in person.
“We live in a very competitive world, and face-to-face is still incredibly important for relationships,” Koenigsberg says. “There are a bunch of things you can’t get through Zoom. If, three months from now, we had a complete cure and COVID went away entirely, people would be traveling.”
Contributing: Adrianne Pasquarelli, E.J. Schultz, Jessica Wohl