No business plan could have prepared the ad world for what 2020 would have in store. The spread of coronavirus has forced business plans to change, campaigns to shift (or shut down) and workflows to adapt to a new normal.
“It’s difficult to imagine a harder time in recent history than this moment right now,” says Brett Channer, CEO of Mass Minority. “What the data is telling us is that people are feeling overwhelmed: from a booming economy to a shut-down economy in days—marketers are dumbfounded.” With global shares taking a dive, and plans to reopen the economies on shaky ground, the path forward for businesses is unclear. “Do nothing and risk losing what you have, do the wrong thing and also face the risk of losing what you have,” says Channer.
Last month, we checked in with leaders from the Amp community to see how they were adjusting to the gut punch thrown at the industry by the COVID-19 pandemic. In part two, they share their best practices for how to forge ahead in the new normal.
Adapting to a changing economic landscape
From a creative standpoint, what may have resonated with audiences pre-COVID no longer works today. “We had a film ready to air, but it featured a lot of handshakes—not exactly the right gesture for an ad at the moment,” says Luca Lorenzini, co-founder and executive creative director at Small. “If six months ago someone had told us it was inappropriate to show people shaking hands, we'd have thought this person was crazy.”
Without a defined end in sight, agency leaders are focusing on what they can control. “There really isn’t an answer to weathering this storm yet: We don’t know how long it will last, or how long society will take to re-engage with brands at 2019 levels,” says Parks Blackwell, PMG’s VP of marketing and client development. “We are adopting creative ways to increase our success coming out of the situation by doubling down on strategic initiatives that we’ve long put on the backburner”—including the now-ubiquitous strategy, not just for agencies but for businesses in general, of suspending all non-critical hiring, temporarily freezing capital investments and strictly controlling spending.
“From the business side of things, we’re fortunate that we were disciplined in three things: Always save six months of runway cash, be vigilant about accounts receivable and secure government work, which can help stabilize your business,” says Kenny Nguyen, CEO of ThreeSixtyEight.
Finding ways to provide value
Some agencies have seen opportunities amid the hardship, as clients and consumers seek guidance and expertise. “Travel executives are desperate for information, context and insights now more than ever,” says Carolyn Kremins, president of Skift. “At the onset of the crisis, we launched the Coronavirus Liveblog. The traffic to our site doubled.” Skift moved swiftly to provide valuable insights, with a series of online summits exploring “key challenges, crisis management, and necessary solutions to help provide direction across various sectors.”
Similarly, Engine has been able to offer meaningful leadership via their insights agency, Cassandra. “Cassandra is pivoting to provide our clients with perspective on the lasting impact of this event on young people’s lives and what it will mean for the future,” says Lindsey Allison, head of strategy at Engine. “We will now be collecting ongoing and continuous research among Gen Zs and millennials to help our clients understand this defining moment for these generations.”
For others, supporting clients through this time means helping them communicate. “We have been arming clients with daily briefings to get out ahead of the social media conversation and ensure they are able to safely navigate these difficult times,” says Jason Mitchell, CEO of Movement Strategy.
Beyond social, agencies are working with brands to clarify messaging and deliver important information. “We partnered with Northwell Health to launch a COVID-19 awareness campaign to promote information over fear,” says StrawberryFrog CEO Scott Goodson. “We all worked together, remotely in our homes, to produce a new TV spot to reassure New Yorkers.”
At The Experience Design Studio, co-founder Shai Reichert and his team are working on “helping clients adjust and rethink how they are allocating budgets and about how to continue fueling their businesses in this new normal.”
One thing is true for every agency: Empathy is everything. “Mostly, I feel the largest impact is to everyone’s sanity and peace of mind,” says Steve Parker Jr., CEO of Levelwing. “For our team, we are doing frequent check-ins and video calls.” Levelwing has also launched a “60-in-60 health program,” a weekly plan to incorporate 60 seconds of movement at the top of each hour every day.
For everyone working from inside the confines of home, finding ways to connect in meaningful ways is critical—not just for mental health but for team building, too. “I had instituted flexible hours last year, so my team was already great about calling in for twice-weekly check-ins if they were utilizing a work from home day,” says Night After Night CEO Elliott Phear. “Since closing, we’ve shifted those to be daily so that we can connect and not lose the human spark that ultimately drives better work.”
Where employees, clients and audience are concerned, the ability to effectively communicate remains at the core of what agencies are doing to survive, doubling down on their missions and providing real value.
“Are you meeting a practical need? Do you share values that need to be heard? Do you have a way to offset people feeling overwhelmed? If you can answer even one of these three questions, then customers will want to hear from you,” says Channer. “They may be less likely to buy right now, but they will remember your brand and what your brand did during this time.”