CEO Strategies: Five Certain Ideas for Uncertain Times

Six Execs on Their Plans for Weathering the Storm

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Talk of a double-dip recession is omnipresent, stocks have plunged and consumers could hardly be more pessimistic. What to do amid this chaos? Advertising Age asked agency CEOs to offer their perspective on marketing in an uncertain time. Excerpts from their comments follow.

1. Fill the leadership void.
Matthew Harrington, U.S. CEO, Edelman: At a time when government is hamstrung in its ability to generate economic growth, this is an opportunity for business to demonstrate vision, leadership and create sustainable value through innovation at both a local community level and nationally. People are looking for corporations to innovate, and for brands to fit a changing lifestyle and outlook. People are seeking out brands that help address broader societal challenges such as less waste, more efficiencies, reducing obesity and so forth.

2. Focus on consumer values.
Bill Kolb, CEO, MRM Worldwide: Stay alert to trends. ... This is a highly emotional, highly volatile environment. This is when opportunities are created, and brands who can target emotional truths stand to gain. ... We are very focused with our clients on not thinking about what is happening with the "previous rules." Through deep and rich analytics, business intelligence and looking at a new set of rules, we are using rich business intelligence to inform how and where they should act.

Rosemarie Ryan, co-CEO, brand consultancy Co Collective: A number of trends will continue, primarily a rise in self-determinism with people recognizing they can't count on government, corporations or banks. When nothing is for sure, the only things people can count on are themselves, their friends and families. What we're seeing with the socialization of the web and tech-based recommendation platforms is people looking to their social graph for advice and expertise where they've built trust based in experience and relationships.

Collaborative consumption will rise. The new status is not what you own but what you share, and sharing is not just for the web.

We will see the rise of local. For example, when buying foods we will choose community-supported agriculture, co-ops -- things that we can see and touch and impact. I also believe we'll see more small-business growth, shop craft and do-it-yourself. Businesses will be built for what people love and not scale.

I think we'll return to the values of our grandparents and the things they cherished -- being wiser and happier with a "can't have and don't want it all" attitude.

Matthew Harrington, Edelman: Brands that are out of touch with changing lifestyles will struggle. There's a shift from brands that provide instant gratification to justification. Green is the new black. Also those brands that recognize the broad diversity of the marketplace from changing demographics to strong multicultural communities will win.

3. Focus on brand value.
Lisa Donohue, CEO, Starcom USA: Any marketer can benefit from focusing on the value that they bring to consumers and emphasizing that in their communications and interactions.

Laura Lang, CEO, Digitas: In times of economic uncertainty, consumers may choose to purchase products with value messaging over those that market high quality as their selling point.

4. Understand how 2008 changed consumers.
Lisa Donohue, Starcom: The 2008 financial crisis reset consumer behavior, and consumers continue to employ that same mindset. ... Consumers have adapted to more volatile economic environments. ... We had never witnessed the events of the 2008 global crisis, and consumers had never thought it was even possible. ... Having lived through that , consumers have a different perspective regarding the current events. ... That reset continues today, which does include a higher level of conservatism in their approach and a different emphasis on what they value.

5. Chart a plan to grow market share (or step aside).
Buz Sawyer, president-CEO, Cheil North American Holdings: A double dip will simply speed up our current plans for the growth of our organization through investment in creative people and strategic partners. When things eventually turn around, Cheil North American Holdings will not only be open for business, but stronger than ever.

Matthew Harrington, Edelman: We're expecting to grow (in the fourth quarter) in part through our ability to gain market share from competing PR firms and a greater slice of the overall marketing communications budget.

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