Gap was in the midst of a global media review involving at least two holding company-owned agencies when the process was put on pause March 6 due to mounting concerns over the coronavirus pandemic, according to four executives close to the matter.
MediaLink, which declined to comment, was hired to run the review, according to the people. Gap, which did not return a request for comment, also closed its New York City offices last week while one of its workers was tested for coronavirus, formally known as COVID-19.
While the industry has been laser focused on trying to keep up with all the event cancellations, postponements and shifts to online forums that have been in the public eye, agencies say that behind the scenes, pitches, meetings and commercial shoots are also being affected as clients undertake heightened travel precautions and scale back their advertising efforts due to marketplace uncertainty.
"What I have seen is indecision," says Jacques Hart, CEO of Miami-based agency ROAR Media, noting how the shop is "being invited to the table" for pitches but then they go nowhere. Hart says ROAR Media was also invited to attend a conference in Las Vegas last week with a client that ended up backing out a day before. "Our team members were excited and it left them high and dry," he says. "We all put a lot of time and effort to bring these things to fruition."
Most agencies have their own travel restrictions in place—and are advising employees to take personal health precautions as necessary—but it seems most shops are charging ahead in terms of pitching, attending meetings and conducting shoots until the client makes the ultimate call to cancel or postpone. After all, their business depends on it.
"You'll be hard-pressed to find an agency opting out of a pitch," one agency exec says. "They'll show up in a hazmat suit before they cancel."
The VIA Agency advised its own employees to take precautions as they deem necessary. "We are, of course, putting our associates' health first," VIA Agency CEO Leann Leahy says, noting that all its employees "have the choice to opt out of travel and we are evaluating meetings as they come to determine the appropriate approach."
Still, agencies can't opt out of campaign production or new business pitches altogether so they're stuck between a rock and a hard place if their clients do request physical meetings—they have to push forward for the health of the business. "A month ago we had to seriously consider canceling a shoot in New Zealand, but decided to push forward. Today, we probably would have made the opposite decision," says Chris Sojka, co-founder and chief creative officer of Madwell.
Sojka says that at least most of Madwell's clients are evaluating "any investment that requires large-scale public interaction," for the sake of their own employees as well as the agency's.
Some agencies and clients have been able to conduct certain activities remotely. Alex Sturtevant, director of brand at Stink Studios, says all of his clients have been "more than flexible" in the wake of the pandemic.
Sturtevant says he had a team from Stink Studios—which has offices in New York, Los Angeles, Paris, Shanghai, Berlin and Sao Paulo—set to travel to San Francisco "to kick off a large project" when the client "reached out to offer a [virtual conference] option for anyone who was nervous about making the trip."
Eleven CEO Courtney Buechert says clients in the healthcare and travel and tourism spaces particularly have been taking the "evolving situation very seriously for weeks. While we haven’t had any shoots canceled or been asked to scale back work, some of our clients have canceled travel and adjusted meetings to take place via video conference instead," he says.
Jay Pattisall, principal analyst at Forrester, predicts the coronavirus pandemic will have "major implications" on how agencies do business; and not all are for the worse. He notes that remote working solutions could help, for example, break the "sweat shop mentality" agencies have become known to foster. "Agencies have reputations for less than ideal working conditions, including long hours and less job stability," Pattisall adds.
Meanwhile, he says if agencies can accommodate for more work to be done remotely, it could help prepare them for the impending further technology disruption that is likely to impact their businesses anyway.
"The long-term implication is remote work will help better prepare agencies and staffers for increased use of technology as a ‘member’ of the human plus machine creative team," Pattisall explains. "Our research shows AI will transform 80 percent of jobs by 2030. Agency staffers will become more adept creating with AI and tech tools. This experience will help condition that behavior."