Do Shops Need a Recession Unit?

Ogilvy Has Formed a Dedicated Practice, but Others Don't See the Point

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CHICAGO ( -- As navigating the recession remains marketers' primary focus, agency networks are debating how overtly they ought to package their slump-related offerings. Is offering recession-battling skills a client-winning proposition or simply the job of an agency regardless of the economic environment?

Ad Age explores what marketers, media and agencies are doing to survive and even thrive in the downturn.
The former is obviously espoused by Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, which made headlines in November when it announced the launch of a global recession-consulting practice drawing on the network's long history with clients such as IBM and Unilever. The theory is that it can offer guidance to marketers trying to boost sales with a smaller budget.

Today, the unit offers 21 separate recession-related "solutions" to clients that it says it can implement in four to six weeks, and the likes of Six Flags and British Airways have signed up to get them. "The response has been exceptional," said Marc Fleishhacker, managing director of Ogilvy Consulting North America, who manages the recession practice. He did not, however, discuss specifics of the programs and how they are being used by clients.

When it comes to major networks, Ogilvy is pretty much out there on its own. Nina Abnee, executive VP-account management at Chicago-based Leo Burnett, which handles economically sensitive brands such as Procter & Gamble, McDonald's and Allstate, said the agency sees little need for a separate practice to handle downturns, noting that feeling out the economy is the job of traditional account planners. "Marketing is about understanding the role your brand plays in people's lives, and it's really not any different during a downturn than it is during a boom," she said. "Our 'recession something' or whatever you want to call it is good marketing."

Mr. Fleishhacker disagrees, saying the unprecedented (in recent times) scale of the crisis has created urgency that traditional account planning is ill-equipped to handle. He said the approaches sold by his recession practice can use technology to measure consumer responses and engagement better and faster than was previously possible. He added that the shop can help marketers adjust their media mixes accordingly, in real time. "Every agency is, in theory, supposed to be monitoring all of these things -- are they truly doing it?" he asked. "There are important lessons from the past [recessions] that need to be applied, and we can apply it in a manner that's much more rapid response."

'Load of BS'
Tracy Lovatt, exec VP-director of behavioral planning at BBDO, which has invoked the recession in recent work for clients such as AT&T and Starbucks, isn't buying that. "It's the biggest load of BS I've ever heard," she said, noting a string of research on global economic trends such as the "trading down" phenomenon and the "household profit-and-loss statement" that BBDO's planners have provided its clients. "It's an absolute obligation of agencies to be bringing these insights."

She added: "Is [Ogilvy] going to shut it down and have a boom practice when things get better?"

But a better question might be whether the traditional agency structure -- built-in planning and all -- maintains the same appeal in a recession.

Minneapolis marketing firm Zeus Jones, a 13-person shop that works for brands such as Nordstrom, has found a less-advertising-oriented approach and billing based on project results rather than hours spent has gained traction during the downturn. "The recession has everyone scratching their heads," said former Fallon President Rob White, a partner in the firm. "A state of flux is beneficial for people doing things in a new and different way."

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