Leaves have fallen, trees are bare and the holidays are upon us, but this year’s crisp night air brings a growing sense of dread. If you look beyond pandemics, politics and general pandemonium, everyone across the marketing industry seems stressed out, angry and afraid.
Perhaps you’re a newly minted chief marketing officer who just had your first board meeting, only to realize that nobody cares about marketing unless it’s putting big numbers on the board. Brand is a luxury and advertising is an expense, not an investment, no matter what you heard at that brand summit you attended, which unfortunately we’re not paying for this year. You suddenly recall the lifespan of a CMO is as short as a TikTok video, and you vow to check LinkedIn on a daily basis.
Maybe you’re afraid because the next round of layoffs is coming and you make more than your less-experienced colleague, or your ongoing existence doesn’t contribute to this year’s quota for virtue signaling. Could be you’re afraid to voice an opinion because you’ll be ostracized for having one that isn’t trending.
You might work at an agency where someone once referred to you as a traditional creative, or you’re digitally savvy but not a platform thinker—either way, you’ll never ascend the shaky ladder of creative leadership. Failure to worship at the feet of the data gods will put you on a watchlist, and not being allocated to a paying client will paint a target on your back.
Fear is not good for the business of brands. Fear displaces art from commerce and chills the lifeblood of the industry.
Agencies sell confidence. Clients hire optimism. Consumers buy hope.
So what’s fueling our fear? Sure, there’s a global pandemic, lockdowns that made us prisoners in our own homes, and an election nail-biter that left half the population of the country jubilant and the other half disenfranchised, with enough spittle flying between news networks to keep us sodden and separated through inauguration.
And let’s not forget the implosion of the economy. (The economy, as opposed to the stock market ... you know, the place where people actually work, if they still have jobs.)
Relax. Take deep breaths. Stand on your head and look at it another way. That’s why companies hire CMOs, and why clients hire agencies—to look at things from a fresh perspective.
The current pandemic—the third coronavirus in as many decades—has been tragic and terrifying, yes, but a vaccine is imminent and we will get through this, as we have with polio, TB, measles, cholera, typhoid, SARS, MERS, swine flu, bird flu, Zika and the countless other things that emerged from Pandora’s box. As long as we learn to stay the hell away from bats, we will survive.
The economy will bounce back, or it will crawl forward, or it will nosedive, then rise up again like a phoenix. That’s what an economy does, and commerce drives it, rides it and thrives in it—as long as brands exist and companies have customers. Grab your longboard and get ready to surf, but stop acting like the tsunami of doom is on the horizon.
As for the election, remember that conflict drives story, and rage drives ratings. Spend 10 minutes on Wikipedia reading up on the political turmoil of the ’60s and you’ll realize today’s hysteria looks like a Hollywood remake of a bad script with different actors. Human beings will survive, as long as we don’t lose our humanity along the way.
And yes, you live in a bubble.
But let’s get back to business. You might be wondering, what’s this Pollyannaish screed got to do with brands? Well, everything.
The crises of 2020 hover over us like a cloud, but beneath our feet the foundation of our business has been crumbling.
We are the meat in a fear sandwich.
When people are too stressed to think big thoughts, ideas get smaller and more disposable. That’s the reason brand recall has plummeted, the same reason your advertising can’t break through. Iconic campaigns are more likely to be found on historical reels than anything made in the last 10 years. Margins are tighter than a Victorian corset, and everyone is feeling the squeeze.
If we don’t get our heads back into the game of creativity, the downward spiral will continue. Marketing will become mundane, clients will crumble under the pressure and the industry squeeze will continue until our better natures ooze between the fingers of the meanest procurement manager you’ve ever met.
Why do people play games on their phones, binge-watch a new series or read a book? To release endorphins, to escape, to come out the other side with a joyous jolt. On behalf of consumers everywhere, hold your marketing to the same standard. Pessimists never win, and fatalists never get invited to dinner.
Geico still makes me laugh, thank goodness. A handful of other brands create moments of genuine surprise and inspiration. Yes, companies have stakeholder responsibilities to their customers, their employees and their communities. But foremost among those is to be self-aware enough to realize there are more important things in my life than your brand, so if you’re going to interrupt my day, at least make me smile. Especially now.
Brands, put some positive energy into the world. Clients, be the best part of someone’s day before you ask them to open their wallets. Agencies, lighten up, because consumers can’t fit another rational thing in their heads right now.
Go forth and leave fear behind. And whatever you do, stay away from bats.