Opinion: 4 ways the pandemic is fast-forwarding our industry for the better
We’re all feeling it—the persistent anxiety coming from the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic. Its effects are hitting our industry pretty damn hard. But we’re certainly not alone in this and, along with fear of the unknown, there’s also the resiliency of hope. It may feel like it’s in short supply these days, but it’s there if you’re willing to see it.
My list, so far, includes: experiencing my mom's joy when I connected her with her best friends over Zoom on her 77th birthday; driving by a happy couple with a newborn baby taking a #TheFrontStepsProject portrait; being able to do workouts outside in the spring sun with my socially distant trainer; and finding my old microcassette recorder with a tape inside of an interview I did with my grandfather 28 years ago.
The fact that we’re adapting to a different way of living is further proof that the human spirit is irrepressible. And while there’s ample speculation as to what degree these behavioral adaptations will carry over into the post-pandemic world, there’s no doubt the behavioral and economic effects of COVID-19 are fast-forwarding our lives to a state that was already inevitable.
Yes, there are grim things happening within our industry as a result of COVID-19, but let’s take a moment to recognize some of the good that will come from this brute force-of-hand.
Agencies will finally become more nimble
A tidal wave has been heading toward agencies for years: The threats of big consulting, insourcing and margin pressures have steadily chipped away at a once-flourishing business model. No longer can agencies merely rely on cost-cutting measures and incremental changes to succeed.
The collective soul-searching that’s happening across ad land right now is encouraging. And that’s because there’s now little choice but to finally reengineer the agency model into one that’s far more efficient and with a clearly articulated vision for itself. This starts with each agency truly defining and doubling down on its unique value to brands, while divesting commoditized capabilities that are easily outsourced.
It takes the form of a lot less layers of people who are now working together in dedicated, tightly knit teams and held accountable to business results. And it means being way less precious and far more agile about content creation—being intentional to media spaces, especially when ad-skipping and dismissal are the norm. Ultimately, the agencies that will flourish will be digitally led and equally strong in both data-driven strategy and culturally led creativity.
'Emerging' media becomes mainstream media
Let’s look at a few stats over the past month or so: Streams on Twitch are up 20 percent, Disney+ just about doubled its subscriber base to 50 million, Zoom has seen its daily active users quadruple, e-commerce orders are up 54 percent year-over-year, and TikTok now has close to 2 billion installs. The fact is, digital platforms everywhere are seeing massive gains. Sure, the boredom factor that comes with quarantining has incited additional screen time, but it’s much more than just that.
Staying at home has forced once tech-nascent people to embrace technology. I love hearing stories like the one about the 85-year-old grandmother who is using Zoom so she can still have her morning coffee with her friends. Or seeing families smile and laugh while making TikTok videos together. And, of course, many people are now buying things online for the very first time.
These aren’t fleeting behaviors but habits that have evolved out of necessity, exposing entire segments of people to the convenience and value (and fun) of modern media. And once you’re actively using something, it’s that much harder to give it up. Let’s face it, our media usage has been fast-forwarded.
Innovation speeds its focus on health, safety and connection
While innovation budgets are often cut during economic downturns, that line item should arguably be one of the last places to get hit. Innovations in healthcare are on the fast track, including chatbot self-triage tools, telemedicine options and 3D printing of test kit parts. Then there’s the recently announced Apple-Google partnership to use Bluetooth technology in detecting and tracing COVID-19 contact to prevent the spread of the virus.
At the same time, many media platforms have sped up their product-development road maps to help bring people together virtually. Twitch is rolling out Prime watch parties so that popular streamers can commentate live on Amazon’s video library with their subscribers. And Instagram launched its “media sharing” feature so people can browse posts together while on a video chat.
It’s exactly during times like these where companies need to think differently about how they operate and serve their customers. As a result, digital transformation efforts are accelerating to keep pace with audience needs.
Marketing anchors itself on building trust
Back in February, I made the case for brand trust as the foundational building block of earning customer devotion. And now that’s more important than ever. This month, according to a University of Michigan poll, consumer confidence in the U.S. saw a record decline. In the short term, many brands are adopting a position of radical altruism by putting people over profits—focusing on how they can best support their communities and even society-at-large. And while this is good, it shouldn’t take a global pandemic for brands to do the right thing.
A brand’s purpose has to be born out of its deeply rooted value system for it to be seen as authentic. And a brand’s actions must consistently demonstrate that purpose in order for it to be credible—both are important to building trust. When money starts flowing back into the economy and consumer confidence begins to tick upward, there’s hope that brands will retain a purpose-led mentality or else risk losing trust.
I spent some time last weekend digitizing the interview I did with my Pépère back in 1992. In doing so, I got to hear stories about his resiliency, humility and adaptability during the great depression, as well as what that meant to his life and how it affected the thread mill industry in which he worked.
It became even more clear to me that as the media and advertising industry comes to terms with the inevitable as a result of this pandemic, we too all have a similar wherewithal to adapt to new paradigms, drive innovation and support one another to serve our clients, our users and our customers—no matter how this new normal fast-forwards consumer behavior.