Australia’s strategy planners on how advertising can get through the crisis

By AdNews | 18 March 2020
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The coronavirus has huge implications for advertising, with some industries riding the storm and others sinking.

But there's opportunity in the waves of business and social change as some brands withdraw and others intensify their campaigns.

Lilian Sor, chief strategy officer, Clemenger BBDO Sydney: "This will test our mettle as an industry, but if we keep calm, plan well and carry on, we will get through this." 

Many advertisers will pull their media budgets and shift spend to later in the year but that could be an opportunity.

Independent strategy director Carl Ratcliff: "That means there’s a share of voice opportunity now for smaller brands and smaller budgets. There’ll be efficiencies and value to be gained in media generally."

Justin Graham, chief strategy officer, M&C Saatchi, says we must communicate now more than ever.

"Those organisations that care and carry will find a united and focused workforce when this is all over," he says.

Here are the thoughts of some of Australia’s leading strategy planners, and members of The Communications Council’s Account Planning Group committee, on what the industry can do to weather the COVID-19 storm:

Kate Smither - The Tall Planner owner and Account Planning Group co-chair:
It’s not the time to stay silent but relevance has never been more important.

Advertisers need to think more than ever about the semiotics of their ads. The context has changed, and, for example, what seemed like normal imagery yesterday will now seem like it’s breaking the rules of social distancing. Brands can’t ignore this, but they shouldn’t panic either. They should simply hold those ads back that seem insensitive, misguided or tone deaf but what brands and advertisers shouldn’t do is stop saying anything.

In a time of chaos and an emerging new normal, brands and marketers can give the market confidence, they can project a familiar normal and a degree of certainty that the world will go on. What this could mean is a return to more functional advertising, of brands getting back to their simple clear roots. It will also be a time when brands can act authentically and bring their business to life in a way that has genuine impact.kate smither

Brands may not save the world, but their marketing can create new solutions to problems we have never faced. Agencies can help by bringing creativity to solve clients’ problems in ways that are new and unthought of. We’re already seeing ideas pop up: opening up your store to free hand washing like Lush, or LVMH redirecting perfume manufacturing capabilities to making disinfectant gel for hand sanitiser to ensure French health authorities don’t run out.

Now is a time when brands can act and prove their empathy and when creativity has never been more important. For agencies and advertisers alike, it is a time when the focus should be on what they can say and do, not just whether they should save their spend or not.

Olly Taylor - chief strategy officer, Host/Havas: 
We are in a situation which is yet to fully reveal itself and in reality no one knows exactly what will happen but there are certain things we can observe, from what has happened around the world, that might well play out here.

A re-awakening of community: the more our communities become isolated the more we may appreciate the importance of human connection. Italian communities singing on their balconies is a perfect example of this and whilst the economic impacts could be devastating, maybe our sense of community will rebuild more quickly, and COVID-19 might have a lasting and positive effect on how we see community and our collective role in protecting it.

Pent up social demand: when we are unable to do what we want we will no doubt make the most of it when we can. Some of the worst hit categories like travel, tourism and entertainment will likely have a surge once isolation lifts. But how much social and travel behaviour has changed for the long term remains to be seen. Whatever happens we need to get ready for a return to sociability.

Changing digital behaviours: the experience in China, which is further along the pandemic curve than we are, indicates that certain niche digital behaviours have become more mainstream, like the digital exercise category and particularly online adult learning which has showed its biggest ever jump.Olly Taylor

Ecommerce itself has seen large penetration increases in previously hard to convince cohorts, namely the elderly and lower socio economic groups. Closer to home perhaps the biggest digital impact could be working from home (WFH). Will we love the independence and productivity, or will we miss the structure of human connection, and discipline? It will be interesting to see how technology and people themselves work as whole companies come into WFH en masse.

Brand Nimbleness: The major opportunity for brands and advertisers specifically is what happens in the next few weeks and months. In the short term the opportunity is for brands to be nimble and react to the current situation and gain marketing awareness and connection for initiatives they come up with. Indeed some brands will find themselves exiting the situation stronger than they went into it.

Our role as agencies is to offer counsel throughout and work out how we can help now and, importantly, when the big bang or re-consumption returns. The need for smart and effective communication strategies will be even greater then - we need to be working on those right now.

Justin Graham - chief strategy officer, M&C Saatchi:
"Everyone has a plan ‘till they get punched in the mouth." - Mike Tyson

I have never been a fan of boxing, but it feels like we are only in the early rounds of a fight that will go all the way.

So, what’s the game plan?

Clearly, the current environment presents us with a human threat as opposed to an existential economic threat. Advertising has been experiencing the latter for years!

So it is through the lens of humanity that advertisers will not just "get through the crisis" but find ways to better connect with humans.Justin Graham

What pleases me is the over-communication that we are experiencing.

Words like distancing and isolation have become the new norm. But, they carry huge implications for how our businesses run and the quality of advertising we are able to put into the world. We prosper through sharing. So, we must communicate more than ever and those organisations that care and carry will find a united and focused workforce when this is all over.

And for advertisers, again it’s about living their human side. Our client partner Woolworths went early this week with a wonderful initiative to open their stores early for pensioners and people with disability. Those members of society most in need. Woolies have long delivered good acts to the market, beyond just the functional proposition of food. It is initiatives such as these that will bind customers to brands into the future.

And in the meantime, as my commute has reduced to a ten-second stroll down the stairs like many others, I will be experiencing quantity family time, as opposed to quality.

Alison Tilling - chief strategy officer, VMLY&R ANZ:
As crises go (and we seem to have run the gauntlet this summer) COVID-19 is a biggie.

One way to get through is by concentrating on tone of action, not just tone of voice.

Walking the walk is nothing new. But it’s the good things a brand does when no-one is watching, just because they’re right, that are the things to focus on now. This isn’t purpose with a capital P and Sinek-style earnestness. It’s more ‘how’ a brand brings out the best in its people, its products, its culture, during testing times.

Woolworths has done a few things right, and its alliance with Meals on Wheels in particular is strong. Where possible they’ve also empowered staff to do the best they can and help as much as possible from each store, rather than waiting for direction from above.

Even better are the acts that brands do for their own employees, or empower employees to do for each other. For example, Twitter in the US is offering to cover extra day care costs for employees whose usual care is impacted by the virus.Alison Tilling

Acts speak loud, and their echoes in the coming months will be even more interesting.

Reacting fast and slow: the System 1/System 2 narrative is getting a lot of attention in our industry. Crises like COVID-19 engage System 1 because we have a strong gut reaction of fear, a reflex of worry. A rising panic starts to engage System 2: we want to analyse data, get ‘the facts’, reassure ourselves. But then System 1 kicks in again when there is a new announcement or restriction or, worse still, a personal impact..and so the cycle continues.

The government’s $35 million public education campaign is interesting in this respect. As education, it’s of course going to focus on System 2, but there is a big opportunity to fight some media scaremongering by engaging with System 1 and leveraging a positive emotional bond (with each other, not with the virus, obviously). Like the music played on the balconies in Italy, or the group exercise led from a rooftop in Spain, there is emotion here, the best of us in the worst of times, that might help frame the rational messages that are also crucially important.

Jody Elston - head of strategy, Richards Rose
It’s an emotional time right now. Our system 1 is in overdrive. Fear in particular is a powerful motivator. It is driving us to stockpile unreasonable amounts of basic necessities or just stick our head in the sand. And the latter response is not good for our industry. So here are some positive things we can do with our clients to get through this crisis with more than just a bunker full of toilet paper (or wine).

1. Show empathy. Remember during the GFC when Foxtel positioned itself as a smarter and more enjoyable way to manage money and nurture family time with The Good News Sale? It won a Gold Effie. Perhaps a brand can flip social isolation as time to “reconnect” as work and family life collide (for better or for worse!).

2. Take advantage of changing habits. During the depression Scotch sticky tape was invented for cash-strapped folk to repair things rather than replace them. People also want to feel good in dark times. While we postpone bigger ticket items, history tells us we still buy affordable luxuries. So if you’re selling lipstick or chocolate, now is a good time to get out there.

3. Speaking of which, one of the biggest client responses is to cut media investment. But data from previous recessions shows us this can set a brand back for years. Increasing spend during a downturn is often more effective at gaining market share than during boom periods. Why? Because it’s easier to get the extra share of voice required for growth.Jody Elston

4. If your client is throwing out the brand work in favour of price based offers, consider a brand response campaign which, Field and Binet prove with a nice looking chart, can drive short and long term effects. Crank up the emotion but with a behavioural prompt.

5. Finally, while many of us already use flextime and flex-place, this could be the crisis that tests and changes the way we all work for the better. We might never come back to the office like we did before because of our newfound creativity and efficiency.

So when you’re in lockdown over the coming weeks or even months, and thinking the world’s gone crazy, don’t just sit on your over-washed hands, start planning for a reset and remember our industry does crazy better than anyone.

Lilian Sor - chief strategy officer, Clemenger BBDO Sydney
These are uncertain times. Or, to use an old army acronym, times of VUCA – Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity.

Our role as marketers and agencies is to scenario plan what we can and can’t control, and determine where we can use our voice as big businesses to keep Australians calm, inspired, motivated and hopeful – especially now when the world is in uncharted waters.

There is also opportunity that lies beneath the fear.

For example, CPG goods are experiencing unprecedented demand. One could say the advertising tap isn’t needed – but the job is the same as it was, if not heightened: to ensure the brands we represent are an active choice by consumers. Make us the brand that people want, and not the brand that’s the last one sitting on the shelf. And once our products are in pantries, trigger-trial in ways that keeps consumers coming back for more.Lillian Sor

On the other side of the coin, industries such as travel, education and hospitality are hurting. But though it may not feel like it today, this too shall pass.

So, how can we plan for the euphoria and sense of newfound freedom that people will feel once COVID-19 has passed? How do we celebrate and embrace the parts of life that the virus has temporarily taken away from us?

Learnings from past crises such as Kellogg’s doubling its ad spend to introduce a new cereal during the Great Depression, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell outshooting McDonald’s during the ’91 recession, and Amazon’s investment in innovation to outpace the market during the slowdown of the ‘90s show us that leadership from brands now pays dividends later.

This will test our mettle as an industry, but if we keep calm, plan well and carry on, we will get through this.

Smiljka Dimitrijevic - strategy director, 303 MullenLowe Perth
With the current need to put some physical distance between us and the world around us, our mindsets (and business models) have had to change overnight. The speed with which COVID-19 has impacted everything from our handshakes to shopping aisles makes me think of A Handmaid’s Tale and just how quickly whole worlds and societies can be turned upside down. It’s the lateral thinkers among us who will make this new reality work, and work quickly.Smiljka Dimitrijevic

Like everyone else, clients and agencies are faced with the challenges that come with that. One challenge I’m working on is to orchestrate a phenomenal, high impact launch for a brand we’re working with. The launch isn’t until early June, but chances are that we are now operating in a version of the ‘new normal’, and even in June large-scale interactive events will most likely not be a part of that ‘new normal’…just yet. But the brief is the same – create impact and engagement on a large scale.

Luckily for the foresight of Sir Timothy John Berners-Lee, I suspect the one place where people will still be gathering in huge (rising?) numbers is online.

This is the perfect opportunity for all of us to ensure our organisations are armed with the technology that not only allows our staff to get their jobs done remotely, but for customers to be able to hear about us, find us, and purchase from us without ever stepping out of their self-isolation chambers - or homes.

Carl Ratcliff – Independent strategy director

I think it’s reasonable to say that no other crisis has quite impacted the global economy so quickly - Spanish Flu and World Wars aside.

For any agency, of any size or scale, its staff have to be their number one priority right now. Indeed, a silver lining in this current crisis is that more conservative agency governance will see the benefits of remote working and a flexible approach in general.

Outside of the need to look out and after one another, agency owners and leaders will need to reassure their staff that they will not be held responsible for softening forecasts. A slower approach to business may become a welcome corollary also for those used to its harry and hurry.Carl Ratcliff

For brands, there is a silver lining to consider too. Many advertisers will pull their media budgets and shift their spend out to later in the year. That means there’s a share of voice opportunity now for smaller brands and smaller budgets. There’ll be efficiencies and value to be gained in media generally.

Is this a time to be advertising? Would it damage the brand in any way?

These are questions for marketing teams to work through, with their agencies, but all should be aware of the strong benefit associated with advertising during a recession - virus-stimulated or not.

This pandemic will plateau. And when it does, new normals may have in fact been established for agencies - as well as new opportunities for those brands who tacked judiciously during this extraordinary time.

Have something to say on this? Share your views in the comments section below. Or if you have a news story or tip-off, drop us a line at adnews@yaffa.com.au

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