Outfit's Tim Brown argues that while COVID-19 disruption has hit agencies badly, it is also a much-needed wakeup to transform both business and work, to survive and move forward into a very changed future.

No-one would argue that COVID-19 is a welcome visitor, or that it is the kind of disrupter that anyone would wish for. However, disrupt it has. As Sir Martin Sorrell commented recently, it’s acted as a catalyst for consumer change, a shift to digital and acceleration of digital transformation. That last point he believes will be a game-changer for previously risk-averse CEOs.

“Now all bets are off...Q2 is and will be such a disaster, we’ll see that in the reporting season already [sic], that they don’t care about creating real disruption”. And for some industries, the disruption will encourage some soul searching and a good long look at oneself.

The big one, eradicating fear, building trust

The majority of ad agencies, if you look past the public face, are run from a place of fear. Agencies are constantly worried about their own demise (because everyone keeps telling them it’s all over) and that fear, whatever shape it comes in, inevitably flows down through the organisation.

Where does the fear come from?

A number of places including:

  1. Shrinking budgets
  2. Where the next big brand campaign is coming from
  3. Consultancies are circling
  4. Independents are rising
  5. The worry that ‘our people are looking elsewhere’
  6. The perception that creatives are shirking work
  7. FOMO of whether we are skilled up on the right trending tech
  8. Clients are in-housing

And so the list goes on.

Agency leadership have so many reasons to be concerned that the worry does not allow for problems to be solved.

Marketing in the COVID-19 crisis

This article is part of a special WARC Snapshot focused on enabling brand marketers to re-strategise amid the unprecedented disruption caused by the novel coronavirus outbreak.

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So how has COVID-19 changed the game here?

Many of the factors above are a constant but what agencies can do better, and what COVID-19 may well have forced, is for agencies to trust their people more. Creative teams particularly have been vulnerable to agency leadership not trusting their use of time or where they spend their time. Please know a creative’s timesheet is never accurate so if you are using these to try and garner any useful information whatsoever it is all bad data. 

As someone who has looked after creative services for big multinationals, I know that the ideas that spark most great creative work, are not born in an office environment. Or necessarily on agency time. So why are agencies so obsessed with locking their creatives in. I think we’ll find that forcing a little less ‘ever-present’ big brother and a little more freedom in their teams' work habits will result in more efficient teams and better creative work. Which though often talked about and seldom nurtured, is what the agency exists for.

Digital transformation

Yes, I know it is a tired term. Often misused and misunderstood. And one which is getting a full refresh in the midst of Covid-19 ‘rapid transformation’ memes. My current employer, pre-COVID, had us all for the most part, working in the office. However, all the software, assets, systems and processes in place (and I mean every last one) were cloud-based and accessible from anywhere without the need for an IT person to set up VPNs into the server or any other number of inefficient and potentially compromising software to connect with the office. We were able to all pick up our workstations and start working from home immediately. Writing this down makes it seem like this should be an obvious way of working. 

Believe me though, most agencies weren’t ready, I have heard many stories of people waiting for IT to make working from home possible. From an industry that should be thinking and acting ahead of the curve, this is a little embarrassing.

Workflow and responsiveness

COVID-19 has forced a position of feast or famine for marketers. I realise that is an incredibly insensitive term to use but it is accurate. Some marketers are busier than ever as they look for ways to manage their brands through a period of high demand. Or they have the runway to keep up their brand work as Mark Ritson constantly reminds us we should be doing. Other industries are faced with a situation that no amount of marketing can save. And I really feel for those industries and those people. Those that are busy though are VERY busy. These busy marketers do not have time to wait for agency workflow or for outdated finished art studios to create multiple versions of their campaign material. Market sentiment and government policy changes from week to week (sometimes daily) and the smart agencies will have processes and products in place to be able to keep pace with it.

Here’s a rough guide for you, allow space for your most valuable product, strategy and creative, to work efficiently, while automating as much production and repetitive design changes as you can. If you have clients in industries that are busy or need to be present in the market and you are not being briefed. Bad luck, they’re briefing someone else.

And finally, the other big one, value.

This is the one that is going to have a lot of agencies worrying and marketers looking at. Marketers are under incredible pressure at the moment, and not just from Mark Ritson (again) calling them arse hats. Whether they are incredibly busy and the pressure is on them to save the business or they are not busy at all and worrying about their future. Either way, they will be thinking about the value of the agency. If they are busy and they have a true agency partner showing value, they might remember it but if they are not being supported at the pace that they have to work they will definitely remember it and you will hear about it. Some have bigger issues around saving their business right now.

If clients are not busy, you can bet they are spending time planning their post-COVID strategy and will likely have less budget to play with. As Sorrell maintains, it’s only those in advertising recommending to spend your way out of a recession. So on the other side if you have not delivered value...well, I think you know the rest.