COVID-19 has led to unprecedented uncertainty for young planners, writes Sofia Bodger.

The global advertising industry is no stranger to disruption. From media fragmentation, the decline of retained clients, to specialisation restructurings, the next generation of strategists are already entering a fractured model. Insert COVID-19 into the mix and irrevocable interruption has led to unprecedented uncertainty for young planners.

Although we cannot predict the future for this next generation of planners, we can help prepare for it.

The Future of Strategy 2020

This article is part of WARC's The Future of Strategy report, which is based on a global survey of senior strategists and in 2020 focuses on the impact of COVID-19 on strategy.

Read the full report

What does the planning community need to fight for?

The pandemic has resulted in a considerable drop in advertising spend. Large-scale redundancies have driven 23% of strategy departments to make cuts to talent, and the industry is now at risk of losing future leaders. For those at the beginning of their careers, a cut in budgets has led to a decline in internship roles, less opportunity and training, as well as a reinforcement of the need for more senior experienced planners.

COVID-19 has and will result in clients facing more complex and unpredictable issues, requiring strategists with specialised experience in behavioural science, digital technologies and data analytics to future proof the effectiveness of campaigns. This is not the first time we’ve felt the force of disruption, so for young planners feeling insecure in job roles – extending your skillset offering is the first step to proving your value. It is important for the emerging planning community to not lose sight of career development, to fight for budgets in order to grow skillsets and counter the disruption COVID-19 will cause to us all.

D&I agendas were the first to be cut

The cut in budgets has disproportionately impacted D&I teams, who we saw among the first to be either furloughed or made redundant. Fear of the potential knock-on effect on efforts to improve the diversity of strategy teams are clearly well founded.

Now, we see agencies across the globe stepping up to support the Black Lives Matter movement. It is important to highlight that D&I and BLM are not the same thing. Agencies don’t miss out on black talent because of a lack of D&I initiatives; they lose out because of structural and unconscious racism and biases. The BLM movement however, has forced agencies to look at the structural issues and challenges that POC face.

While BLM has contributed to ensuring that D&I agendas are back on the table, COVID-19 has and will continue to threaten current progress in this area. The diversity of strategists is vitally important if we want to move our industry forward and break out of our complacent white middle class bubble. We already know that thinkers and people of diversity can tell profound stories and deliver impactful work, and yet strategy departments are at risk of losing touch with consumers and culture if D&I policies are abandoned.

The importance of culture

As a person of mixed heritage working as a strategist, the culture and atmosphere within the agency I work for is a critical factor when applying for a role. It reflects the internal health of the business, and impacts my everyday environment and my relationship with the people I work with. The sense of direction, the people, the diversity, the inclusiveness of an agency are all key considerations when deciding to take a job or not.

I recently started working at a new agency and spent a total five weeks in the office. As a result of COVID-19, I have met the majority of my new colleagues over Zoom. To be clear, I’m adjusting and enjoying parts of the new norm. However I miss the creative atmosphere a buzzing agency can create. From the morning coffee chats to cracking behaviour change briefs with other strategists, collaboration is key to driving innovation. Unfortunately, COVID-19 has restricted this teamwork and reduced the opportunity to collaborate on projects and physically knock heads together in the same room. This I fear will impact culture and the competitive culture to win.

To conclude…

I love working in agencies as much for the work as the people. For all the benefits of working from home, COVID-19 has had many detrimental impacts on jobs, training, diversity and creativity. For the next generation of planners, keeping on top of the D&I agendas, training and maximising opportunity, will be key to reversing the disruption of the virus.