2020 will always be remembered for COVID-19. But in the agency world, it has another significance. For a long time, lip service was paid to the idea of “humanising” the brand – giving brands a relatable and empathetic voice to reflect their values. COVID-19 presented a unique opportunity to catapult this thinking into action, writes Kanika Bali.

Companies were challenged to get their messaging spot-on – both towards their own employees, whose health and safety were paramount, and to their customer base, who were dealing with unprecedented challenges.

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

This shift in focus towards meeting customer needs over creating wants was a significant pivot, but on paper, agencies were prepared for it. For strategists, the audience and their needs have always been front and centre when creating insights and briefs, and working towards the long-term goal of building brand equity. But the secular impact of COVID – across young and old, high- and low-income, almost every race, and nationality – may have shone a light on some of the shortcomings of our teams. For a large part of history, our popular culture, shaped and driven by advertising, has been surprisingly homogenous. While our audience is not.

This begs the question: are our strategy departments representative of the population? Historically, no. The Call for Change letter by 1,200 of our Black colleagues calls out the pervading mono-cultures in our agencies and sets out 12 actionable steps to change. This is a timely and necessary awakening for the industry, which led decisive action from large conglomerates like WPP, which has pledged “$30 million over the next three years to fund inclusion programmes within WPP and to support external organisations.”

This goes to show that inclusive hiring practices are being prioritised (hopefully), to bring a diverse mix of voices, perspectives and experience into the strategy and creative process.

Humanising brands must necessarily celebrate the unique values of a brand, while remaining inclusive of diverse backgrounds rather than having a marginalizing influence. A great example is the Dove Real Beauty campaign which showcased Dove’s values of self-care and confidence, while featuring models from a variety of female-identifying and gender non-conforming backgrounds. The campaign successfully evoked an inclusive notion of female beauty. As the world deals with a global pandemic, it is especially important for this inclusivity to be on display, and to be successful at this, we must develop teams that have diverse perspectives, skillsets, cultural knowledge and experiences.

Diversity needs to include people across the ethnic, cultural, physical ability, gender and sexuality spectrum. Diverse teams with people from a variety of backgrounds will push to break stereotypes by pushing success stories, being champions for non-traditional casting and to call out group think in the advertising process. Authentic representation pulls us up as agencies, people and sculptors of social norms and popular culture.

It is important to acknowledge that agencies themselves are feeling the crunch of COVID, with tightening budgets. The possibility of in housing also tends to create a lot of concern. There is great pressure on retained staff to build new, multi-faceted skillsets and push work out in shorter periods of time. Strategists increasingly need to possess an understanding of traditional and digital channels to the T, build customer and experience design into their briefs and most importantly put customer engagement into each aspect of their work.

This makes it especially important for us to open the door to future strategists of non-traditional backgrounds. As the foundational skillset of research and analytical thinking evolves, building a big tent for more diverse professional backgrounds will help enhance our client offerings, and build inclusivity into each aspect of our work. We might also reframe the trend of in housing as a positive – an opportunity for agencies to engage clients in hybrid models, where the best and brightest of their diverse team take secondments with the client.

Our people are our biggest asset. People driven by strong strategy and creativity and bolstered by strong, evolving technology. As the industry moves towards faster, leaner production and more analytical, digital driven, one stop shops, this asset must be leveraged.