Shann Biglione explores four themes that will be on many media strategists' minds as they look for ways out of the COVID-19 crisis. 

Every crisis starts with the same prophecy: this time, it’s different. It’s bigger, it’s deeper, it’s more structural, it’s a supply problem, it’s a demand problem... The reality is, it’s a crisis, and like every crisis before it, it’s never a bad idea to look back to understand what may be coming in order to frame what may be changing. Below are four directions that are likely to be on many media strategists’ mind.

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

IN: Protecting your brand investments

In 2008, and the years that followed, marketing saw what we could define as an effectiveness depression: a rush to short termism, fuelled by an appetite for immediate returns and the explosion of media solutions promising hyper efficient targeting without any loss to overall effectiveness. It turned out that having our tracking cookies and eating them too wasn’t necessarily the healthiest marketing diet. The good news is that the teachings of Byron Sharp, Binet & Field and Mark Ritson are becoming mainstream in the marketing industry, providing ammunition for more reasonable strategies. Marketers are now openly discussing their plans to keep investing as much as possible to protect their brands through the crisis and ready them for the next few years. Brands should never let a crisis go to waste, and for most of them it means protecting your media budgets, capitalizing on an overall market slump to grow your share of voice at a lower cost, and keep investing in brand-building communications.

OUT: Media commitments

The way we operate media budgets has changed drastically over the last decade or so, with an ever-increasing shift towards flexible media buys. Of course, the desire for more flexibility is not something new, with many advertisers trying to find alternatives to big upfront buys. But the reality is that more and more media owners are now offering very flexible ways to buy, and many of these now offer pretty sizeable audiences to build reach against. In simple terms, marketers have choice, and sometimes the way we buy matters as much as what we buy. In a world where uncertainty is so high, advertisers will increasingly value the ability to shift their budgets on a whim – and ideally at the click of a mouse. Expect a lot of 2021 media strategies to be echoing this appetite, increasing share of solutions that can be flexed in and out of a trend, and forcing some of the most rigid to loosen their terms.

IN: E-commerce taking a front seat

One of the greatest accelerations we’ve seen from COVID-19 has been e-commerce’s progress in consumer habits, growing as fast in the last three months as it was expected to grow in the next three years. This matters because it will greatly influence how media operates, and leaves marketers with some important questions to explore in their future strategies. Of course, there will be temptation to ask every media format to link back to e-commerce sales, with partnerships exploding left, right and center to offer as much “click-to-buy” compatibility as possible. But the real question will not be how we can activate everywhere – let’s be honest, we’ve been there and we know it has limits. It will be about how we redefine the way a brand is experienced on e-commerce platforms. Future-facing media strategies will obsess about ways to land the brand’s story and content to life on those apps and websites. They will support efforts to rethink the way the product is packaged (and in some cases personalized). And they will no doubt reshuffle the cards in the game of media partnerships, posing a threat to major media owners who are not able to activate in this space. Being strong on video or social will not be enough anymore, and we can expect media owners to place bets that keep them in the retail game.

OUT: Strategy’s superiority complex

It may sound trite to some, but it’s virtually impossible to do proper strategic planning without a solid understanding of the tactical side. When faced with a fast-evolving crash like we are experiencing, telling your clients to invest in brand advertising matters, but it will severely test a strategist’s tactical edge. After all, you can’t cut costs without understanding the contracts, the same way you can’t plan for reach without mastering the way video views are tracked. Thus, understanding how each media platform operates is mission critical if you want to make recommendations that are remotely actionable. Fancy an advanced audience personalization campaign on Facebook? You better be familiar with the way audiences are bid on, and how precision impacts your ability to drive reach. Feeling lucky about tackling Tik Tok’s audience of light TV viewers? You better be well versed in the inner dynamics of the platform if you want to even be noticed. There is a long list of tactical realities that strategists need to get close to, from the ways KPIs are tracked to the way the tools to buy operate. Strategy is going to have to obsess a lot with the how, and let go of this notion that strategic means “smart” and tactical means “shallow”. Tactical can often be a hammer looking for nails, but it also means capable, realistic and practical. And when it comes to media, the strategic devil will lie in the tactical details.