Published in Jul-Aug 2020
We are living through the greatest human tragedy since World War II. Covid-19 is the most serious global pandemic since the Spanish flu, which claimed over 50 million lives. Yet, humans are resilient; we have dormant abilities to come together and rise up from the ashes. If history is our teacher, we have learned that great suffering has always preceded great progress.
World War II started on horseback and ended with modern tanks and fighter aircraft; a necessary change for armies to survive the war. Soon after that war ended, 500 million people were infected and 50 million died from the Spanish flu. The tragedy forced people to permanently change their hygiene habits in order to survive the outbreak (perhaps a reason why Covid-19 has not been as lethal as it could have been). Mankind achieved more technological breakthroughs during World War II than in the centuries that preceded it; advancements such as rockets, nuclear power and modern computing which make our modern lifestyles possible.
Now Covid-19 is forcing people to drastically change their behaviour. These changes include: being less social; working from home; ordering online; watching more TV, spending more time on social media and washing hands more often. These fast changing behavioural changes are likely to become permanent. Consumers will continue to purchase most of their favourite brands during this crisis, but the way they access their brands will be subject to a great deal of change. Some of the sectors (and brands) that have been hit the hardest include sports (poor PSL), hospitality, restaurants and airlines, although I expect them to bounce back once a vaccine is found. Needless to say, Pakistan’s GDP and exports will take a major hit.
The knee-jerk reaction for advertisers during a crisis is to apply the brakes on spend. Although I don’t believe this is the best thing to do, I understand why advertisers would want to preserve their precious capital. In these circumstances, agencies have to choose; either shrivel into their shells or step out of their comfort zones and take aggressive steps to save their businesses. The former will lead to cost cutting and in turn to the depletion of agencies’ capacity and critical mass, making it difficult to bounce back. If you choose to adapt the latter approach, here is my advice.
Be Brave and Make Covid-19 Your Business
This may seem counter-intuitive, but agencies need to move out of their comfort zone and take Covid-19 head-on by making it their priority and getting on top of Covid-19 insights. Agencies need to feel the changing pulse of consumer behaviour and have the guts to push their clients into continuing to connect with their consumers to avoid losing market share. Brands need to pivot to become meaningful to consumers in a state of crisis and their agencies need to help them navigate these new waters so that the brands can achieve favourable outcomes. Some brands have managed to pivot to their advantage. Jazz is a good example of a brand that took the first mover advantage by recognising the heightened importance of mobile and digital services and stepped up by raising awareness about the disease and then becoming part of the solution by introducing special data packages for people working from home as well as allowing customers to transfer their balances to other users free of charge. Competition between brands is no longer about which products perform best or which ones have a price advantage; it is about which brand best succeeds in connecting with consumers to address their Covid-19 needs. This can only happen when agencies help their brands pivot in a broader and more human way than usually dictated by traditional branding norms. If brands insist on crawling into their shells, agencies should find ways of attracting other brands that are interested in adopting a confident approach.
It doesn’t matter how big your billing used to be, the only thing that matters is how quickly your agency can adapt to the new normal. Becoming faster is not a comfortable process. Strategies need to be developed faster and insights mined faster. Campaign rollout times need to go from months to weeks or even days; being relevant to the situation needs to happen today and not the day after tomorrow.
Drop the Baggage
In this scenario, the last thing agencies need are ankle weights bringing them down. Quickly determine what is essential to get through this crisis and cut your anticipated losses now. Hang on to your capital as if your life depended on it (it does) and question every resource and process your agency follows. If they don’t help at this point, chances are you can do without them. We are still at the early stages of this crisis, so get ready for a long and potentially painful journey.
Prepare for a Post Covid-19 Future Now
Even if the present is dire, agencies need to think about the future, because Covid-19 will not last forever once a vaccine becomes available. The post Covid-19 period will be another time of rapid change and realignment. Brands and agencies slow to act stand to lose market share and the brands with foresight will gain.
One day we will look back at Covid-19 and remember it as the biggest crisis we faced in our lifetime. Hopefully, we will remember this period as a time humanity united to defeat the disease and when the world became a little less polluted in the process.
Afzal Hussain is Chief Strategy Officer/General Manager, M&C Saatchi World Services Pakistan.