Covid-19 has stripped us of all our normality; it has broken all the rules, dumped the usual, made business plans fail and made experts average. It has negated all predictions and tested all our hopes. It has led to significant changes in day to day routines and forced us to learn new ways of doing things. Staying at home is the new norm, buying decisions have moved almost exclusively online and even the way we consume content has changed.
A common opinion (more than opinion, an experience actually!) about Covid-19 is that it has challenged everything we are used to; loving, behaving, living, dating, studying, learning, exploring, wearing, shopping, going out, exercising, thinking, planning, travelling, working, communicating, meeting, socialising, celebrating, problem-solving, selling, delivering, branding, marketing and even breathing and washing our hands.
They say necessity is the mother of invention, but I would say that Covid-19 has been the grandfather of acceleration and any intelligent evaluation of the pandemic is that it is not really an agent of change but an accelerator of trends that were already underway. Not only this; the speed it took us all, as well as governments, supply chains and economic systems to adapt to a new way of life is incredible. We have seen what can be achieved when distractions are removed and transformational programmes are prioritised. Covid-19 has woken us. It is as if we needed a shock and surprise therapy to push us through transformations we previously thought would take years to happen, but in fact, were achieved in just weeks.
Marketing companies and advertising agencies were already experiencing innumerable challenges before the pandemic. Brands were already in a moment of self-evaluation about their value and contribution to a greater purpose, and with Covid-19, values and behaviour became so much more important for brands than they ever were.
Brand communication during Covid-19 can be summed up by two approaches. The ‘branded sorry’ and the ‘understanding’ approach. The ‘branded sorry’ approach was when brands said: “We feel sorry for you, therefore we are giving away free food and other items to some of you and please remember us and keep buying our products”. I think this approach has a disconnect between a need for whatever that product provides and the actual consumer sentiment. In the ‘understanding’ approach brands said: “We are with you and have been with you all along; we therefore understand you and your needs in these difficult times. Our only purpose is to engage.” Brands with good intentions resonated with consumers as well as retailers (they suffered equally if not more). As a brand, you always want to be of service to your audience – sometimes it is a utility, sometimes a business innovation that provides relief or a convenience and sometimes it is about entertaining people.
Now, as the impact of Covid-19 presents even tougher and more complicated challenges, it equally demands new ways of solving the same problem. As a result, brands and agencies have to strategically plan and invest in thinking what it will take for them to thrive; surviving is no longer an option and brands and agencies that try to hold on to their current position will either regress further or fall flat. The only way to survive is to thrive and that too aggressively.
Covid-19 showed us that cutting out the bull from everything can make a difference on all levels – technological advancement, acceptance, meaningful engagement, prioritising the important and clearly understanding the difference between must-have versus good-to-have. Basically simplifying – killing everything that made things more complicated.
The same goes for advertising and brand building. We now know that the key to success is to cut out the bull from the way we have been engaging with audiences and our previous ways of thinking and executing. Covid-19 has made all of us realise that KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) is it! Brands have to prove themselves again to win back consumer preference.
Cutting out the bull sounds easy, but it is scary for most of us as we have become so used to it. However, if we are able to identify the bull in our systems, processes, communication messages and ways of communicating, we will have a real chance to bring in change. But it will not happen until we review and rethink everything we do and how we do it.
Agencies that will not only sail but thrive during these times know that the art of winning is in focusing on what really matters to the brands they manage and knowing how to communicate with their audiences. Brand communications must be less cute and more straightforward. Stopping to assess if the efforts made are really driving value. Being more meaningful in order to get closer to audiences. Reviewing communication efforts and business strategies to re-understand the audience and drive the attributable values. Pushing sales will be less effective compared to campaigns that drive awareness, engagement and brand love. Collaborating and consulting with the right partners to build genuine relationships with audiences will be at the top of the agenda.
Running an ad agency business is like running a tight ship. The first rule is that no agency will last without sound financial acumen and operational leadership that is open to new ways of reducing or scrapping discretionary expenses. The focus has to be on client and employee retention. Flexibility must be exercised to align the agency’s business with the client’s needs and growth strategies will play a vital role in retaining and growing business.
Adapting systems, processes and tools which can provide cost savings, increased utility and client value will shine in the eyes of the clients. At this time, what matters most to clients is an agency’s ability to prove their true love as a partner by offering to help in areas they may be struggling in. Putting in more effort in pitching new ideas to existing clients will be wiser than pitching new ideas to potential clients. In-sourcing (whereby agencies provide clients with services that are not just limited to creative ideation and execution) could be the secret recipe to increasing agency revenue, but this will only be successful if the agency is able to bring effective and unique solutions to clients. Chasing every opportunity for new business that comes one’s way is never a good idea; being smart and selective about pitching is. Agencies with a diverse knowledge of categories and audiences will be in demand compared to general creatives. Driving campaigns on insightful strategies will be more important than ever, as clients are looking for unique solutions to business challenges and not just creative options.
It will be tough for those agencies that still do not realise that they have to change their models immediately. The world has moved ahead many years in a span of just a few months and any business that cannot immediately move forward will not survive.
Asim Naqvi is CEO, Ogilvy Pakistan.