We’re past the two month mark as COVID-19 continues to upend American society, and while marketers are not on the front lines like people who work in health care, food service, or delivery, we’ve still been tremendously affected – both agencies and clients have been forced to change how they do business. Which of the changes are likely to stick, and what are their implications? Let’s take a look.
The Promise and Pitfalls of Rapid Response
To begin, we saw both agencies and brands stepping up with very rapid responses to meet demands stemming from the onset of the COVID-19 crisis. This wasn’t just a factor of time; social distancing meant that folks had to get innovative in how they produced work as well as how quickly they did. Having demonstrated this ability, we should expect agencies to be called upon to apply it in the years to come as brands seek to capitalize on rapidly-unfolding events or even short-term trends of interest to their consumers with topical integrated campaigns.
One of the problems with rapid response in a time of crisis is that it’s too easy to play it safe – and worse, to play it safe the same way everybody else is. That exact phenomenon played out as numerous brands turned out ads that were largely indistinguishable. But that phenomenon was, fortunately, not truly universal. With a feed that by early April was every bit as focused on educating followers about sound information gathering and statistical rigor as it was on the virtues of frozen beef,
Steak-umm was perhaps the exemplar of a counter-trend that has seen some brands speaking up in very unexpected ways. More importantly, people ate it up (pun intended). It’s good to be reminded that one need not be transgressive to be daring.
Response to Pressure by Some Means More Pressure for Others
The economic crisis stemming from COVID-related shutdowns hasn’t just affected the work agencies have been doing; it’s put tremendous pressure on agencies themselves – particularly smaller ones. Publicis Groupe’s announcement of The Pact, an offering centered upon a money-back guarantee made to medium-sized clients, shows how larger organizations may be poised to press their own advantages. While this effort was under consideration anyway, the combination of pressure on both those clients and the smaller agencies that have traditionally based their business model on them created an opportunity for Publicis to run with a stability-based strategy. We should expect to see more holding companies and larger agencies leverage their scale in similar ways as long as economic conditions remain unsettled.
Whither (or Wither) the Office?
On a lighter note, the open office plan may be the one unlamented casualty of the COVID era. Workers have been complaining about these for years, of course, but office design habits proved stubbornly resistant until it became apparent that cramming people tightly together in spaces with no walls was literally life-threatening. Now they’re inevitably on the way out, and design firms are already developing the next paradigm. While most of the proposed features seem worker-friendly, expect resistance to any proposal to track employee movements, although this may be muted if unemployment remains high well into 2021.
It will take a great deal of time to rebuild the office spaces of a nation the size of the United States. The logistics are daunting, and finances will constrain many firms’ ability to immediately make the required investments. In the meantime, both agencies and clients are discovering just how much work can be done remotely – and how effectively. This is changing the conversation from “can we bring everyone back” to “should we bring everyone back” and the answer is “no”. The implications are profound; changed habits, savings, and continued efforts to mitigate the spread of future pandemics all incentivize fewer people working in offices and greater flexibility for those who do. So while we should expect the contractors’ bonanza to last for years (and help drive the recovery), it won’t end with a return to “normal”. Not for office folks, anyway.
Shifting Terrain in the Battle for Consumer Hearts and Minds
The shift to remote work won’t just affect how marketers will do business. It also has implications for media placement. Dollars follow eyeballs, after all, and with fewer people commuting to work over the long run more of those eyeballs will be focused on screens than bus stops and highway billboards, particularly in dense urban areas where the impact of social distancing has been most keenly felt.
Finally, it’s worth remembering that despite frequent claims to the contrary, people tend to have very long memories – particularly about traumatic events or actions that made them angry. The spectacle of large restaurant chains and other decidedly non-mom & pop organizations applying for funds intended to help small businesses keep people on payroll, and then using the cash for myriad other purposes, will have substantial impacts on marketing for years to come, as will impressions of how brands treated their employees during a period that’s seen 30 million people lose their jobs.
All This Is Just the Beginning…
It’s impossible for a quick survey of trends to examine any one of them in too much depth, but this likely won’t be the last time we visit this topic. And we’d love to discuss any or all of them further! Please share your thoughts on how the COVID crisis has affected your business, and how you expect those changes to play out in the months and years to come.