Christian Polman: will the new agile way of working last?

Under the sustained pressure of coronavirus, many advertisers and their agency partners have been compelled to adopt new, agile ways of working in partnership. For those still able to trade – from retail to telcos, financial services to home entertainment – planning and production cycles have been radically pruned. What previously took several months to plan and execute is often now compressed into weeks or days. Complete TV campaigns are moving from brief to broadcast in as little as a fortnight.

The benefits of agility

On the plus side, talent is shining through. There are no more meetings about meetings, and agency service levels are frequently matched by rapid client decision-making. Strong partnerships forged in easier times are paying dividends. Many client-agency teams are reaping the benefits of time invested in understanding each other’s businesses so they can short-cut the rigmarole and formalities of previous ways of working. In our recent client survey, a clear majority of leading advertisers appreciated the efforts their media agencies have made to find new ways of working.

British Gas and its agency roster is a great example of what can be achieved in record time, under extreme pressure, and in adverse circumstances. On May 1, the energy supplier launched a powerful and emotive new phase of its ‘Here to solve’ campaign, a logical – and context-relevant – evolution of a campaign launched at the beginning of the year, reflecting the changes in both its customers’ lives and its engineers’ working practices. Not only were the phone-shot, reportage-style ads built in record time, they incorporated humour, empathy, and humanity into creative executions.

When KFC was able to reopen for delivery, it, too, used the visual language and tropes of lockdown to announce it would “Take it from here.” The quick-service restaurant chain produced a collage of user-generated images depicting how fans had tried – and often failed spectacularly – to recreate the Southern-fried chicken experience in their own kitchens, with crayoned bags of French fries and chicken with soggy coatings falling off. In a quickly assembled 30-second TV commercial, the brand used quality, library footage of actual KFC product, tumbling into bargain buckets, to reassure consumers that it was back. An impressive return to form from a brand that launched a mistimed “It’s finger-licking good” campaign at the end of February.

Looking longer-term

But is this new way of working sustainable in the long-term? Cutting available time and budgets too far and too fast brings attendant risks. In terms of media buying, operating too lean could turn back the clock on brand safety, transparency and meaningful measurement, leading to long-term brand harm. We have already seen evidence of this from advertisers we work with.

What’s more, agency staff and their client partners also risk burnout, working all hours with no time off, desperate to hold onto their jobs in a market in free fall. Although difficult trading conditions can lead to high-intensity working to survive a crisis, this new way of working can’t continue indefinitely. In the intense months of lockdown, those working from home have had little option – beyond daily exercise and essential trips to supermarkets and pharmacies – but to work. Opening the laptop invariably fires up the work email and another Zoom invitation. And while meetings about meetings are a welcome casualty of coronavirus, always-on demands from bosses and clients are an unproductive new arrival.

Innovation for innovation’s sake?

What’s more, at extreme times – and no-one working today has ever lived and worked under more extreme circumstances – the imperative to change and evolve at pace, is more urgent than ever. Advocates of lean design, Rapid Six Sigma, and other badged or simply made-up-on-the-fly frameworks of innovation encourage companies to experiment. With digital marketing constantly evolving, test and learn strategies also support fast-track innovation.

Marketers and agencies have been urged to embrace the chaos; to take risks because the waters are so uncharted and – the narrative goes – there’s less to lose when everything is at stake.

Three months in, we are already seeing signs of chaos receding and established ways of working returning. It won’t be back to how it was before but our recent survey of some of the world’s biggest advertisers suggests, for instance, that by Q4 2020, spend will be just -12% down on plan versus the start of the year. The retail sector predicts an as-planned Q4, though understandably travel and hospitality will still be -27% against plan.

Covid-19 has changed many things, but not the fundamental laws of marketing. Indeed, 40% of brands place a high level of importance of maintaining share of voice, a well-established driver of share of market and marketing effectiveness. What’s more, twice that number – 80% – reported that data-driven insights are very, or extremely, important right now. Measurement and evaluation spend has been least impacted of any budget line, with 15% increasing spend, 69% holding spend and just 16% decreasing.

These findings confirm my hunch that the levels of experimentation and risk-taking – which have become almost fetishized in the febrile pandemic atmosphere – will be scaled back as more sectors trade again and business and commerce stabilise. As lockdowns ease, there will be more at stake for brands that try new things for the sake of it. Data-based evidence of the wisdom and effectiveness of innovation will matter more than ever. Marketers will need to prove their experiments work.

An increasing focus on creativity

Finally, as marketers get their planning mojo back and start to think longer term, brands will re-embrace the potential of creativity to drive effectiveness. Orlando Wood’s IPA book Lemon, published in October last year, was a wake-up call for more engaging, human, creative storytelling, and pre-Covid there were encouraging signs – or at least talk – of an increase in creative narrative.

Beyond the British Gas and KFC work mentioned, too many brands have produced too-similar, too-simple, too-factual ads during lockdown. In part, this has been driven by the inability to film in studios or on location. But I question the long-term viability of Zoom-alike ads, featuring people on pixelated video calls. At the start of the pandemic, it may have captured the spirit of the age. But as we emerge on the other side, brands need to evaluate rigorously whether this ubiquitous creative solution is engaging, attention-grabbing or effective. Building good creative takes time and, to capture share of voice and share of market, it needs to be distinctive.

Covid-19 will undoubtedly introduce long-term, structural changes to the industry. And while some of the new ways of working are positive and build greater agility and efficiency into marketing models, we shouldn’t lose sight of what it takes to build effective brands long-term. Fewer meetings, less wasted time and resource, and quicker decision-making are all welcome but some of the other consequences will be consigned to history.

The high-octane rush of the new agility doesn’t mean advertisers should lose sight of the good marketing practices that have built their brands over the long run to where they are now.

Christian Polman is chief strategy officer of global media and marketing consultancy Ebiquity.

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