Covid-19 isn’t the only threat for the ad holding companies – layoffs and home working will chip away

The UK government, along with many others, is taking plenty of stick for so-called “mixed messages” about Covid-19 as it attempts to re-open the economy but, for once, you can sympathise with the flailing politicians.

On a global scale Covid is storming away and even in countries where the virus seems to be in check – of which the UK is now one – there are fears and dire predictions of a second wave.

Returning to office-bound work doesn’t seem very attractive at the moment, hardly surprising as politicians and their advisers are telling us some of the time that we should and, at others, that it’s dangerous out there and we need to keep suppressing the virus. You can’t really do both.

For client-centric businesses, including advertising, but also consultancy, tech and financial services, the lesson seems to be clear: carry on as you have been for the past few months because, short of a vaccine, it’s the only practical option.

And, actually, some such businesses aren’t doing that badly. Publicis’ recent figures were OK in the circumstances, Interpublic (heavily exposed to the chaotic US) reports tomorrow. WPP is still the bellwether for the sector and such noises as there are suggest it’s not doing too badly. The top managers have ended their “salary sacrifice” anyway so the numbers had better not be too bad.

But, when people are still mostly working from home do clients still need a great big bureaucratic service organisation? One with lots of offices?

That’s the real challenge for the ad holding companies. Another is the rapidly-growing number of corporate refugees “let go” by these companies but still with talent and expertise and client contacts they’ll be keen to mobilise to keep the wolf from the door.

Fragmentation is a big problem for companies that have grown by persuading people that bigger is best. Unless you have some tech no-one else has (Publicis reckons it has in data firm Epsilon, Interpublic with Acxiom) the fear isn’t just the virus, it’s all these newbies chipping away at your client base.

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About Stephen Foster

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Stephen is a former editor of Marketing Week and London Evening Standard advertising columnist. He wrote City Republic for Brand Republic and is a partner in communications consultancy The Editorial Partnership.

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