Agencies explore joint efforts to respond to COVID

On the final day of what has been a once-unimaginable week, a group of agency leaders held a Zoom meeting Friday morning to discuss the COVID crisis.

Normally fierce competitors, they are now allies against a common foe—exploring potential ways they, along with the industry’s not-for-profit support organization nabs, can help each other minimize the effects of the massive disruption washing over an economy hit hard by the pandemic.

The call was initiated by Tyler Turnbull, FCB’s Toronto based North American CEO, after he contacted nabs president Jay Bertram to see how they were preparing. The pair reached out to nabs’ long list of agency presidents to see if any would be interested in working together around nabs to explore coordinated efforts. Turnbull thought they might get eight leaders willing to take part. They got more than 30.

“One of the things we talked about most [on Friday morning] was each agency is different, our cultures are different, how we operate is different. But I think there was universal alignment that we have to come together, and we have to fight for our people during this challenging period,” said Turnbull.

One of the key themes of the hour-long call was mitigating risk when there’s so much uncertainty about how long the situation might last. “The risk is not only financial but also the risk in people working by themselves for the next two months,” he said. Concerns ranged from simple but important matters like ergonomics and desks for people working from home, to more complex and harmful challenges related to mental health.

“There is also this reality that we have all been working from home for six days and I think most people feel like they have never worked harder in their careers,” said Turnbull. They talked about scheduling breaks and ensuring staff can actually step away from their work while at the end of the day.

“I think part of the call was this cathartic ‘Lets get some issues on the table and help one another,'” he said. For now the next step is drafting a joint statement that could be signed by any agency president wishing to demonstrate support.

“[It would be] a statement that’s really focused on our people, and has some tangible commitments about how we could support them, from the-day-to-day realities of working virtually,” he said.

“To raising awareness and reaffirming our support for nabs and their services, to thinking about things like government lobbying and making sure the right people know the economic impact that our industry is going through right now, but also the economic impact that it drives for the country.”

A similar call was scheduled for 3 p.m. Friday afternoon, with members of the Institute of Communications Agencies invited to take part. The ICA has been getting regular updates from the World Health Organization, and is part of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce. One of the goals of the call is to simply remind members that information is available to them, said president and CEO Scott Knox.

“We’re also actively trying to push—with the Canadian Chamber of Commerce and other industries—the Federal and Provincial governments to do the right things in the right way,” he said.

While there has been lots of talk about financial packages, there has not yet been enough detail yet about how and when that aid will roll out, said Knox. “Who is it for? How do I get started? How long is it going to take? Those are important answers because it’ll make a difference in decisions about people being let go or not, bills being paid for some agencies.

“What the practical steps, not the press release. What do I do?”

A third focus for the ICA has been gathering and sharing information and case studies about how businesses around the world are responding in sometimes creative ways, outside of their typical scope. From cruise lines offering their ships as additional hospital space, to manufacturers making ventilators, to brewers making “punk sanitizer.”

“What is our version of that,” said Knox. “What do we tell brands that we can participate with them in to be mindful and rightful in this context?”

Brands and agencies need to be responding to increased TV viewing and digital activity by updating their advertising—since much of what was produced before the crisis really started to spread feels out of step with what people are feeling, said Knox. “Agencies and brands need to get working today on recutting and editing all of that.”



David Brown