COVID has already changed the agency world, but bigger changes could be coming

The brand challenges presented the pandemic are complex and agency solutions will have to go way beyond communications strategies, says Leo Burnett’s Brent Nelsen—

While planning around COVID-19, a sports fanatic friend and colleague reminded me what Mike Tyson once said: “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face.” That sounds about right.

This pandemic has sent us all to the mat, scrambling to shake off the hit and get back on our feet. In the blink of an eye the world changed. And those that are fleet of foot will get a jump start on the race to recovery.

We’ve experienced transformative events like this before… but over decades and even hundreds of years, not several months. The Age of Enlightenment radically reoriented European thinking and behaviour between 1685 and 1815. The First and Second Industrial Revolutions in Britain and America transformed the very structure of industry and economic means between 1760 and 1840.

The Third Industrial Revolution, or The Digital Revolution, which started in 1969 and is ongoing, recast commerce, culture, community and communication thanks to the internet and its digital, mobile, e-commerce and social media progeny.

And now COVID-19. As we’ve all seen, it is infecting and affecting anything and everything since the first detected cases, at an unprecedented speed and scale. Bam… right cross.

Like previous disruptive or transformative socioeconomic events, the coronavirus has not only created an abundance of marketing challenges, but an array of opportunities to adapt, act and evolve.

Beyond working remotely, Zooming, Teams-ing and Skype-ing in pajamas, the crisis has already fundamentally changed the way agencies work, and more impactful changes are still to come in four ways:

#1 Deeper & Wider: Market structure has changed. Supply has changed. Demand has changed. And brands have cut $50 billion from global ad spends in response to reduced demand across ailing sectors.

The need to account for greater and greater uncertainty had made one thing blindingly clear: the value of, and need for, experienced planning and account talent with diverse skill sets.

The challenges facing brands are complex and go well beyond fundamental communications strategy i.e., ecosystem development, annual brand planning, campaign planning and briefs.

With the demand for deeper, wider, faster and greater strategic counsel, the pandemic presents a real opportunity—perhaps necessity—for agencies to:

  • Rethink staffing ratios to reinvest where demand and value exists: strategy, data, digital, creative technology, CX, UX design and creative;
  • Redefine what agency, account and planning leadership needs to be to ensure it can plan and enable client business transformation through creativity in all its forms.
  • Radically redesign team structures by creating smaller and faster “Task Teams” of diverse strategic expertise, enabled to circumvent any obstacles that impede efficiency and effectiveness to focus on mid and long-term brand planning beyond the day to day.
  • Add project management expertise across businesses to free up valuable account talent from operational management to business strategy development that drives growth and margin for both client and agency.

 #2 Pressing for Definition: Yes, the need for speed when going to market with new communications is real, and we’ve seen plenty of examples of that during COVID. But the sense of urgency and lack of time can become an excuse for a complete lack of clarity on what the marketing investment needs to achieve.

With vastly different data on recovery timelines, the urgency for action cannot be allowed to marginalize effectiveness.

Pitter patter let’s get at ‘er… A concerted focus on defining and aligning commercial, marketing and communications objectives is an absolute necessity. If not now, when?

What seems like an obvious step prior to spending a dollar is all too often sacrificed, yet effectiveness and efficiency have never been more critical.

Guessing and generalizing is not a strategy for success. The pandemic presents a clear opportunity to stop, define what success looks like… and then apply creativity to achieve results.

 #3 The Long View. Economic, sector and regulatory uncertainty. Client supply chain disruption. Shifting consumer behaviour. Altered consumption demand. Predictions of a “second wave.” Together, these variables have spawned a significant need for focus beyond quarterly or annual planning.

Prior to COVID-19, planning occurred within the context of relative stability. No more. Now, both clients and agencies need to plan for a variety of plausible futures in which decisions could play out given a set of constantly changing market and behavioural uncertainties:

  • Product: Does the brand have the right product and pricing if full employment and household incomes don’t return to pre COVID-19 levels until 2023 or later? What do people need that product and pricing to be? Do we need to create a net new product or service? Provide a stripped-down version of the current product?
  • Infrastructure: What does a widespread move towards cashless commerce mean for the brand’s digital, data and e-commerce capabilities? Do we have sufficient data to define who’s digitally shopping the brand beyond first party data?
  • People: If a viable vaccine isn’t found until 2021… or ever, how does that impact the brand’s customer experience? The customer journey? The purchase funnel?

For planners and business leads, scenario planning seems like a no-brainer to ensure the continuation of brand salience while increasing the odds of future growth. Assuming that tomorrow will be exactly the same as today seems like no plan at all.

Will COVID-19 fundamentally change the way agencies work? It already has in many ways, and still can in many more.

And frankly, it should. Despite the many challenges posed by COVID-19, history would suggest that, to borrow from a famous phrase, “to the adaptive and innovative… belong the spoils.”

Or to quote the famed basketball coach Bobby Knight, for my sports obsessed friend: “The key is not the will to win… everybody has that. It is the will to prepare to win that’s important.”

The question at hand is who’s willing to prepare, because that takes hard work, my friends.

Brent Nelsen is the chief strategy officer at Leo Burnett. This column originally appeared at