Libations to the Advertising Gods: Raising a Glass to What We’ve Lost, and What We’ve Learned
Change is hard, but we have the chance to reinvent what we do
In ancient times, the libation was a ritualistic pouring of a liquid as an offering to a deity. It represented sacrifice; we give this up to you in the hopes that we’ll get something back. Something was lost, but something was also gained.
We have lost quite a lot through the first half of 2020.
The coronavirus pandemic’s spread across the world has radically altered nearly every aspect of our lives. We have lost loved ones, jobs, businesses. We’ve lost a sense of security. For those of us fortunate to still be working, we lost the physical contact with our co-workers in a shared space. We lost our commutes, that alone time we could use to refresh, ponder and learn. Not long after the pandemic struck, the world underwent a reckoning on racial injustice not seen in decades, bringing another inflection point for businesses and institutions around the globe. It is a fraught time. Major events such as these force us to rethink everything we thought we knew. While some of the resulting changes may be temporary, many of them will be permanent.
The advertising world is not in a unique position. Like every industry, its business has been greatly affected by the pandemic. In many ways, things will never be the same. This is a time for reflection, but also a time for action. So, let’s take this time to pour one out to the ancient gods of the industry previously known as advertising—let’s recognize what we’ve lost so far this year, but also what we’ve learned.
What We’ve Lost
For many of us, our jobs
Our clients across industries, and our partners in everything from media to live events, have been hit particularly hard by the crisis. Their trauma has led to inevitable loss for us.
Those of us who are able to continue doing our work are incredibly fortunate. The pandemic has affected every industry, and the advertising industry is no exception—it is expected that 50,000 of our colleagues and friends across the world will have lost their jobs through next year due to the economic crises caused by Covid-19.
“Our principle is: protect our people to protect the company, so we’re ready when we come out on the other side of this,” said WPP CEO Mark Read. “But realistically, we have to expect there will be layoffs.”
We can only hope that we emerge on that other side sooner rather than later.
Our excuses for not doing the right thing on diversity and inclusion
The news story that finally took the coronavirus off the front pages across the globe was a tragedy—the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, by police in Minneapolis. The size and scope of the protests against racial inequality and police brutality made it clear—this was an inflection point for everyone. Us included.
Our industry can no longer hide behind vague diversity plans or plaudits of our so-called progress. It’s not been nearly enough. We simply must do better.
Amid the protests, over 600 Black advertising professionals penned an op-ed calling for immediate change in the industry. There is not much we could add to their words:
“We have seen even less progress in ensuring equitable representation of Black professionals in senior and leadership positions. And because this industry does not release or track diversity numbers, it is impossible to tell what, if any, progress has been made. Worse still, there is a ‘boys’ club’ mentality that remains pervasive in this industry. The same elitism and discriminatory behavior that has restricted women from advancing in the workplace has resulted in an oppressive mono-culture that stifles the growth of Black agency professionals and restricts our ability to express our true selves. Many gallons of ink have been spilled on op-eds and think pieces, but tangible progress has eluded this industry for too long.”
Conventional ways of working and analog rituals of the past
Are we saying goodbye, for good, to the office? To the in-person meeting? To the convention?
Whenever the “end” of our current situation arrives, it’s certainly likely that there will be an urge to return to some semblance of normalcy. Humans are social beings, and video calls can only go so far in replicating the experience of sharing a space with others. But there’s no doubt that the forced shift to remote working has opened many people’s eyes to its benefits. And with likely cost savings involved, there is no doubt that remote work will only grow, if not be a permanent change for some.
And the intimate, stripped-down, gritty nature of remote work has resulted in some impressive work, created in transformative ways. Automated production has led to record turnaround times, with some ads that used to take three months to complete being finished in a week’s time. Creativity is at its best when there are fewer restrictions. Over recent years, many in our industry have instituted too many checks and balances that don’t serve a purpose. The shift to remote work has forced our industry to undergo a change that it has needed for a very long time.
Our creative yardstick
Sure, Cannes Lions and the Clio Awards—both of which were postponed until 2021—are award shows, and there’s plenty of great work that never wins an award. But it’s what those awards represent—a creative benchmark, a yearly yardstick for which the industry can use to measure itself. And creativity still matters greatly. The more creative a company is, the better it performs.
Many think Cannes is nothing but an overblown, overhyped, overcrowded party. It surely seems like the festival’s luster has been muddied over the last few years, what with the exodus from competition from some of the biggest names in the agency world. But that sentiment was always misguided, and the lack of a festival this year proves it. With each year that passes, we get a literal in-person view at how the industry is changing; something we’ll miss out on this time around.
What We’ve Learned
Our work matters
This crisis comes at a time when trust in government and institutions is already the gutter. Even months into the pandemic, Covid-19 continues to spike across the United States and many countries around the world. There’s no question there’s a leadership void to be filled, and brands can be among those to step in.
It’s not only marketing professionals who believe this. According to Forbes and MediaPost, 43 percent of millennials believe brands play an “important” role at this time and indicate a desire for them to step up their support. In fact, one in four think they have power to be as impactful as the government. One in three say brands should even communicate more than usual; half say the current context needs to be addressed in advertisements, and 83 percent want brand initiatives that help now, not later.
But amid the Covid pandemic and the outcry for racial justice, many brands have been guilty of promoting seemingly empty platitudes. Sending an email blast to all of your customers or putting out a statement on social media might seem like the right thing to do, but it must be credible. If the brand is not acting on its stated purpose, these ads—and they are a form of ad—will come off as contrived at best and tone-deaf at worst.
“Some of the most hollow creative executions have come from brands who appear to be treating the crisis simply as an advertising brief, rather than an opportunity to use their commercial power to make a meaningful difference to people’s lives,” writes Richard Holmann. “Even during a pandemic the golden rule of brand purpose still applies—unless you have a credible, demonstrable and longstanding commitment to the purpose you’re endorsing, which stretches way beyond an ad campaign and actually costs you money, don’t even go there.”
Brands can be leaders in a multitude of ways. One way is by simply doing more—providing practical help to solve problems. Acts, not ads. As Sarah Douglas, CEO of AMV BBDO in London, puts it: “We’ve seen brands such as Bacardi use their distilleries to make hand sanitizer, Dove donating personal protective equipment directly to healthcare providers, and Guinness pledging funds for bartenders who have lost their livelihood.”
Effective communications are also needed, though. The United States, in particular, is struggling with convincing its population to wear face coverings. Effective communications can act as rallying cries, promote unity and ultimately help shift behavior. Olivier Feldwick at WARC likens this moment to wartime, where famous slogans like “Your Country Needs You,” “Dig For Victory” and “Make Do and Mend” helped boost morale. “We will need a similar effort in our collective Covid-19 response, and communications must play a critical role in encouraging the right behaviours.” He may be right.
Brands have a great responsibility
Prior to the pandemic, we knew that brands held lots of power. The biggest among us could shift consumer behavior or push culture in a different direction. The industry talked often about the importance of brands having a purpose that went beyond simply selling more products. With a global leadership and credibility gap, brands now find themselves with even more power, and with that comes the requisite responsibility.
According to The Trust Barometer, 62 percent of consumers agree that we will not make it through this crisis without brands playing a critical role in the solutions. And eyes are on brands now more than ever. More than half (53 percent) of consumers who are disappointed with a brand’s words or actions on a social issue complain about it. People recognize brands like Gap and Dove when they live their values, helping manufacture protective equipment for healthcare workers or hand sanitizer. On the flipside, you don’t want to end up in the red on didtheyhelp.com.
This time of crisis and a racial justice reckoning is validation that the strongest brands are the ones that authentically live their values and purpose. Part of that purpose is taking on the responsibility of being a communicator in a time when government leaders do not seem to be willing or able to provide it.
Brands can be powerful influences in people’s lives. This is true in “normal” times, and doubly true in times of crisis.
A crisis can bring out an industry’s best self
When we’re all facing a collective crisis like Covid-19, the problem to be solved is very well-defined. The variable factor, then, is the skills and knowledge individuals can bring to bear. The changes that have been forced upon those in the industry have placed even more importance on company culture—if your culture is tethered to your physical location, how strong was its bond to begin with? In some ways, we’re becoming closer with our colleagues and partners, being invited into their homes, meeting their pets and children. In many cases, it’s leaders that are doing the most learning, as employees are being given more control over their work schedules and processes.
“Darwin wrote when he was building his theory of evolution that natural selection favors a sense of flexibility,” said psychologist Adam Grant. “It’s not always the strongest species that survives; it’s sometimes the most adaptable.”
In regular advertising life, the urgent and the important are often very out of sync. The most impactful work we can be doing sometimes ignores firm deadlines. But during times of crisis, creativity tends to thrive. Empathy spurs creativity, and when people see that meaningless constraints are off, they tend to feel freer to be creative.
In the advertising world, this has resulted in new ways of working that point to a future that puts creativity back at the center of the ad world. The advertising industry’s creativity hasn’t only helped clients solve problems in this new age. The industry has pointed that ingenuity inward—as we mentioned, gone is the old way of doing things, where one ad might take months to create. Now, we can make an ad and distribute it in record time.
Digital transformation is not optional
Necessity is the mother of invention. Times of crisis bring drastic change, forcing the entrenched to dig itself out of its staid foundation. The old ways of doing things have to go.
Some companies are better equipped than others. Any company that was still behind the digital curve is finding itself in quicksand. This mostly digital landscape is not unexpected, it’s what the industry has been preparing for for years now; however, it’s arrived much sooner than we thought. Companies that have strong direct response and e-commerce capabilities are well positioned to emerge set up for success in this changed world.
Even when confinement measures are relaxed, more typically analog channels will shift to digital to keep up with consumer behavior. Those who are already meeting consumers where they are have the advantage of the data they’ve gathered along the way, giving them a leg up when it comes to trying to stay ahead of coming behavior shifts.
But most of all, prioritizing creativity and innovation will prove to be prescient.
As Brian Wieser, global president, business intelligence, for GroupM describes, “Companies will find that there’s never been a better time to pitch ideas that involve real transformation. People will be more open minded, and we’re going to see businesses find ways to push transformation even faster.”
It’s been said that you should never let a serious crisis go to waste. The chance is there for us. If we leave this crisis and finish this year believing we should return to the industry as it was, we will have lost the train.
The industry previously known as advertising has spent so much time transforming the brands and businesses of our clients that we have left ourselves behind. This is a time of massive change, and represents an incredible opportunity for us to transform ourselves. It’s a time to practice what we preach. If we do, only then will we truly be in position to serve our clients better in a future that is going to be completely different from the one we’re used to. Now is the time to use the power of creativity to blend the best in communications, experience, commerce and technology to build better futures for our clients and their consumers.
This has not been an easy time. Change is hard, especially when it is forced upon you. You can either let yourself get run over by it, or get back up and change for the better. For our industry, it’s up to nobody but us.