Post-lockdown, have clients changed?
Everything suddenly locked down. A scare affecting everybody in the world. How could all this not change attitudes?
But not everything was apocalyptic: people pulled together, families Zoomed, and businesses continued to be run, albeit from sofas alongside dozing cats and two-year-old children in pyjamas waving in the background.
And what's happened to creative agencies? It's a sector that's heavily reliant on the economy, and nobody can predict that so we're not going to try. But it's also reliant on client attitudes, and we've been sensing some major shifts there. We've therefore pulled together the thoughts of agencies and commentators to find out.
Their verdict: Yes, client attitudes have changed. The crisis seems to have acted as an accelerator for shifts that were rumbling along beforehand anyway. Perhaps all crises have this accelerator effect.
So now, clients seem to want something slightly different from their creative agencies. We counted six major themes. Think of them as gifts that clients now hope their agencies will deliver to them.
"This is the best time to be dirty dirty."
So says maverick marketer Gary Vaynerchuk who runs VaynerX, a 700-strong New York advertising group. A born hustler, he didn't go to college and is proud of it. He is famous for quick-fire content and culture creation at scale, compressing the traditional time taken over creative, strategy, media and production.
The post-lockdown world surely adds some respectability to this approach. Many businesses were suddenly at urgent risk, necessitated quick thinking and fast changes, so they're now in the mood for flexibility rather than expensive epic productions. Vayner way of doing things is fast, exploratory and unpolished, and customers like it The CMO of one of their clients, the world's largest bedding manufacturer, said:
"VaynerMedia’s team and model is built to be agile and to help marketers understand the diverse needs of distinct audiences, to adapt quickly, and to test and learn quickly so that your messaging is relevant." [Quotes are from Campaign].
"As consumers become more accustomed to influencer and user-generated content in their everyday lives, we’ll see greater openness for “scrappier” content—content that better resembles the way everyday users communicate with one another, warts and all. Now, there’s an opportunity for brands to embrace a new definition of authenticity and better relate to consumers."
[IMA, in The Drum].
"The pandemic has forced advertisers to scale down production to keep people safe, which has affected the look and feel of many ads. Ford, for instance, mixed archival footage with new footage shot with a much scaled-down crew for its new ad campaign. JPMorgan Chase said its process was cut down from months to days for a recent campaign, which features the company’s advisors speaking to clients virtually, from home."
The head of agency and media solutions at Google and YouTube said "These simpler ads can be a positive for brands, which have previously opted for high-quality, beautiful commercial shoots. Some of them are the highest performing ads right now."
Said Campaign: "They (Vayner) responded by setting up makeshift studios from homes and sending iPhones to clients so they could film their own content, like Kraft Heinz did for a spot celebrating the workers keeping shelves stocked. It’s nothing new for an agency which made its first $5 million in revenue with work all shot on smartphones."
Said Vayner: "This is the best time to be dirty dirty. If you’re fancy right now, you’re crippled."
Said the client: "We are now cranking out new creative faster than we ever have."
Said IMA in The Drum: "Our data has always shown that consumers prefer relatable content over the hyper-glossy, expertly-curated."
Said Marketing Week: "Prior to the Covid-19 outbreak, conscious consumers were seen as the biggest threat to clothing and footwear retailers in 2020, according to GlobalData. The research group asked consumers about their intentions for the new year and found that nearly a fifth (19.2%) were planning to spend less than usual." Lockdown happened against a backdrop of this.
"At the time GlobalData lead retail analyst, Sophie Willmott, noted that 48.9% of these consumers were making a conscious effort to buy less stuff."
If 'people choosing to buy less stuff' doesn't set alarm bells ringing for marketers, what will? Will this be another example of lockdown's ability to accelerate trends? That would certainly be profound. Except that we're not talking about people avoiding all products, just ones that the newly-conscious consumer now finds unappealing. Brands on the right side of the line could be entering a golden era.
Such brands will need expert agency help to steer their positioning, communications, style and content to audiences wanting transparency and asking tough questions:
Said The Drum: "The 2020s are set to be a decade of conscious consumerism as people seek to minimise negative impact on the planet through their purchasing decisions.
"While value is always likely to be an important component, increasingly marketers will need to learn to speak the new language of the conscious consumer, finding ways to inform and engage customers with a brand narrative that they can believe in.
"These emerging trends have recently been accelerated due to lockdown and the resulting societal changes, from increased community and neighbourly support to benevolence and kindness acts coming to the fore. In this environment brands are coming under greater scrutiny as consumers look for them to play a positive role in society, rather than just supplying a product or service."
The lockdown and working from home has changed the perceptions we have of work colleagues and clients as individuals. Awareness of our colleagues' lives has increased in many measurable ways [Source: TotalJobs.com]:
Family situation, +27%
Living situation, +24%
Mental wellbeing, +22%
Health concerns, +21%
This humanising effect shifts our perceptions from distant entities to real-life individuals in real homes, and applies in areas as diverse as musicians, celebrities, newscasters—and of course the clients you deal with every day.
It's ironic that at the very time we're getting used to wearing masks outside we're dissolving many of our veils when talking online. Post-lockdown, research shows that co-workers have increased positive feelings towards their colleagues in two very revealing ways:
How much of this has spilled over into agency-client relationships? It's anecdotal so far, but tangible nevertheless. It's a two-way effect. A client previously seen as difficult or arrogant might turn out to be human after all. But the biggest gain is the way clients start to see agencies -- as real people, bright, flexible, hard-working, willing. These are not always the first traits that clients might previously have brought to their mind about their agencies, particularly if awkward monthly meetings were the main input.
And what gets lost in this new world (apart from the ubiquitous 'posh sandwiches left over from client meetings')? Theoretically you could lose a client's unquestioning reverence of the agency as guru. But in reality that shift probably happened years ago.
"The ‘online disinhibition effect‘ means that often people are prepared to share more online than they are in real life. Also, since everyone is in the same context, people feel that they can relate to the same challenges – whether you are at the top or the bottom of the totem pole – which lends to a more equalising human to human experience."
[Dr Aaron Balick, Department for psychosocial and Psychoanalytic Studies, University of Essex].
"Our perception of each other seems more genuine, which makes us feel much more connected and is allowing us to be more comfortably vulnerable. We are listening harder on the video calls and developing greater value for empathy."
A panellist at a UK event held by The Drum said recently "Agencies have to pass over bureaucracy and structures and give way to being nimbler and faster."
With new pressures facing so many B2B and B2C sectors today, nobody is going to argue with that. Of course, the need for speed goes both ways. Agencies roll their eyes at client indecision, timidity and lack of engagement. If the current crisis sharpens a sense of urgency on all sides, there's a positive in that.
How's this for timing? Thomson Reuters recently acquired FCBI, a British business-to-business global events company. Reuters' president said “It’s a high-growth sector with a good level of stability through upturns and downturns”. Looming was a major three-day pharmaceutical gathering in Barcelona. But you know what happened next: Instead of stability and growth came lockdown, with events being the hardest hit of them all.
“Reuters had just four weeks to prepare a virtual edition of the Barcelona conference and launch its first online-only event. The event attracted more than 15,000 registrations from 90 countries, up from 45 the previous year. The team built up experience delivering live streams, on-demand content, audience interactivity, one-to-one meetings, networking opportunities and a virtual exhibition – most of which were tracked to generate leads for future events.” [Source: The Drum].
Such stories abound about the speed that agencies and clients have adapted. Things speed up when the only alternative is utter defeat. 2020 is a tragic year, but also the year that many businesses picked up the pace. Creative agencies are noted to be nimble, smart, familiar with grabbing a new brief overnight and running with it. A faster pace plays to the agency advantage.
“There's always been this talk of being agile,” says VMLY&R New York executive creative director, Harsh Kapadia. “But it’s taken a global pandemic for brands to realize that we need to start getting agile in action.”
"Marketing teams need to embrace an agile culture of innovation and creativity when every day brings a new challenge. Brands are finding new ways to work, crunching numbers quickly and making fast decisions in large, previously bureaucratic organisations."
"Agencies will finally become more nimble. A tidal wave has been heading toward agencies for years: The threats of big consulting, insourcing and margin pressures. There’s now little choice but to finally reengineer the agency model into one that’s far more efficient. This starts with each agency truly defining its unique value to brands, while divesting commoditized capabilities that are easily outsourced."
[Nick Manning at Mediatel.co.uk]
"Agencies’ fee-based business model hasn’t evolved in decades — and that may be a significant factor in the industry’s struggle to manage costs. With clients suppressing fees, asking for longer payment windows and seeking more project work, rather than long-term relationships, agencies may need to reimagine their business model."
Digiday, August 2019.
Any service that clients think of as a near-commodity is always going to be low margin and at risk from competitors. Only by moving the perception of your agency nearer to the strategy end of the spectrum can you demand good margins.
Over the past few years there has been a tendency for many agencies to specialise. Commentators believe that the recent crisis is likely to pull trends in the opposite direction.
Until now clients may have been looking for delivery of stand-alone projects, but suddenly they are starting to rethink elements of their entire business model.
Ultimately, clients aren't really looking for marketing solutions but business solutions that happen to involve marketing. Some of these solutions today suddenly need fresh strategic thinking, and if they can get some of that from their agency it bodes well for delivering joined-up work.
Strategy as a service is good for the client and great for the agency, bringing bigger thinking, longer-term engagement and higher margins. An opportunity to be savoured.
"Brands need agency partners that are strategic, thoughtful, creative and in-touch with culture at this unique moment in time."
[Lisa Clunie, CEO, JOAN, in Campaign].
"Value propositions need to be reimagined and reestablished. Agencies should use the moment to reassert their value proposition and reclaim their roles as stewards and strategists for their partners. Most marketers are turning to their agencies for their counsel – the opportunity is clear, and the challenges are epic."
[Michael Kassan, CEO, MediaLink, in Campaign].
In-housing has obviously been a growth trend over the last few years. The idea is that the creative team are client-side. It's an inside job—they're employees of the client and work alongside the other departments of the company.
It's the polar opposite of the agency team who are outsiders and exist within their own separate companies and culture and goals and values.
But wait: during lockdown both of internal and external creative teams looked remarkably similar because everybody worked from their home. Kitchen tables, children, dogs and all that. So what's the difference now, exactly?
Oliver is an international agency that creates in-house agency teams inside their clients' worlds. Why do clients like it? How has lockdown affected them? What can traditional agencies learn from it? [Extracts here are from The Drum].
In-house teams share their clients' challenges and purpose. They’re treated like colleagues and know the KPIs and nuances between departments. This intimacy has made the transition to an all-virtual world easier.
Speed and efficiency
They're faster at sensing a brief, getting data on customer behaviour and having more moments with the client. The pandemic has set an expectation that agencies must do more with less so maximum flexibility is welcomed.
The majority of in-house teams have a brand’s permission to get stuff done. Businesses have been forced to be creative at this time, from launching new products to driving internal comms. It develops a mindset of creativity, collaboration and entrepreneurship, constantly looking for new solutions to new problems.
During lockdown the walls came down. Clients had to mobilise talent based on changing priorities. A borderless mindset means you can be more creative with your operations, spinning-up virtual teams to tackle specific client issues as they arise.
"The pandemic has offered a real stress test. It proved what many brands already knew, however: that in-housing is not a model, nor an on-site operation, a trend or even a team’s location. It’s a mindset, and one we need to lean into if we want to serve clients more deeply in the future."
[Sharon Whale, Oliver, from The Drum].
"What is clear from this experience is that the pandemic only accelerated trends that were already there: agile workforces, tech-led businesses, new marketing models, people with a problem-solving mindset."
"Focus on your clients, not yourselves. Understand the crises they are facing and how you can possibly help mitigate their problems."
[Tony Walford, The Drum].
“In-housing usually makes the most sense for activities that require a deep knowledge of the business, greatly accelerate the speed to market, or allow the business to leverage a specific capability for a competitive advantage. This could mean high-level work, such as the small marketing strategy team that helped the CMO of an apparel brand engineer a brand shift toward a more premium image."
What client wouldn't be hungry to get some of this thinking from their external agency?
Synergist's cloud-based work-anywhere solutions were well in place before lockdown, so users working from home have been able to work and collaborate as normal.
Managers have continued to have the live visibility of projects that they always have, informing their decisions every hour of the day.
'Visibility' is the main theme here. When things suddenly start to kick off unexpectedly, you want to be able to see what's going on, and in a way that pulls it all together so you can see both the operational and the commercial impacts of the decisions being made across the agency.
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