One year on: What the industry has learned (part 2)
In the second part of our look at how advertising has fared over the last 12 months, we hear from more members of the industry as they reveal how they and their businesses coped in the face of the pandemic.
Following on from Tuesday's article about how the industry has coped with - and learned to adapt to - the last 12 months, we have more insight from industry professionals from across the world.
They discuss the challenges both they and their businesses have faced, what has altered within the advertising industry - for good or ill - since the on set of the pandemic, what they, personally, have learned from the situation and whether the industry will ever return to normal... whatever 'normal' is now.
How do you think advertising has coped over the last 12 months?
Rich Denney, ECD, St Luke's London: Advertising has been amazingly resilient. Yes, there were a couple of tough quarters but business is bouncing back and there is a strong sense of optimism about this year. Sadly, there have been redundancies, and most people had to take pay cuts, but the pain feels much shorter lived than the last recession. I think most agencies discovered that working remotely was way more possible than anyone would have imagined. We learnt a lot about our people and our processes from this amazing, enforced experiment.
I think most agencies discovered that working remotely was way more possible than anyone would have imagined.
Gilles Fichteberg, Co-Founder, Rosapark Paris: On the whole, the industry has adapted well. Advertisers asked us to be responsive to the context, but also to think about life after the pandemic. New rules were made for the next step and we were quick to reassess in the face of the monumental game-changer that was a global pandemic. It was actually quite encouraging, because it showed that the advertising industry has a huge ability to adapt.
Sorcha Shepherd, Managing Executive Producer, Caviar London: This past year has shown what an amazing, hardy bunch of people we collectively are. We ran through the gamut of emotions; confusion, fear, hope, solidarity, anger… and I feel like, in many ways, those emotions have brought out the best in people. The best, in that I have seen companies within the production and post sector come together to support each other in whatever ways they can. Be that by offering guidance on the myriad of subjects we have had to deal with, or by simply reaching out to check in and see if you are managing emotionally. At the heart of it, our industry has coped with quiet dignity and hope, and [APA CEO] Steve Davies has been our Fairy God Father, holding our hands every step of the way. We all owe him a huge hug and beer when it’s legal to do so again
We ran through the gamut of emotions; confusion, fear, hope, solidarity, anger… and I feel like, in many ways, those emotions have brought out the best in people.
Tanya Brookfield, CEO, ELVIS London: Whilst it obviously hasn’t been pretty, I think the industry has adapted fairly well. We’ve pivoted production, managed volatile budgets, become more purposeful (some more than others), continued to pitch and shared more.
Antoine Ughetto, Co-Founder & CTO makemepulse: I think the industry has shown remarkable resilience and adapted very quickly in the face of the pandemic. New opportunities were quickly created when the usual avenues of business and ways of working suddenly changed almost overnight. We saw that the more digitised an agency was, the more able they were to adapt quickly and continue to operate.
Above: Rich Denney [top left], Antoine Ughetto [bottom left], Sorcha Shepherd [centre] and Gilles Fichteberg.
What's the main lesson that advertising businesses have learned from this period?
Tom Denari, President & CSO, Young & Laramore Indianapolis: Hopefully they’ve learned that, despite everything that has transpired over the past 12 months, people still want to consume. And that, strategically, retreating is a self-fulfilling prophesy. One way to ensure that your sales will go down is to stop competing. In tough times, rather than sitting on your hands, brands need to compete for whatever portion of the available business they can get.
We’ve not been trapped at home, we’ve been freed from behaviours we didn’t question.
Ben Golik, CCO, M&C Saatchi London: Everyone being reduced to the same-sized head shot on a screen has flattened agency structures and cleared outdated client/agency processes. Talking from our homes to clients in their homes has made conversations more human, honest and personal. We’ve not been trapped at home, we’ve been freed from behaviours we didn’t question.
Antoine Ughetto: Crisis accelerates transition. Some fall, some rise. The ones who seize the opportunities will rise. It’s a basic principle of adapt or die.
Sarah Emmanuel-Cheong, General Manager, UltraSuperNew Singapore: Communications are only effective when both put forward and received by the right people, at the right time, in the right state of mind. This year we focussed more inwardly on the things that would matter to the people we could look after - the people in the agency. The biggest resource we have as advertising businesses are our ideas, which come from our people. The aim was, is and will continue to be, to protect them at all costs.
Sam Ashwell, Head Engineer, Sound Supervisor & Partner, 750MPH London: It has reinforced to us that advertising is a people business. From our own craft point of view, seeing people, working in the same room, listening on the same speakers and (real) eye contact is all highly valued and sorely missed... especially for the last 20% of a project.
When things are moving fast, and there is a lot of uncertainty, it becomes quickly apparent who is adding value and who isn’t.
Rich Denney: The most important thing we have seen is a strong reminder of just how much clients need real partners in a crisis. When things are moving fast, and there is a lot of uncertainty, it becomes quickly apparent who is adding value and who isn’t. We have found ourselves at the heart of helping clients as they re-define their business in the face of accelerated change, and it’s been tremendously rewarding.
Karim Bartoletti, Partner, EP and MD of Advertising, Indiana Production Milan: We re-purposed our homes to turn them into our offices, our schools, film sets and concert halls, and this domestic-centric new life of ours has made it clear that we will have to re-purpose our offices and our work life in the months to come. We learnt that we do not need to meet face-to-face every time we have to decide something, but also that we should try and meet face-to-face every once-in-a-while to remind ourselves this business is made of people [and] interactions that do not always pass through a Zoom call. At the end we learnt that our emotional ups and downs - both personal and professional - were common to many people and this made the world closer, made our conversations more global.
Above: Tanya Brookfield [top left], Sarah Emmanuel-Cheong [bottom left], Ben Golik [centre] and Tom Denari.
From a business perspective, what's been the hardest challenge of the last year?
Antoine Ughetto: Keeping our team motivated, inspired and engaged has been hard. Being isolated and cut off from their workmates was hard on the team, we are a small but close company, so we really felt it.
Sarah Emmanuel-Cheong: Balancing morale and cashflow. It's tough when cash is not coming in as fast as it's going out. Delayed payments, extended payment terms... we've all heard it. The result of that is the fear amongst staff of getting retrenched. You hear of being 'made redundant' floating through the hallways of even the most successful agencies, and that fear can affect morale an incredible amount. I predict this will be a continuous challenge, even in 2021. We're not out of the woods just yet.
You hear of being 'made redundant' floating through the hallways of even the most successful agencies, and that fear can affect morale an incredible amount.
Sam Ashwell: To maintain the standards we have of ourselves, whilst keeping people sane and looking after their well-being and mental health. When you decentralise the team, and the clients are working remotely, it adds greater pressure to the workflow and the structure.
Gilles Fichteberg: The greatest challenge was to convince advertisers to not stop investing despite the circumstances. Not just for the survival of agencies but also, and above all, because you should never sever the link with your consumers. We saw it happen; the brands that continued to communicate and, particularly those who did it quickly with sincerity and empathy, won the confidence of their consumers.
Sorcha Shepherd: Working out which of my staff might go on furlough was definitely something I struggled with emotionally. Each one of my team is important, but during the height of lockdown I had no choice but look seriously at how to make use of the government support. Making sure they knew decisions weren't an indication of their importance was an important task. They had to understand it was simply a juggling act to make sure we all had jobs to return to. The happiest day of last year was in August, when I managed to get my last member of staff back off furlough. When I think about that I get very emotional.
Working out which of my staff might go on furlough was definitely something I struggled with emotionally.
Rich Denney: Sadly, for some brands, the moment lockdown came in sales stopped too, which meant projects were put on hold and that has a clear knock-on effect. That’s tough to ride out when mouths need feeding and rent and mortgages have to be paid. However, some people were still pitching hard, and learning to do that remotely, with clients they had never seen face-to-face, which is tough. Chemistry is important and creating that over Zoom and Google Hangouts isn’t easy, though we found our strong culture helped enormously. I still haven’t met some of our new clients in the flesh, and can’t wait to do so.
Above [left to right]: Kerry Smart, Mindy Lubert and Angela Hart.
What elements of the business have changed for the better?
Ruben Goots, Co-Founder & EP, HAMLET Brussels: I think it became clear that physical meetings will not always be necessary. Although I remain a great advocate of being able to work physically together in a team, especially during the pre-production phase of a film production. But 10 people having to travel for a one-hour meeting will probably not exist anymore. Also, the remote monitoring of a shoot by the agency or client, or remote presentations of post production will, in my opinion, also continue.
Sam Ashwell: The change in flexibility of how we work has improved certain areas of the industry, and will continue to do so after this is all done, hopefully leading to a better work life balance.
I really feel that Covid has made company owners really think about their company’s culture and what they can do better.
Sorcha Shepherd: I honestly feel that there has been a positive shift in our culture and I hope that, now, companies look at their staff in a whole new light. Kindness, flexibility and understanding has become normal, and long may that reign. No longer are we chained to our office desks, which has made a better work/life balance for many. I know that the past few years has seen the importance of mental health come to the forefront anyway, but I really feel that Covid has made company owners really think about their company’s culture and what they can do better
Kerry Smart: Cutting out the fat, concentrating on the creative, and getting things done more efficiently and effectively.
Stu Outhwaite-Noel, Co-Founder and CCO, Creature London: In 10 years of Creature we’ve never had such an exciting start to a year, which we put down to clients prioritising brand strategy and distinctive creative as [they looked] to try and ride the waves of economic recovery. After a year of inaction and caution, our promise of ‘Intelligent Misbehaviour’ has never felt more apt. Throw in a production department capable of adapting to any shape of idea, budget or timeline, and creative crew excited at new world possibilities in front of them, and I can honestly say we’ve never been better set for a brave new world opening up.
If we learn to manage blended virtual/office working then we can all improve our quality of life.
Rich Denney: Undoubtedly, the new-found ability to work remotely on intense projects like pitches shows that life in advertising can be very different. If we continue to use flexibility wisely and learn to manage blended virtual/office working then we can all improve our quality of life, particularly for people juggling childcare and other responsibilities. And it can create access to the industry, and to the agency, from new places around the world. There’s lots of experimentation to do but the possibilities are exciting.
Above [clockwise from top left]: Ruben Goots, Stu Outhwaite-Noel, Sam Ashwell and Karim Bartoletti.
Do you think the industry will return to 'normal' once pandemic restrictions are lifted?
Mindy Lubert, Director of Production, UNIT9 Los Angeles: From a workplace perspective, it's likely that the 'normal' 9-5 work hours won't return to normal, for obvious safety reasons. The pandemic has caused everything to change at a faster rate, particularly within our industry. But what good would come out of this pandemic if it didn't spark change?
Angela Hart, MD, Stitch Editing London: I think the social aspect of this industry has been greatly missed. It will be amazing for everybody to finally come together again; this energy is really how the advertising industry thrives. But working from home has been a huge eye-opener, and one we will definitely take away with us, but in a much less enforced way!
What good would come out of this pandemic if it didn't spark change?
Antoine Ughetto: No, I don’t think so. Things have changed entirely; we will evolve, and we will keep on evolving. It’s true that people are craving human interaction and to get out and about again, but I think the way business will be done has changed. The way brands will communicate has changed. I think, in some way, there will be a new kind of hybrid comms; the virtual will intersperse with the real life.
Kerry Smart: No. And quite rightly. What a pointless 12 months if, afterwards, we all just returned to the way we used to do things. Forward is the only way. That said, yes, I would love to go out for lunch with you.
Sorcha Shepherd: To a point, yes. But I believe we will all have a bit more respect for each other's time and we won’t be rushing to have meetings in person when we can do them virtually. But I do look forward to when we can be back in the same room again. I miss having nice croissants during PPMs, and Thai food in edit suits.
What a pointless 12 months if, afterwards, we all just returned to the way we used to do things.
Rich Denney: We have demonstrated what we can achieve in the face of adversity. Technology has proved that we can stay connected and we can bunker in and work remotely. So, for most, a five-day week in the office may never return. But, saying that, it’s also demonstrated the real value and necessity of surrounding ourselves with like-minded people to make good stuff happen. A match can create a flame, but it can’t grow without fuel. I think we need to view the next stage not as the end of something, or a return to how it was, but the beginning of the next challenge. It will be too easy to slip into old habits. The challenge is to learn new way of doing things with the new tools we all know we have now.