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How agencies turned adversity into opportunity

Why and how has the brand-agency partnership proved indispensable to marketers during COVID-19?

The impact Covid-19 has had is undeniable. The past few months have represented a level of universal change in society that no one could have predicted or has experienced previously.

This is of course also true of advertising, marketing and media – often a barometer of public consciousness and sentiment – with 75% of brands reducing advertising investments by around 40%, according to research by AA/WARC. But the work hasn't stopped, and brands, agencies and partners have had to work harder than ever to execute in the present, and plan for the future.

The ‘new normal’ won’t be normal

As lockdown conditions ease, we are adjusting to the changes yet to come. The British public is definitive on the need for change, with only 6% wanting things to go back to how they were before the coronavirus crisis, according to a YouGov poll.

Our advertising industry is also looking towards its own future with growing confidence that ad spend will return. However, there is less certainty of the shape (L, V, W or swoosh) and make up of this future, given the challenges in extrapolating our present experiences and predicting what comes next.

Agencies as business partners

The agency’s role in advising brands on how to effectively communicate with audiences, and the channels that can enable this, has secured it an unrivalled position of influence across the advertising ecosystem. However, by definition, this makes agencies more susceptible to the challenges of Covid-19.

At Comcast Advertising – inclusive of FreeWheel and EffecTV – we created the Agency Leadership Council (ALC) forum to give recognition to the significant role media agencies play in delivering value for clients and in leading the growth of the industry. We have seen brilliant examples of how agencies have responded with positivity and partnership during the lockdown experience. Similar observations have been shared publicly by major brands such as Coca Cola and IAG.

So why and how has the brand-agency partnership proved indispensable to marketers during Covid-19?

Good things start inside out

To understand the strengths of agencies, we need to look inside them. They are people businesses, placing a significant value on talent, and with investment in sustainable ways of working – examples of which include:

  • Clear, transparent communication – even where bad news needed to be conveyed, agency leadership kept a strong line of communication internally and externally.
  • Fast flexibility in workplace practices – agencies were very quick to react and create the necessary operating conditions to enable home-working.
  • Despite greater physical distance, our members saw examples of rapid adjustments and even better collaboration between internal teams to get work done where it mattered.
  • Accelerated adoption of digital tools enabling improved workflow, productivity, and frictionless communication.

Geisla De Souza, vice-president of paid media at Jellyfish, summed up the benefit of these behaviours, where even under remote conditions, teams “felt more empowered to collaborate across the business” and “proactively identify activities that benefit clients and accounts” – seeking out value for brands that remained in-market, or freeing up commitments to those that needed liquidity.

Agencies are making plans to return to a very different working environment, requiring a combination of office-based resources and home working. This points to the emergence of the hybrid agency; future-fit operationally and attitudinally.

Hybrid and holistic: new parts of the brand-agency partnership

Agencies have shown their recipe for business creates the right conditions to foster great work and outcomes. As De Souza reinforced, “there was a real sense of this becoming even stronger over this period.” So how have they put this potential into practice during Covid-19? These examples stood out:

  • Analysing and navigating fast-changing audience behaviour and sentiment.
  • Developing marketer capabilities across data and technology through incremental training programmes.
  • Perseverance and consideration during pitch arrangements that saw a greater volume of rounds and intensity of assessment.
  • Agencies stepping in to support in-house marketing teams where disruption to resourcing has been experienced.

The realisation of all these points, in context of the brand-agency partnership, is probably best summed up by the expression that “we’re in this together”. With this empathy and support, “the relationship between agencies and clients got a lot deeper, with consultative and holistic approaches reflecting these shared agendas”, revealed Mihir Haria-Shah, head of broadcast at independent agency Total Media. He added that media agencies brought “expertise and tools beyond just media and marketing plans, reviewing client businesses from top to bottom”.

Tim Willcox, managing director at Dentsu Aegis-owned Amnet, agreed with this sentiment, saying, “the agency model expanded to provide much-needed support across all of the marketing function, with an expanded value layer that likely did not exist before.”

None of the above would have been possible for agencies without their people. Willcox commented that “they kept staff on accounts and this has generated a new-found respect for the dedication and flexibility that agencies can offer”. Interestingly, he added that “in return, we were inspired by the lengths that clients would go to, to keep their marketing functions operational”.

Agencies are well placed to navigate an uncertain future

The only certainty is uncertainty and change, as we move forward. Much is unknown about the future of marketing and media. How will audience behaviours and consumption change? Brands will fundamentally change and learn too. Those that continued to invest in advertising throughout the pandemic will have first-hand insight and immersion to advertising through this period. Those that cut budgets will need to re-learn and rebuild their brand and marketing programmes from a standing start. Both will require different kinds of support and expert guidance if they are to be effective.

All this means that media agencies find themselves – through their positive actions – as indispensable business partners for brands. In many ways they always have been, but the crisis – and what will follow – is proof that their value within the value chain is beyond doubt.

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