Fear. It’s palpable. We can almost touch it. It radiates from the TV, newspapers, and the radio.
Keen observers of consumer behaviour know what’s what. Rohan on George Street in Edinburgh has an infra-red tracking device outside their store; it recorded a 30% decrease in street footfall in the run up to Christmas. Close observation of shoppers reveals a lot of browsing, but few bursting carrier bags of goodies. The phoney war is over - we are now officially in recession. Anyone close to retail, housing, automotive or white goods has known this for most of last year.
Attempts to put out the bonfire of fear thus far appear futile. I’m reminded of those helicopters dropping water on Australian bush fires. The water seems to evaporate before it reaches the inferno. Interest rate cuts, VAT cuts, nationalising the banks and Obama’s promised $800 billion cash injection seem to have made little impact.
And the consequence of fear radiating across the land is caution in the boardrooms throughout the UK. ‘Batten down the hatches and wait for it to blow over’ is the new business mantra. And who is brave enough to contradict such advice? If the sales aren't there, the sales aren't there.
Thus for all of us in marketing communications, if we haven't already realised it, 2009, and probably 2010, are going to be very lean years indeed.
So how can we respond to this enormous challenge? Clearly I don’t have an easy answer, or I would almost certainly be sitting on a yacht in the Seychelles.
But business leaders in marketing do need to have a plan, and do need to search for ways to survive. If the credit crunch and collapse of the global banking system is the equivalent of the giant meteor that wiped out the dinosaurs, then we definitely need to be the small mammals, birds and fish that adapted and thrived in the new environment. “Sounds a bit unlikely,” I hear you say. “I run an ad agency, I’m not a pre-Cambrian shrew.”
Darwin identified the process of “natural selection” as being at the heart of evolution. But it was Herbert Spencer who coined the phrase the “survival of the fittest” which we more commonly associated with Darwin. So if we are to take inspiration from Darwin and Spencer, and survive the cataclysmic events of the last 12 months, we need to focus on how we are the ones that come out the other end, fitter and stronger than before. And if we have to evolve, and grow fins, or wings, or whatever, so be it.
As has been said before, if there’s no market growth, the only growth is market share growth. And market share growth demands that some win and some lose. Just as Darwin discovered.
Given that survival is the name of the game, I don’t intend to give others our own plan for survival. Other than to state the obvious: now is the time to up your game (do what you do even better) and now is the time to innovate and dare to be different (do new things, in new ways, in new markets.) And given the environment, doing all this won’t be easy, but that’s no reason not to try.
There is business to be had out there. During recessions some businesses will be winners. Agencies need to identify the winners and help them win. Some businesses are more or less recession proof. Agencies need to seek them out and help them reach their goals.
The IPA’s recent ‘Advertising in a Downturn’ report clearly demonstrates a correlation between those brands that maintain their share of voice in a downturn and those who grow market share. In difficult times it could be argued that clients need their agencies even more – to be give them an edge when times are tough.
FDR’s assertion that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself - nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance” has never been more appropriate. So let’s conquer fear – and take this opportunity to emerge from this economic winter leaner, fitter and more relevant to our clients than before.