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Coronavirus Media

How media buyers are adapting to the ‘homebound economy’


By John McCarthy, Opinion editor

March 25, 2020 | 9 min read

Chaos has ensued in the media buying world as coronavirus ushers in a mass behavioural change. With governments imposing tighter preventative measures, including self-isolation and lockdowns, planners are being forced to rethink channels, comms and creative for almost every client.

With most of Europe, North America, India, much of APAC and Australasia in lockdown, marketers are rethinking budgets and redeploying their resources. One senior media buyer speaking under anonymity tells The Drum that they are scrambling to warn clients “not to go dark” despite the pressures of the times.

He, along with peers and rivals, is helping clients find new ways to reach the public after many tried, tested and trusted media channels were rendered ineffective almost overnight.

Changing channels

So what's changed?

The mass cancellation of global events has bitten into live event sponsorship and the media that would have amplified these.

Meanwhile, TV broadcasters must conjure content replacements for their now captive audiences. It is no easy task to fill the hours committed to the highest traffic properties like Euro 2020 [2021 now] and the Olympics 2020 [also 2021]. New content is being commissioned to help people locked in their homes [See Channel 4’s Jamie Oliver cooking class or Joe Wick’s morning PE classes on YouTube]. These have to be agile operations, filmed with skeleton crews.

SVOD services like Netflix, Amazon Prime and the newly launched Disney Plus (five million downloads in Europe yesterday), are positioning to pick up the slack. Amid this spike in demand, they are generally lowering video fidelity to handle high traffic.

Radio, digital audio and podcasts have seen large listening spikes. It remains seen whether the decline of the commute may hurt them long term.

Cinema has been one of the hardest-hit mediums, with the delay of box office draw James Bond No Time To Die hitting it long before global governments began to introduce social distancing and lockdown measures.

Similarly, if the public cannot leave home frequently, the out of home industry suddenly also loses a vast, reliable audience.

And then there’s print. Time Out has rebranded to Time In and gone online only. Stylist, meanwhile, has launched a timely emag now it can't deliver footfall, and the Evening Standard is now getting delivered to homes. Any print that wasn’t finding its way through a letterbox or inbox is suddenly lost.

Gaming and esports briefs are crossing many desks for the first time too. In the US, gaming time is up 75% (video streaming rose 12%). Fifa and F1 are channeling gaming to fill the sporting void and in-game ads are due to boom, albeit mostly on mobile.

Kantar has released media consumption data too. 25,000 consumers across 30 markets to between 14-23 March had their say on how habits are changing. This was before the lockdown in the UK and India took hold.

It found that internet usage has reportedly rose by 71%. Vast changes in media consumption are listed, note that cinema is the only one facing a decline. Internet surfing, TV and social networks see the biggest increases. From lower bases, consumers have claimed to have increased radio, newspaper and magazine time too.

Media Behaviour

The survey gauged social media and app use. WhatsApp has made the biggest gains as families turn to the app to stay in touch. In counties under strict lockdown, such as Spain, usage was up 76% in a few short weeks.


Jamie Dunlop, managing partner, behavioural planning agency Total Media, explained that it has been working closely with clients to address the changes.

“We know that demand for streaming services has risen and as such we are counselling clients to increase their investment to harness the consumer demand in this area. Similarly, with consumers changing their food purchase behaviour, there is an opportunity for our FMCG clients to match consumer demand and ensure their products are front of mind.”

TV overnight became more cost-effective in this window. Whether that'll last with a wave of top and new brands eyeing the space remains to be seen.

One media buyer said: “By far and away the biggest pivot has been towards more e-commerce focused approaches to driving sales, and therefore a budgetary shift into digital channels.

"Some brands may soon run into problems with supply and delivery though, so a tricky balancing act that may mean turning off of the taps when product supply is low.” In the west, Amazon’s the benefactor of this shift, broadly.

On ice

Simon Harwood, head of strategy at the7stars, admitted that "there isn’t a single client who isn’t affected," and that all comms must be viewed through the lens of the pandemic.

Huge increases in media tailored for the new home-bound economy will not compensate for an overall slump, he said. There's been mass redeploys and cancellations across the industry.

“Now we are past the initial reaction to the outbreak in the UK, we are leaning into fresh strategies to adapt to the current containment period and looking ahead to the long term."

But finding audiences isn’t the only challenge during this time.

A senior buyer at a network media agency said that marketers aren't necessarily marking a proactive effort to adapt to changing media consumption trends, in many respects, they are making up for limited product availability or supply issues.

The “cracks of the agency model are showing," and he fears the drying up of budgets amid economic uncertainty.

“It’s a knee jerk reaction from clients to pull all money they can to reduce the damage that we’ll soon see to business bottom line, or they’re not brave enough to push back against requests from the board.”

The luxury, retail, apparel, dining, drinking, travel and auto may be worst hit by Covid-19. The buyer admitted it is hard getting brands whose immediate future is threatened to buy into long-term brand building right now. However, just 10% of people surveyed by Kantar think that brands should pause advertising, with many believing they have an important role to play.


The media workforce

Pre the crisis, media was already being bled by in-housing and decreasing fees, the source adds. "The fallout from coronavirus is that many good people looking for new roles" in the next six months when 2021 budgets are arranged, the senior source said.

"Some senior leaders have been right on the frontline, motivating teams, sharing best work from home practices, reassuring clients and being open about goings-on with the agency and clients. Others though have been completely silent or wanting to participate without adding any value. Lockdown on flights and big meetings leave them twiddling their thumbs.”

But businesses can reform depending on who is hit by the redundancy axe.

"Many of us hope it comes swinging for the highly paid individuals who live for pitches and presentations. This will give talented mid-level staffers room to grow and help usher the agency model into the future.”

Despite needing to make a hard sell for the health of the businesses, marketers are having to figure out the best tone to strike; that means analysing and adapting existing creative. In locked-down nations, the ability to create new campaigns and assets is hindered.

On this, Hardwood said: "Brands need to find a different role to maintain visibility in this time. As ever, brands can add value and get noticed by being useful, informing, entertaining or connecting people - or a combination of all four.”

Look to China

Many a keen marketer will be looking at the bounce-back in China for two reasons, the nation was hit with the virus first which provides a testbed for consumption habit changes. Secondly, the market proved to be ahead of the game on digital solutions.

Several agencies are taking heed from their colleagues in the region and sharing learnings about what is and isn’t working during the crisis. But they are also looking to the past. Aashay Shah, director and client lead at Mindshare APAC is looking to the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS in 2003 and the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) outbreak in 2015 to model for changing behaviours.

Even in 2015, online shopping boomed during a lockdown. This time around, marketers should reallocate investment for short term wins to develop stronger e-commerce capabilities and readiness.

This TV, OTT will experience a surge in viewership and adoption but due to attribution challenge, paid search and social commerce will get higher chunk of budget.

In many respects, how China fairs post-Wuhan will steer the rest of the world, it would be wise to see how media adapts to an increasingly outdoor populace again.

Tom Laranjo, managing director at behavioural at Total Media, issued a warning. “Our industry's real challenge will be maintaining morale over the longer term. We are only in the very early days of this crisis."

He concluded: "[After peak infections], we are almost certain to move straight into a global recession. The road ahead is long and will certainly be hard, requiring new norms to be set across a range of areas."

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