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‘This may accelerate our plans’: inside the 4A’s scramble to help a wounded industry

Kaplowitz took on the 4A's top job in 2017

As advertisers continue to slash and postpone ad spend, agency marketers are seeking guidance and answers more than ever before. Can the 4A's quash concerns over membership value to become as the go-to port in the coronavirus storm?

Like almost every chief executive in marketing, the 4A's Marla Kaplowitz was meant to be at an event right now.

The association's Management Practitioners Forum was set to be held in Chicago this week, but the coronavirus swept away the event until October. Another April event – Decisions 2020 – has been postponed until 2021.

But unlike other chief executives, Kaplowitz has more to do than fret over financial forecasts.

The organization responsible for representing the interests of advertising agencies has found itself having to focus on its first and foremost mission: “drive commerce” of its members in a time when cash is being throttled by zealous chief financial officers and cautious marketers.

“I truly believe we need to help support our members now more than ever, and they need to support their clients now more than ever,” says Kaplowitz over a Zoom call. “We've got to reprioritize, and our focus right now needs to be on what our members need. What are their most pressing issues? And what do we have to really help them?

“We have completely shifted what the priority is.”

Alongside the usual Covid-19 challenges (working from home, figuring out how to reroute checks from the office), the 4A’s is piecing together useful content on the fly.

Much of it involves acting as a convener running virtual forums for knowledge-sharing. Kaplowitz is witnessing agencies willingly open up to each other as they realize how much the entire industry is at stake: rather than speaking in conference-friendly platitudes, they’re emailing over useful documents, such as working from home policies.

The organization’s soft lobbying arm is working hard too.

While she’s realistic about delayed payment terms and consequential furloughs, Kaplowitz has been vocal in her belief that a block on all marketing activity is harmful in the long-term. She and her team been sharing research and best practices on revisiting messaging during a crisis to make sure cash flow isn’t switched off for agencies altogether.

But perhaps the most critical of the 4A’s roles right now is its connection to Washington DC. Stimulus packages and small business loans may hit the headlines, but many independent agencies are struggling to understand what exactly they can apply for and how to do so.

Alison Pepper, the 4A’s senior vice-president of government relations, has been tasked with translating the state and federal decisions into practical advice.

“We are giving people very prescriptive information on what they need to do and what they need to know, and we'll do consultations with anyone who needs more details," says Kaplowitz.

“This is really is the perfect moment for us to demonstrate our role and the value that we bring.”

The chance to prove value

“Value” is something the 4A’s has had to confront head-on in recent months. An AdAge article published last November laid bare agencies’ ongoing issues with the organization: it costs too much, it lacks “sway”, the ANA guarantees better access to clients, and so on.

At the time, Kaplowitz contended that membership remained flat, while McCann – the biggest agency reported to have been reconsidering its renewal – is still paid up until 2021. Now the industry finds itself much further forward in the rollercoaster car to recession, the response to the 4A’s handling of the crisis has been mixed.

But then again, so are agency expectations.

Some are too caught up in protecting their own staff to even be aware of the 4A’s coronavirus response. Some, such as 360i New York president Abbey Klaassen, are comforted by its presence, which serves as a reminder that the industry is in this together.

“Over the last few weeks the 4A’s has been a constant presence in my inbox with messages around how to cope with the situation,” she says. “I do think it has been galvanizing, and helping all agencies figure out what we do in this situation."

Fred Pfaff, the owner of an eponymous comms consultancy, is a prime example of how members are most likely to extract value from the organization when they input it themselves – particularly when it comes to the unknown.

“When I need to know where an agency client fits within the industry on any topic ... I just call [the 4A’s team],” he says. “If they don't know off the top, they make some calls and get back to me, often with intros to agency people who have experience and perspective.

“I will be making several of these calls in the coming week as I look for a broader perspective on what's concerning agency leaders beyond my clients and behind closed doors – the kinds of things many members share with 4A's leadership.”

Others, however, want more.

“They’ve [put out] a nice compilation of articles, ‘best practices’ and conducting surveys or asking for examples of comms from our agencies but nothing more – nothing wrong but nothing more,” said one holding company director, who wished to remain anonymous

“I haven’t really felt the impact of the 4A's bar occasional emails with information that is usually available from other sources ... I’m yet to see real value at this time of need,” said another.

A new 4A's epoch

Kaplowitz understands her company is in a rather unique position right now. It’s a life raft for struggling agencies but also a line item on the budget; for that reason, she’s imploring members to call up and inquire about different payment terms if they’re worried about making the fees.

But she’s also clear the 4A’s won’t make it out of this unchanged – and that is, she believes, a positive thing.

“It’s not just about what we need to do and reprioritizing what we currently have,” she says. “It’s about asking what we need to add.

“We need to think about bringing our forum groups together, not just twice a year, but every week right now so that they can connect and share with each other. Now is an interesting time for the freelance community ... so, offering individual memberships is something that we want to look at.

“This may accelerate certain plans that we were going to put in place.”

But back to Klaassen’s notion of comfort. If it’s one thing the industry needs right now, it’s a stoic but calming presence. And the 4A’s provides that in the form of Kaplowitz herself.

It’s Kaplowitz who hasn’t yet succumbed to a WFH uniform of pajamas. It’s Kaplowitz whose smile stays beaming on in spite of everything.

And it’s Kaplowitz who carefully reminds us that she’s “been in situations like this before”.

“I know that it is my role to stay calm and to keep everyone assured that we’ve got this,” she says. “This is challenging, and I don't have all the answers. But I just look at what's happening with our members, and that is what is keeping me focused.”

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