In recent weeks, the effects of Covid-19 have been acutely felt by the advertising industry. Initially buoyant, it has quickly become clear that despite the column inches dedicated to why brands should continue to spend through the crisis, agencies have seen a decline in work, income and now staff as they’re forced to make use of the furlough scheme or make redundancies.
As The Drum has reported, no holding company is safe. Omnicom, Dentsu, WPP, Publicis and Interpublic Group have all cut costs while the independents have moved in much the same way in the face of a bleak global economic outlook for the remainder of 2020. This week, the government announced that it would extend its furlough scheme by a month to 30 June.
But amid the uncertainty, green shoots of ingenuity are – unsurprisingly for this industry – beginning to emerge. Pip Jamieson, founder of The Dots, says that in the immediate aftermath of the coronavirus lockdown, she witnessed mass panic, confusion and concern from the freelancers who make up 41% of its community.
“We saw a mass wave of contracts being cancelled and now it’s mass furloughing and redundancies. It’s tough to watch,” she said. “We launched a coronavirus support hub and we’re now seeing so many people, if they’re in a position, give their time for free. A lot of people are coming on to say they’ve been furloughed and to offer their services to the community and support in any way."
Jamieson explains this ranges from offering up their time to charities or coming up with ideas for how to raise funds for services under strain in the current environment, sharing their skills as part of a “skill swap” initiative on the site, or hosting virtual events to try and upskill at scale. Meanwhile, several hundred senior people in the industry are trying to support those in more junior positions who have found themselves furloughed or worse.
Jamieson and The Dots team quickly signed up nearly 500 mentors from across the industry to help answer questions on the forum.
“People have more time and if they are in a position to do so they are very much using it as a way to mentor and support other people in the industry,” she adds. Copywriter Vicky Ross, D&AD's Patrick Burgoyne, Melanie Eusebe, head of the Black Business Awards and Matt Miller, co-founder of Ustwo, are just some of those to have joined as mentors. “It’s wonderful to see industry leaders use this time to give back and help in whatever way that is.”
Harvey Austin, Alex Fearn and Dan Salkey were furloughed from their roles at Dark Horses, the Lucky Generals-backed sports agency, along with five others just two weeks ago.
“We were aware of what was going on in the world and it wasn’t a massive surprise,” recalls Austin, who said his initial plan for the newfound time on his hands was to pen a cookbook. “But I quickly realised I’m no Rick Stein.”
Instead, after a brief period of wondering what do with themselves, the trio came together to launch an advertising agency called Not Fur'long Creative that would aim to give branding, marketing or strategic advice to small and medium-sized businesses worst hit by the coronavirus slowdown.
“One in five SMEs will close as a result of Covid-19. Ultimately they’re the places that everyone is excited to return to after lockdown but they’re worried about their survival,” continues Austin. “The government has had to rush so many things though and there’s a lot of gaps in how it affects SMEs. We’re being paid by the government not to work for our employer, so we wanted to use the furlough scheme to help SMEs being neglected by the government. We see it as a positive aspect of the furlough scheme to be able to put our skills and services somewhere that might have been forgotten by the funds.”
While businesses up and down the country were (and to some extent still are) trying to work out what ‘furloughing’ staff meant and how it would work in practice, Austin, Fearn and Salkey intensely researched the legalities of volunteering under a formal agency banner. They are quick to praise a webinar from Paul Sculley at the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy which actively encouraged people furloughed to use their skills to keep communities and the economy going. Dark Horses has kept a firm distance from any practical involvement and there is no client crossover, but it has been supportive, and other staff are also volunteering time if needed.
So far it’s worked with two businesses: a Hackney-based yoga studio called Strong and Bendy and Loddon Brewery, a family operation close to Reading.
“We’re helping with strategic and creative support and to set them up for success later on," adds Fearn. "When we’re talking to SMEs we’re aware it’s people’s livelihoods and we are keeping the services in mind that will have a tangible impact."
A website has since been set up to allow other businesses to apply for support. And the Not Fur'long trio have put out a far-reaching call for any other advertising, marketing, media, and PR professionals to join their team. Specifically, it needs brand strategists, content creators, web designers and account managers.
“The more people we get on board, the more we can actually help businesses," says Austin. "Throughout the nation, there’s a real positivity to putting your skills to something and coming out of this better than when we went into it. Hopefully over the next few months we can help a load of businesses and create some real change. We want to help in whatever way we can.”
‘Remember to look after yourself’
Despite the positivity that’s emerging from what is a catastrophic situation, The Dots' Jamieson also assures people that have been furloughed, lost contracts or have been made redundant – or are facing that in the future – that they should not feel compelled to bounce out of bed to volunteer their time.
“It’s an emotional nightmare. A lot of stuff we see [on The Dots] is ‘how do I cope? Will I still have a job at the end of it or is this just a path to redundancy?,” she said.
“I think it’s important that, if you are furloughed, to look after yourself first – don’t feel like you have to volunteer, do that side-hustle or upskill. You need to look after your mental health and just take one day at a time to get through this.”
The Drum has previously wrote about the services available to people struggling with their mental health during the pandemic. You can contact industry charity Nabs for further adivce and support on its website.