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The pandemic could awaken marketers from ‘dumb period’, says Havas Media’s Patrick Affleck


By John McCarthy, Opinion Editor

December 3, 2020 | 7 min read

Having ridden out his first few months as Havas Media Group UK & Ireland chief executive, Patrick Affleck is enthused by the hardiness of the media agency in the face of chaos – but they better get used to it. More challenges lie ahead, he warns.


Havas Media CEO Affleck explains how pandemic could awaken marketers from 'dumb period'

Since joining from Dentsu, he’s had a steep learning curve while building a mindset rallying against the “dumb period of marketing” of obsessing about targeting precision rather than nailing the contexts in which marketers connect with audiences.

He speaks frankly of the issues facing the 500-strong Havas Media Group (HMG), all marketers, and society. Dominating much of the conversation is talk of sustainability and climate.

The big issue

We opened with a frank discussion about the macro environment facing marketers, as well as society as a whole. Affleck says the industry faces four interconnected crises.

“You have the Covid-19 health crisis, the resulting economic crisis which has shined a light on the massive inequality crisis, and then you’ve got the climate crisis, which you could argue actually caused every fucking thing.”

Such conditions have had clients reflecting existentially. At the helm of a huge media group, Affleck has been guiding clients. He’s not urging them to jump on the “purpose bandwagon” he says, before repeating his mantra that “77% of brands could just disappear, and no one would actually really care”. But he urges them to dig down into, not just their positive impact on society, but “why they exist".

So, amid a cluster of crises, and a huge number of brands getting distracted from their core purpose, interesting, and forward-facing, frank conversations are being had. “We are talking to a lot more clients about the environment or issues addressing inequality of diversity,” he says.

He points to GiffGaff’s ‘Anti-consumerist‘ work, something that he thinks has genuine meaning, while expressing the value of the business. And the circular economy naturally poses a growth zone for those who do it right. While it’s a consistently rolled out trope that has its sceptics, perhaps a year at-home observing the fragility of the world will get these ideas to stick. “More consumers will expect brands to be conscious of the impact that they‘re having on the broader society, culture, and the environment,“ he says.

The media solution

So, for Affleck, the solution is to look forward, avoid panic and look at how a media-centric business can help make smarter investments when “all industries or businesses are under enormous amounts of strain”.

Early in the dark days, the group conducted workshops with clients to dig into their business challenges and learn what they can feasibly achieve with media. It became clear they had to match experts with problems. “The agencies need to organize their structures around their clients. The operating models also need massive change,” he argues.

Affleck dubs this approach ‘Strategic Taskforces‘ and reveals he is talking to clients around the idea of a ‘strategy bank‘ – essentially a new way of remuneration where clients deposit funds in exchange for the hours of any strategic minds you need, sourced from across the group. “It‘s quite a nice way of just showing that we can be very flexible to the change in our clients' needs."

“Agility, accessibility and accountability,” is his line. “We need to be able to move quickly and help clients access the different skill sets that reside across our group and align the work around the right KPIs.”

It‘s less about buying media and more about wondering how media can solve problems. And that requires brain power which brings us to the prominence of an at-times under-valued asset.


During the turbulence, strategists (“often bundled for free by agencies”) became one of the group’s “biggest assets”. In the future, Affleck suggests their services should have ”a much greater premium attached.”

It‘s a skill that has been eroded during a “dumb period of marketing” he says since today‘s marketers have huge data sets crunched for them by dashboards.

He says that the huge growth in digital advertising has helped deliver scale, but not necessarily the right kind. There’s too much focus on identifying someone without thinking about how we connect with them more meaningfully based on the context. Affleck says an “obsession” with targeting, precision and accuracy has replaced established marketing theory and norms.

“Because we can identify someone, we have forgotten about the context in which we are talking to them, the mood they are in, and their mindset. Are they sitting forward, are they entertained? We’ve almost just forgotten all of that and are just hitting people with endless comms.”

“It is utter, utter nonsense,” he says. And so, plugging the strategic context into these hugely expensive media buys is the group’s selling point. At a time when budgets are tighter, clients must get more bang for their buck.

What it means for the agency model

So, Affleck has a battle plan in place for HMG. There’s a small pool of spend and more competition, but he shrugs off fears of encroaching consultancies (HMG has been consulting), in-housing (HMG helps clients do this) and the bigger ad networks (too big to move fast, he thinks).

“We’re less rigid about media planning and buying, now we’re more about consulting around digital transformation,“ he says.

The flexible approach from HMG has let it put the right talent on the right projects and has demonstrated said value, he says. But question marks loom over 2021. In the UK, Brexit looms large while the soon-to-commence rollout of vaccines will have a significant impact on economic prosperity. And what of recession?

“A lot of clients still haven’t absolutely determined and defined what their budgets will actually be.” But Affleck is confident that they will spend, and that they know the value of marketing during tough times. The client workshops have, he hopes, arranged objectives to cover all scenarios, and the KPIs to measure performance.

Affleck concludes: “The big groups should be nervous if they allow themselves to be slow and cumbersome. We’re trying to adapt our operating model in accordance and be valuable to our clients at all times, really. That requires us to be very flexible.”

This year, HMG was the first holding group to join the Conscious Advertising Network (CAN).

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