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2020 round up: the year in agencies - remote work, consolidation and transformation

As we get ready to shake the dust off 2020, The Drum is rounding up some of the key stories, interviews and work that have shaped the year. Today, senior reporter John McCarthy explores how agencies have navigated the past 12 months — from retuning their business models to pitching via Zoom.

In July, the IPA warned of a “grave impact” on UK marketing budgets and not long after they hit their lowest ever level. Baseline competition and disruption aside, the ad industry was fighting for survival.

Furloughs, cuts and layoffs rocked the industry at the outset of the pandemic. A Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM) survey said almost 40,000 UK marketing jobs were lost in the fallout. PwC estimates there were 415,000 people employed in marketing roles in the UK.

Another report said 132,000 marketing jobs were at risk. An IPA Bellwether study saw half of respondents say they expect more job cuts from October. Meanwhile, in the US, as of June, 50,000 marketing jobs were shed. More followed. A Forrester analyst has said that half of those jobs simply won’t return.

The way of working

It’s hard to underplay the impact 2020 has had on individuals and businesses alike.

But some agencies have had made a show of improving conditions, cumulating in a year featuring numerous types of Christmas parties.

We’ve also seen the rise of the Zoom pitch, which proves to be a tricky proposition. Chemistry is the main concern; how do you determine the fit is right over a video call?

Well, we didn’t have a choice. Most of us shifted to home working. Debates raged about the effectiveness and long-term feasibility of such models. Casting that aside, the agencies working remotely before the pandemic shrugged off those early hurdles.

It appears that these adverse conditions put existing problems under the microscope – spare a thought for those of maternity leave and the working mums. Or those whose mental health was understandably shaken up by the macro conditions. And young talent – have our future leaders really been getting the guidance they need in this tough time?

The agencies that looked after their staff found themselves with staff that looked after their agencies when it was needed.

In the summer – with the aforementioned job cuts, lack of diversity in the top jobs and a new wave of civil rights protests like Black Lives Matter – many exchanges were had about institutional racism.

Representation of Black and minority people in UK ads was through the roof in 2020 – there’s still a serious shortage of diversity behind the camera though. The agencies at least pledged to change… and we’ll be keeping a close eye on them to ensure they do in 2021.

Big promises were made during a pandemic that’s left the industry reeling. Those who fail to meet standards have their scapegoat.

The business models

A vaccine might be incoming, but ad spend will take two years to creep up to pre-Covid levels, albeit with a likely different distribution of spend. Under Biden, the US economy may settle. Britain’s balance sheet remains uncertain as Brexit negotiations rumble on.

One silver-lining from Havas MG’s UK boss is that the industry has been forced to awaken from a ’dumb period’.

So, how are the big ad networks ending 2020? It’s really a mixed bag.

Omnicom experienced significant improvements in the third quarter, with half the revenue drop (11.7%) year-on-year than Q2. But boss John Wren was clear, he’s unsure how Christmas will play out.

Over at IPG, meanwhile, there’s a new boss in town. Phillipe Krakowsky picks up from outgoing Michael Roth. Roth had it running smoothly before the handover. “The decrease was perhaps not as severe as we might have anticipated or have seen elsewhere in our industry,” he admitted.

Publicis brought some positivity to the table, citing the ‘Power of One’ model once more for its success throughout 2020. 23,500 employees await news of Q4 performance, but boss Arthur Sadoun is buoyed by the performance of its recent data analytics acquisition Epsilon which is having a ’halo’ effect on the wider industry.

WPP, similarly, has been talking up its digital credentials. Boss Mark Read unveiled a twin-pronged strategy to recruit 10,000 additional staff while trimming £600m in costs. Good luck with that.

And spare a thought for the indie, which had to lean into their specialisms more than ever and rely upon their much-touted agility.

M&A was slow at the start of the year, but amid the chaos, you probably missed a few big ones. S4 Capital showed absolutely no signs of slowing down, but the consultancies hit the breaks.

AKQA and Grey were merged – huge brands swept away in the blink of an eye. Meanwhile, Dentsu consolidated into a mere six pillars. We lost more, it looked like top agencies were bundled while the staffing was streamlined.

So now we look forward to 2021, we want it to be a story of positive change and for the wounds to heal. Here’s how the recovery could look… Here’s hoping.