Kevin Chesters: Covid-19, what do we do now (and next)?

Kevin Chesters is the partner/chief strategy officer of The Harbour Collective.

Kevin Chesters: Covid-19, what do we do now (and next)? Pic by Alvaro Reyes

Covid-19. Every one of us is searching for the answer as to what to do for the best - as planners, as agencies - for ourselves and our clients.

We want to especially know how best to advise our clients on what actions we should be taking, and what prudent investments we should be making, to ensure that they (and we) survive and thrive in a (hopefully soon) post-Covid world. We are searching for what to do in the long and the short of it.

Now I’m certain what we shouldn’t be doing. We shouldn’t be making a bunch of showboating ads so we can look good in front of our peers. Amid a few notable exceptions, I’ve noticed that most of the output that agencies are putting out right now looks inappropriate at best and cynically opportunistic at worst. To be honest I’m not sure a lot of agencies have noticed that Cannes has been canned. As someone smarter than me said last month; “It a pandemic, not a brief.”

Clearly, we do need to be preparing for what happens when ‘normal’ resumes’ – whatever that means. The trendy thing seems to be to punt around a lot of those ‘Advertising in a Recession’ papers (from 2008 or the 1920’s) about how we should all be investing millions in big brand advertising campaigns. I’ll come back to this later but I’m not sure that it’s a great optic right now as agencies to be spending our time telling clients to invest multi millions in advertising when they’re mostly worried how they’re going to pay this month’s salary bill (or even have a business in three months’ time).

But we obviously can’t all wait for the ‘end’ of this lockdown/shut-up-shop crisis to start to prepare for this “new normal”. That would be like waiting for the date of a race before starting to train. We have to prepare otherwise we will potentially be too late to start again. Our brains, our businesses, our processes and our people will have atrophied to the point of uselessness; the engine won’t restart if we leave it too long. Fail to prepare, prepare to fail. But what to do?

I’ve always presented plans to clients across three simple time horizons. They may seem obvious but they’re called Now, Near and Next.

Now: What can be done immediately to make an impact?

Near: What needs to be done in the interim to prepare for…?

Next: What needs to be done to affect longer term brand/business impact and requires more operational/organisational change?

I’ve always done this but I’ve found it particularly useful for clients in the last four weeks as we all grapple with this pretty unprecedented challenge. But I’m concerned a lot of clients and agencies seem to be only worrying about two of those horizons.

There seems to be so much being done frantically around the Now and so much (too much?) being written about the Next. But I think that virtually everyone seems to have overlooked the Neat – and I think will actually be the most useful thing that strategists could focus on for the long-term success of their clients (and therefore, their own) businesses.

The Now

There is only one thing that agencies should really be doing right now for clients.

Do whatever needs doing.

John Lennon said it best – “Whatever gets you through the night, it’s alright.”

Be helpful and be useful. And for them, not you.

Cut out the showboating stuff which for many seems to largely be about making your agency look good in front of your peers.

My observation from March 2019 is that almost 100% of the challenges facing a client’s business right now are operational or organisational. Not comms.

The long and the short of it? Pah! Right now, there is only a “short of it”. And for a lot of businesses - and the people that work for it – it is the shortest of short of its.

Of course, we should think long term but for now just get it done.

I’ve found myself doing all sorts for our clients in the last month and not a lot of it would fall in the bucket of strategy.

Forget the ego. Want to know how to get your client’s gratitude?

Go where you’re most needed and stay until it’s done.

That’s it. That’s your job at the moment.

The Next

We should definitely be thinking about the long term – as hard as that it to do.

Someone once said to me about how they focused in the worst parts of the financial crisis “You keep one eye of future whilst you dance in the flames.”

We should definitely remember all data shows that investing in times of trial yield long term results because the sun will come out tomorrow and we will meet again.

We should definitely not forget all that 2008 Millward Brown paper and what the ‘Long & the Short of it’ tells us about brand building.

But we should also not forget that within weeks 10 million people in the UK will be furloughed. And an awful lot of our clients will be amongst them.

We should also remember that a lot of high profile CMO jobs have been professional victims of Covid-19 and more will inevitably follow.

We should remember that everyone is scared. And that anxiety isn’t conducive to rational decision making.

Sending around articles from 2008 saying we should all be spending big on telly ads when most CFO/COOs are worried about being able to trade in three months’ time just make us look hopelessly naïve.

We can learn from the past. But my suggestion would be to look less at the data about advertising after recessions and look more at the behavioural data of how nations react to collective national traumas. Most interesting is to look at what happened in the UK post-1945. What did people look to? What did people look for? What did people want from each other, businesses, brands and governments? Luckily for what we do they largely sought familiarity, certainty and solidity. This is great news for brands. Especially large cornerstone ones that have suffered in the last few years from newer, shinier rivals.

But I think that most of us – in the mad dash of the Now and the financial concern for the Next have forgotten to spend some time (and a little bit of money) on the Near phase. Let me explain.

The Near

The Near phase is what happens after this initial, immediate maelstrom dies down (please make it soon) and we all start to exhale. We won’t be out of the woods - we probably won’t even be able to see the edges of the woods - but we will be taking some time to think about what the future looks like beyond another article telling us to spend loads of precious cash on big brand telly ads.

I don’t know what’s going to happen. But I do know that in 2 or 4 or 6 (or maybe more) weeks things will start to stabilise. And some form of ‘normal’ will start to emerge. And it is then that we will start to establish what brands and businesses in all sectors will need to do to talk and act in a post-Covid world.

And it is what we do in this Near phase that will best prepare clients for that world. So, what do we do as strategists to best prepare our clients whilst operating in the dark?

Back in 2009, after the financial crisis, Honda were forced to close their Swindon factory and production line for four months. It was nothing short of a disaster. It could have put them under in Europe. It didn’t and largely because of how they approached the time where they couldn’t do what they normally did. They had used the time productively doing all the things they couldn't do if they were open. They repainted, they retooled, they cleaned, they sorted it all out. So that when they re-opened, they were almost in a better position than before. If we all can’t do the campaigns or briefs that we had planned,, how do we use this time to make ourselves (and our clients) ready for the Next phase?

Data – Let’s work on understanding how Covid-19 will change the way our consumers approach our client’s sector and product. What will change forever, what will change in the interim, what will go back to the way it was before? If you can, go get some proprietary data – I’ve got some things I can talk to you about. Don’t rely on those round-robin generic tracking surveys. I’m not sure they are going to be that revelatory if I’m honest.

Prep – Let’s work out what we should spend money on Now (not much) to prepare ourselves for Next. Let’s work out how to repurpose a small amount of the money we have saved by not running campaigns to get ready for what happens Next. It might be that some of those things that will make the long term a success need to start a little earlier than then.

Investment – It is right and proper that most of the savings made from not running planned campaigns should be put straight into the bank to preserve cash. Cash is king in every business. But a small portion of that money could be invested in understanding what consumers will be doing in a post-Covid world. It is a much easier and logical argument to make to a CFO that you want to spend some money understanding how to survive and thrive when we emerge from the immediate crisis than it is to ask for loads of advertising budget for some future brand building campaign. I know a lot of projects have been immediately halted in the maelstrom but it is worth thinking about which ones could prepare your brands and businesses for the post-Covid world. They won’t cost millions.

I think that putting some time, effort and a small amount of money into using this interim phase to prepare ourselves, and our clients, for emerging from the crisis stronger and better will pay back a hundred-fold.

It’s not discretionary spending, it is preparatory spending so that our client’s businesses and brands are ready to fight a harder fight when we (hopefully) get to the end of this tornado.

Investing a bit in the ‘near’ is spending on making sure that we can even be in a position to think about what to do in the longer term.

It is spending a little on our/your brands equivalent of when Honda cleaned the factory, painted the walls, re-tooled the production line and made sure they spent a little making sure that the business and brand was in the right place to make the most of when the sun came out.

In the words of Her Majesty, we will all meet again. Around the water-coolers, pub tables and supermarket shelves of the UK. And when we all do, we will – if you look at the evidence from other moments of collective national trauma – re-engage with the products, services and brand we love.

So, we should think now about what we could be doing in the interim to prepare for the longer-term survival of our clients’ brands. Put in a little now in terms of thought and investment and the rewards will be reaped.

But for now, “whatever gets you through the night, it’s alright.”

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