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Agencies don’t need to fear – we have everything we need to ride out a recession

By Emma Williams | Strategic performance director

September 30, 2022 | 7 min read

As British businesses face down a recession and a currency crisis, Space & Time’s Emma Williams considers the options available to agencies.

riding out a wave

Agencies can ride out a recession in the UK, says Emma Williams / Unsplash

If you watch the news, it’s hard to avoid the suggestion that a recession is looming, if not already here. Concern about the economic outlook is affecting every industry and ours is no exception. What is going to happen next? The short answer is – we don’t know.

We have never been in a situation quite like this before.

The UK no longer has the backing of the EU. The war in Ukraine rumbles on. The leadership of the country is in turmoil with a changing of the guard on all fronts. If all that weren’t enough the cost of living is rising like never before, leaving many people and businesses extremely vulnerable and consumer confidence at an all-time low.

Even with the recent round of largely unfunded tax cuts, the mood has not changed, with consumers still concerned about how this will negate the rising cost of living. The prompt crash of the pound and UK bonds as a result would indicate that the problem is far from solved.

Depressed yet? But let me reiterate. We have never been in a situation quite like this before.

We have never had so much experience, data, knowledge, understanding, communication and visibility. We need to tap into this.

We live in a world and work in an industry that has never been so connected, and those connections (while showing us the stark reality of certain situations facing us) allow us to access information and plan accordingly.

At Space & Time, the rich trove of first-party data from our long-term client base allows us to look back and see what happened through previous recessions and through the recent pandemic lockdowns, and to look forward – leveraging predictive technology to get ahead of the curve.

Everything is a phase and this one too shall pass – the real test will be who can come out of this positively. So, what are the key things businesses – both brands and agencies – need to bear in mind?

1. Honest and realistic conversations will go a long way

As the landscape starts to shift it is vital to speak candidly about the reality of what that means. From a brand’s perspective, that means sharing information with your agencies about how your targets are shifting and the real-world impact it’s having on the overall business so that your agency can help plan for the business objectives instead of just focusing on media objectives. Looking at the long-term approach is going to be critical.

Similarly, it’s important that agencies give brands clarity on what is happening in the market and that they don’t, for example, try and sugar coat performance results. It’s at times like this that strong agency/client relationships built on trust, transparency and good faith will be of the utmost importance.

2. Spending through a recession can future proof your business

I know, I know, an agency telling you to spend money? Laughable right? Sometimes, as per the previous point, we need to be honest, and this is what the data tells us. We know – from the IPA’s research on spending in a downturn, from Mark Ritson’s recession playbook, from our partners like Google as well as our own data and case studies – that cutting spend during a period of market difficulty is the wrong thing to do as it damages brand metrics in the long term. Brands need to pivot to focus on awareness and engagement to future proof their share of voice and brand health.

3. Good talent is worth its weight in gold

This goes for brands and agencies alike. If things do go as badly as we are being warned to expect and some employers are obliged to reassess the size of their workforce, it’s important to remember that this is a phase and at the end of it, any business will be keen to come out in a strong position to scale back up or crack on in a more buoyant market. Talent is hard to find and harder to keep, so making sure that you are still investing in staff development, prioritising mental health over potential profits, and aiming to keep a happy and motivated team will see you in good stead.

4. Empathy is critical

Again, for brands and agencies alike, this is what I consider the top attribute to success. For everything we do, it’s infinitely better if we can put ourselves in the consumer’s shoes. Really think about how they must feel amid all this societal upheaval and consider how best to help, inform or educate them. As a brand, a hard sell isn’t going to work – empathy might not get you the immediate sale but down the line, you will be the one they remember. Similarly, from an agency’s perspective, empathy with clients and true business understanding will help to make realistic and truly meaningful recommendations for brands.

5. Look after yourself

This goes for everyone, in every facet of the business and industry – these may be tough times, both in the office and out of it. The unknown is often more anxiety-inducing than any alternative, so go easy on yourself, your colleagues and your clients. This too shall pass. So, just think about where you want to be when we come out the other side.

Emma Williams is strategic performance director at Space & Time

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