By Nidhi Singh
In February 2021, almost everyone started believing that the war on Covid-19 was won and soon the new normal will be replaced by the old normal. At the agency level, we all started re-calibrating our targets for 2021 as brands had already restarted spending on the marketing activities (in compliance with the government guidelines).
While the psychological and business recovery from the first wave had just started, the second wave caught us off-guard and hit us even harder starting late March 2021. Everything went back to square one with people being locked up in homes and brands halting their marketing spends for a second time in less than 18 months. A lot hangs in balance for 2021 on how the next few months go. Even though we were better prepared to handle the second wave thanks to the learnings from the first lockdown, the agency business has never been more challenging (during both lockdowns).
Engage or Bleed
The first big challenge was to ensure ongoing ‘Client Engagement’. During the old normal, it was OK, if you didn’t know whether your client was facing a health crisis at home, but during Covid19, both clients and agencies were concerned for each other’s well being. While health took top priority in daily discussions, the second focus was on creating new marketing solutions. At this point, clients were only betting their budgets on possible solutions, else they were halting it. So, it has been a litmus test for agencies. They had to come up with innovative solutions and that too quickly. It was no time for reaping the benefits of a long-standing relationship. While some solutions got accepted, others never saw the light of the day. But that’s ok. The brand teams together with servicing, designing, & account planning teams quickly redesigned the existing brand-consumer engagement models and the engagement restarted. For instance, the experiential industry, took to virtual events as onground gatherings were banned. Any agency not providing tailor made solutions for crisis times, unfortunately will be left to bleed by clients.
It’s always about People
An agency is not about tools and technology, but people. They define an agency’s culture and make it cutting-edge. But let’s be honest, Covid19 hit the agencies where it hurts the most – People. The news about agencies letting go of talent sparked a widespread fear. It made others, who were still in business, work even harder to meet the expectations, but there were whispers about job security. They were struggling on both ends – on one side was the health & well-being of their family and the other was the daily fight to secure their jobs. I counseled many professionals (both inside and outside Impact Comms) trying to elevate their motivation but it was not easy as their fears were real based on macro-factors. After several discussions, it clearly emerged that they were not worried about more money, growth or challenges but whether their employer would stand by them in difficult times or not and be empathetic. I am proud to say that at Impact Comms, everybody stood with each other to help them steer through this crisis.
The next big challenge was going tech-first. No matter how cool it may sound, enforcing it within an organisation is not easy. The first few weeks were really a mess for everyone. They were like a training session where everyone was figuring out how to use new apps to share the files, ideas, plans, tasks and others. An agency is all about free-flowing ideas but the medium to share these ideas was replaced from board-rooms to Zoom calls. People took their time to align with it. They missed the ownership of their desks and cabins. Working from home was always a privilege but suddenly it was a necessity. But, all of us learnt, adapted, collaborated, and delivered an even better product. We soon realised, tech is a great enabler and people across businesses have happily embraced it. On the other hand, the tech-first solutions were deployed to keep the brand-customer engagement going such as Virtual meetings & events, influencer activities, increased focus on data to create better phygital experiences and others.
Like going tech-first was the need of the hour, following onground compliances set by the government was the rule of the hour. The biggest challenge is to monitor the implementation of these compliances. It is even more difficult in onground/experiential agencies because they work with freelancers across states. However, the government led awareness on Covid19 was so high that most freelancers followed the protocols without anybody having to monitor them.
The world changed faster than anybody could ever imagine and so did the consumer habits. As agencies, we were keeping a close eye on this change because ignoring it could have been fatal. However, gauging this change was even more necessary for agencies because without it new campaigns & solutions could not be designed. People spend more time online switching devices to stream or watch news. They were not keen on any brand/consumer survey, so mapping their new habits was even more difficult.
Having spent my entire career in the agency business, I can surely say that the last 18 months have been the most challenging times to be in the agency business owing to the macro-factors. However, it is the resilience and a strong will of each and every agency professional who has been spending those extra hours in his home-office to keep the brand-customer engagement going with a new idea every time.
(The author is the chief executive officer, Impact Communications. Views expressed are personal.)