Standing Up to Uncertainty – How Agency Leaders Are Dealing With the Coronavirus Crisis

By drawing on its advantages, the ad industry has developed a surprisingly robust – and empathetic – response to the crisis. We asked agencies large and small about their strategies.

Crises can bring out the worst in people. But they can also bring out the best. What we’ve seen over the past few days are examples of the very things that make this industry a pleasure to write about: its flexibility, its collective intelligence, its ability to forge winning strategies – and of course its creativity.

But there has been an unexpected element too: many agencies have spoken about their determination to protect their staff, even if they won’t be able to prevent the economic impact that’s certain to come.


Home – But Not So Alone

One thing we can be sure of right now is that everyone is working from home. How are agency leaders dealing with that?

Sarah Douglas

Sarah Douglas, CEO of AMV BBDO (Pictured) in London, comments: “My people can be creative anywhere. The only thing that will slow them down is connectivity. So in the first week we focused on ensuring all our people had everything they needed to connect and continue collaborating creatively and effectively for clients.”

Micheal Frohlich, CEO of Ogilvy UK, says he’s proud of the way the agency has reacted. “One of the first things we set about doing was creating The Ogilvy Managed Remote Working guide – an accessible, easy to follow guide for working from home, made by the Ogilvy People team, and the Ogilvy Consulting Behavioural Science Practice. We have to prioritize Health, Happiness and Productivity for everyone, so we focused the guide around those three pillars, and are encouraging everyone to follow it, and crucially, to ensure levels of communication with each other are high.”


Andrew Dimitriou

Andrew Dimitriou, CEO of VMLY&R EMEA (pictured) says one important rule is “to stay agile and continue to adapt”. Allowing flexibility and assuming good intent is another. But the network is also keen to look after its employees’ physical and mental health. “We’re encouraging people to take breaks – outside if possible – and to have a clear beginning and end to their day. We openly communicate with each other on what we need and how we feel.”

He adds that post-crisis we may see the end of “presenteeism” and old-fashioned measures of what a team brings to the table. “More than ever, I can see the focus being on the outcome rather than who is in the room or how long they work on it.”

He’s also one of quite a few leaders to put an emphasis on maintaining good humor. “We welcome people as their whole self: children, pets, relatives, housemates, interesting art choices on the wall and more! It’s always okay if they show up on a video conference – even with clients.”

Some of the side comments during video calls have been comedy gold, he adds. There’s even a country running a best-frozen screen competition.

Jason Cobbold

“Supporting our team’s mental health and wellbeing has been a priority,” agrees Pip Hulbert, UK CEO of Wunderman Thompson“We’ve provided mindfulness exercises for the whole agency to try, and online one-to-one resilience coaching is also available to every member of staff throughout the working week.”

The agency also live streams exercises such as Pilates and yoga classes.

“Try to preserve a work-life balance,” advises Mark Lund, CEO, UK, McCann Worldgroup“We’re recognizing the fact that people are working from home with children, family, flat mates and pets in ways no one ever expected – it’s intense and there needs to be delineation and distance between the two more than ever.”

Jason Cobbold, CEO of UK agency BMB (pictured) gives “keep playing” as one of his remote working tips. “The really important thing has been to ensure is that we don’t lose the playfulness of our culture. Agencies thrive on being able to explore the weird, the wonderful and the random, and it’s easy to lose this when you are not in the same room or building.”

“Agencies can only run and be successful with incredible people, so our focus has to be, first and foremost looking after our people, and in time, keep things moving.”

He notes that video calls can be pretty exhausting and advocates “time away from the green dot”. The agency has moved some of its conversation back to phones. This also means you can move around, getting in a bit of cardio.

Clients or Partners?

The situation is going to show definitively which clients regard their agencies as mere service providers, and which see them as true partners. Because partners look out for one another when times get tough.

Patti McConnell, co-founder and managing partner of Something Different, a Brooklyn-based agency, says she’s actually “communicating more” with clients. “Some partners just remind us we’re in this together and offer a bit of relief from the WFH integration.”

“We fully expect clients will come back stronger and faster to gain first-mover advantage.”

Michael Frohlich observes that while in normal circumstances agencies might feel as if they work in different ways and environments to their clients, “the current situation has thrown us all into the same boat of improvisation and adaptation”. The agency has shared its Managing Remote Working Guide with clients, too. “Our job is to solve our clients’ problems as best we can, and at the moment, supporting them on adapting to new ways of working is a very important aspect of our partnership.”

“We are here to support them and guarantee business continuity; ensuring stability and quality,” says Andrew Dimitriou“We fully expect clients will come back stronger and faster to gain first-mover advantage. So that’s where all our focus is: how we can help them win in the new world.”

Sarah Douglas says: “Proactively what clients will need is real tonal precision and agile insights. We are connecting deeply into culture to help our clients better understand the needs of the zeitgeist.” She adds that “brands can be beacons of reassurance in times of crisis”, but may need help from their agencies to find the right stance.

Jumping on the Brand Wagon

Brands have sent out a cluster of topical images via the social nets, not all of them in tremendously good taste.

Mark Lund

As Andrew Dimitriou says: “We’ve seen brands do amazing things, like LVMH using their perfume and cosmetic production lines to produce hydro-alcoholic gels. Still, we’ve also seen communications which, I think, were out of touch with the current mood and situation. Just like with any humanitarian crisis, getting the message and action right is challenging.”

He has praise for his team in Milan, which is making the Lavazza coffee brand part of the #istayathome phenomenon in Italy, connecting coffee moments to the national movement.

McCann has a concrete way of helping brands avoid being “tone deaf”, explains Mark Lund (pictured)“Our strategists work closely with the creatives based on ongoing research our global Truth Central unit is conducting. This tracks the consumer mood market by market as a human experience, not just in marketing terms. Every market and culture is different and we have to be sensitive to what different consumers want from their brands at this time.”

Prepping for the Fallout

Nobody knows quite what lies at the other side of this, but it isn’t going to be pretty. Budgets will be cut. Jobs will be lost – indeed, they already have been. Agencies say they’re doubling down on the power of creativity and trying, despite everything, to protect their people.

Michael Frohlich says: “Agencies can only run and be successful with incredible people, so our focus has to be, first and foremost looking after our people, and in time, keep things moving.”

Andrew Dimitriou would agree. “Agencies can keep doing what they do best: think creatively. Because from creativity comes growth,” he says. “There is also a real opportunity for business and creative leaders to set the right tone in this very uncertain phase. Every agency says that its people are its competitive advantage, so now more than ever we need to be there for them.”

“It’s all about reassurance.”

“Building a strong, supportive culture has been a core focus for me since I took on the UK CEO position at Wunderman Thompson,” states Pip Hulbert (pictured)“The fact we’ve been able to keep this thriving in such a challenging situation brings home just what a worthwhile investment in time this has been.”

Pip Hulbert

Fredrik Segerby of Tailify points out: “Your clients have chosen to work with you because you offer expertise and capabilities they don’t have. Now is the time to elevate those capabilities and lead the way forward.”

“Crucially, we need to do our best for our clients and seek to be valuable business partners as we provide counsel during this difficult time,” says Mark Lund“That way when we emerge the trust between their brands and their consumers and between them and us can be even deeper.”

Finally, Sarah Douglas adds: “We profoundly believe in the power of creativity as a source of advantage for clients – even more so in times of challenge and difficulty. Great, effective creativity can connect, console, inspire and encourage people on the road ahead and even perhaps put a much-needed smile on their faces.”

Mark Tungate

Mark Tungate

Mark is a journalist, author and Editorial Director of the Epica Awards.

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