How agencies, brands and media owners are dealing with the second lockdown

Brands could still benefit from 'a digital Christmas'.

Covid-19: England in lockdown (Image credit: Getty Images)
Covid-19: England in lockdown (Image credit: Getty Images)

A second lockdown in England is here. As agencies and media owners once again prepare to deal with the fallout from client briefs changing, questions over whether they should keep their offices open and battling a bruised new-business market, there is a feeling that leaders are better prepared going into it this time around.

This lockdown has been on the cards and many businesses will have been prepared for it. But as Sharon Whale, chief executive of global markets and operations at Oliver says, it's a disappointing move and there's a worry that there will be negative repercussions for some brands, especially in sectors such as retail and hospitality.

"The run-up to Christmas was a chance to regain lost revenue for many businesses around the world," she explains. "From a purely commerce point of view, this lockdown will be affirmative for some businesses and the nail in the coffin for others."

The headlines earlier this month about John Lewis Partnership and Lloyds Banking Group making further job cuts and Marks & Spencer posting its first loss in 94 years underscore Whale's comments about the hard times facing many companies.

The Advertising Association/Warc Expenditure Report has downgraded its forecast for Q4 as it expects a 10% decline. And Publicis Groupe has warned globally that the quarter could "come below" Q3.

However, in a sign that the outlook remains unpredictable, stock markets surged on Monday after Pfizer and BioNTech said a trial of their coronavirus vaccine has shown it be more than 90% effective.

In the near term, Stephen Woodford, chief executive of the Advertising Association, warns the new lockdown will have an "adverse impact on the vital Christmas trading period".

He says that it is up to the industry to "flex once again to protect businesses, jobs and the wider economy".

He adds: "The sooner the lockdown can be reasonably lifted, the better and, in the meantime, businesses need more clarity in order to plan."

But this doom and gloom doesn't mean that Christmas is cancelled (there are many ads still filling our TV screens this year, including Aldi, Asda, Coca-Cola, Three and Morrisons).

Instead, as Euan Jarvie, chief executive of Dentsu UK & Ireland, told Campaign last week this will be a "digital Christmas" (referring to comments from Scotland's national clinical director, Jason Leitch).

Jarvie is cautiously confident because of "the fact there are more platforms for brands and consumers to engage and to transact than ever before".

Digital marketing agency Jellyfish has been seeing many clients putting measures in place to mitigate the negative impact of further lockdowns.

"Throughout this period, many businesses have looked to review, rethink and rebuild their strategies for the digital era," the agency's co-founder and chief executive Rob Pierre says.

"For many this isn't just a 'nice-to-have' but a business imperative that could mean the difference between surviving and thriving or becoming extinct."

Jane Wolfson, chief commercial officer at Hearst UK, agrees. She has noticed that brands are looking for more digital-led work. "We've seen huge growth this year for our digital content, with our branded content work up year on year, and I expect to see more digital and social campaigns from clients over the next few weeks and months," Wolfson says.

Andrew Stephens, co-founder of Goodstuff, describes the second lockdown as a "royal pain in the arse", but adds that clients have been behaving cautiously since the initial lockdown anyway. This means that longer-term decisions have been harder to make, which increases uncertainty, putting pressure on business and marketers.

Xavier Rees, chief executive of Havas London, says that there is not the same panic around this lockdown because of how brands have changed their plans already.

He adds: "Lockdown is a blunt instrument, and it will hit some sectors harder than others, expected or otherwise. Brands' plans have taken on a deliberate fluidity this year to protect them from being too exposed by changing circumstances, so I don't think anyone is panicking at this point."

However, many fear this lockdown will last longer than the government's projected 2 December deadline. Mat Goff, joint chief executive of Adam & Eve/DDB, predicts that there will be some kind of restrictions going into 2021.

For Ete Davies, CEO of Engine Creative, there is a sense of frustration, and he agrees that even if lockdown comes to an end on 2 December, it is likely that the tier system will continue.

New business

Not surprisingly, the pandemic has hit the new-business market pretty hard. The latest AAR report shows a 25% year-on-year drop in appointments between January and September.

Karen Martin, CEO of Bartle Bogle Hegarty, says she feels as if the industry has been in "limbo" and hopes there isn't a further hit to new business. "The CMO's role has never been more important or pressurised than it is now and they will need the right partner by their side to navigate these unknown times," she says.

But, as Melissa Robertson, CEO of Dark Horses, says, clients know that they can't put everything on hold indefinitely. "The first knee-jerk reaction back in March was to shut up shop, but businesses simply can't have such a short-termist view," she explains.

"Clients need to use this opportunity to get themselves match-fit for the future. So, the smart clients will lift their heads and plan to be the ones who are ready for a future, however different that might be."

Stephens has noticed some current pitches being paused, while others that were set to launch have been pushed back. He thinks that the lack of face-to-face pitching has been one of the biggest drawbacks for agencies.

For a company like Oliver, however, which pulls together in-house agencies for brands, Whale says that the new business team has been "busier than ever" with the global pipeline "looking strong" going into 2021 because more brands are adopting in-housing.

"As this pandemic continues, as a global recession bites and as uncertainty reigns, brands are more interested in new operating models than ever before – particularly as the fight for consumer attention and spend accelerates at both ends of the digital funnel," she says.

Mental health

Leaders are also worried about the mental wellbeing of staff – a key reason for some to keep offices open. "The country is now at the intersection between a Covid-19 pandemic and a mental health pandemic," Whale says.

"So when we're talking about lockdown as a business, our biggest concern is people (not revenue) and the longevity of our staff's personal wellbeing. Every business should be primarily concerned about the welfare of its staff and client teams in the lead-up to lockdown.

"In most cases, it's been over eight months since they saw the whites of their people's eyes in the flesh. We need to go further for them than ever."

One initiative that the agency has launched is to offer a free Fitbit to employees who take part in healthy challenges set by the business. There are also plans for designated screen-free time between meetings, walking one-to-ones, and advice on money in the run-up to Christmas.

The shorter days will make a big impact on mental health, too, Stephens explains: "This lockdown with the weather change and shorter days is a step backwards for people and simply adds to further future uncertainty.

"Our job as agency leaders is to help take people with us on the journey and support them as they do their best in the circumstances. And to ensure we look after ourselves too."

Many companies have therefore continued with initiatives to make sure staff feel supported while working from home.

At Hearst, this means increasing the frequency of notes from CEO James Wildman, as well as government updates, practical content, business news and initiatives to engage staff, such as web sessions for yoga and to keep fit. The company also has mental health ambassadors, Claire Blunt, chief financial, operations and data officer for Europe, says.

While the second lockdown is likely to be difficult, the UK ad industry has already displayed resilience and the hope is that better times could soon lie ahead.