Coronavirus might seem overwhelming, but we are not powerless
A view from Simon Gwynn

Coronavirus might seem overwhelming, but we are not powerless

Yes, this year will be tough, but now is the time for adland to make the most of its expertise in problem-solving, Simon Gwynn says.

Things are looking incredibly bleak right now. Given the shutdown of public activity – which will have the biggest impact on daily life in Britain since World War II – and the grim news from the stock market, it is perhaps no wonder that Campaign readers are so despondent about the prospects of the ad industry, with the median participant in our poll predicting a 20% drop in the market over the next six months.

So I was struck by what I thought was exemplary leadership from Publicis Groupe boss Arthur Sadoun in the video message he recorded for colleagues this weekend. As you’d expect, Sadoun ensured there was no doubt he was prioritising the well-being of his staff and their families; both enacting and effectively communicating that is something every business leader should be doing, and most undoubtedly are.

But there was also an important message aimed at those who might find their confidence and resolve being tested in the face of a frightening natural disaster. What Sadoun wants his people to know is: we are not powerless to affect the course of things. As he rightly acknowledged, the situation may be scary, but it is not hopeless – and agencies are very well-placed to make a positive difference. 

There’s no doubt that on top of the loss of many lives, this crisis will take a huge toll on the economy; many businesses will disappear and whole sectors may struggle to recover. But others will be left picking up the pieces after a testing period of time and they will need the input of their agency partners more than ever. Creative agencies have talked for years about how their role is evolving from just communicating messages in a clever way to solving problems their clients face through creative ideas of many kinds (including ads). Well, if there was ever a time to step up and prove you know how to do that, surely it’s now. 

Sadoun also pointed to a need to help brands pivot, once the crisis is over. We don’t yet know when that will be, and it’s tempting to focus on short-term damage limitation. But we can already see suggestions of what could become permanent changes in cultural and social behaviour. There will be rewards for brands that can provide products and services that cater to those changes. 

Back in January, when predicting what the year ahead held for brands (LOL, I know), I wrote that consumers would become increasingly intolerant of brands that did not demonstrate that they were making a clear positive impact on the world. Coming at a similar point from a different direction, Jeremy Lee predicted that we might finally see an end to nebulous ideas of "purpose" that don’t actually provide anything of the sort. Following a crisis such as coronavirus, both of these points will be truer than ever. 

I don’t mean to oversell the power of marketing; the biggest factor by far in determining the economic severity of the epidemic will be decisions made by governments, both in the UK and other countries. But those of us who influence the decisions of businesses also have agency in this situation. Let’s make the most of it.

Simon Gwynn is deputy news editor of Campaign

Picture: Getty Images

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