An entrepreneurial spirit of added creativity: how Covid has changed the game for marketers

Power 100's marketers are united in the way they have adapted with superhuman speed and agility to the unique environment brought about by Covid-19 and are facing the future, ready and able to take on new challenges, Simon Gwynn writes.

An entrepreneurial spirit of added creativity: how Covid has changed the game for marketers

It’s a familiar sort of observation now, but imagine going back to May 2019 and explaining to someone why, 12 months later, BrewDog would bring out a new beer called Barnard Castle Eye Test. You’d have enough trouble with the prologue of the story, in which Dominic Cummings, whom critics cite as a threat to democracy, becomes the chief advisor to the Prime Minister, before even getting to the Wuhan wet market in which Chapter One proper takes place.

BrewDog’s beer, the name of which pokes sharp-witted fun at Cummings’ fateful road trip to the County Durham town, is one of several eye-catching moves this year from the Scottish brewer, which have also included launching Punk-branded hand sanitiser, an impromptu partnership with Ricky Gervais to raise money for stray-dog charities and, recently, announcing plans to become a carbon negative business. The latter included the planting of a 2,000-acre forest in the Highlands with a campsite and bar open to visitors.

The policy was promoted in typically boisterous style for the brand with an out-of-home and print ad reading “Fuck you CO2”, with the middle letters in “Fuck” obscured by a can of Punk IPA.

Pulling basically the same trick in an ad for alcohol-free beer Punk AF last December landed BrewDog with an ASA ban; at the time of writing, the watchdog is considering whether to investigate the new work. But given the subject matter, another ban would hardly do BrewDog any harm. Indeed, marketing director Sophie More says: “It’s one of the biggest things we’ve done as a business and something that, as well as being interesting to consumers, is really interesting to other businesses.”

BrewDog, More adds, takes the view that “political leaders and governments aren’t doing things quickly enough and aren’t having the impact that they should do, so it’s sort of left to businesses and individuals to take action”.

It has certainly been a contradictory year in terms of economic lessons: the crisis has dealt a fatal blow to the veneration of market forces as the principal way to solve problems, but has also starkly revealed the limitations of the state. We’d be in a far worse place if businesses – along with charities, civic and community groups – hadn’t stepped up.

The initiatives mentioned above, More says, were “all things that were turned around super fast... because there was a collective belief that these were the right things to do but needed to be done quickly”.

The merits of this philosophy are an open debate: BrewDog itself has got into plenty of trouble in the past for, no doubt, hastily dreamed-up stunts, although More insists the company now has “much more of a laser focus on doing things that will have a positive impact”.

But move too slowly and you could end up with an ad like Channel 4’s recent Bake Off trailer; it’s a fun riff on flour shortages – a big problem for aspiring sourdough supremos in the early days of lockdown – that happened to land as supermarkets were in the process of selling off cut-price sacks of panic-stocked flour.

Another beer brand that had to think quickly this summer was Carlsberg, which wanted to release a limited-edition beer to celebrate Liverpool’s Premier League title. Its UK production sites were at capacity trying to meet increased demand so, needing to hit the day the club lifted the trophy, vice-president marketing Liam Newton and his team had the idea to brew the beer at Carlsberg’s site in Denmark, and create a direct-to-consumer platform to sell it. He says: “That’s something I don’t think would have happened in normal circumstances – how do we find a way around it, is there a sort of entrepreneurial spirit of added creativity?”

As well as saying that the events of this year have made Carlsberg more decisive and cost-effective, Newton is one of several marketing leaders to have spoken positively about the shift to remote working, with a near consensus that it is here to stay to a greater or lesser extent.

Revolution in remote working

Sara Bennison, chief product and marketing officer at Nationwide, has stopped her commute from London to Swindon, a 160-mile round trip she used to complete two or three days a week; the change has made it possible to cope with the increased work pressure of also temporarily taking on responsibility for branches and contact centres.

The lockdown period, Bennison says, has “accelerated changes that technology had enabled, that culture was resisting because you had to force everyone to do it at the same time – it never worked when you were the only one not in the ring”.

She believes remote meetings have become more democratic and made it easier for introverts to be heard and points to an upside in furthering diversity of social background within businesses.

“It doesn’t become a barrier to career progression that you don’t want to leave your home community and family [to relocate for work], which, I think, particularly from the diversity perspective, really opens up options,” she says.

Working through this pandemic has perhaps given other marketers an insight into what life is like at Uber, where “you’re always ready to respond to a crisis”, UK head of marketing Omar Gurnah quips.

Campaign is speaking to him on his first day back in the office in six months – a week before the government once again told everyone who is able to work from home to do so.

Since the start of the pandemic, Uber has “really doubled down on our own channel comms”, Gurnah says, with a big increase in messaging via apps and CRM to both customers and drivers. For the latter, it has been trying to offer data and advice to help them optimise their work during a time in which demand took a big hit.

With a similar refrain to that expressed by Bennison and others, Gurnah says he has been focused on “actions not ads” – making sure the business has done the groundwork of making a positive contribution before talking about it. That especially means ensuring safety for Uber drivers and Uber Eats delivery people, but can also be seen in the brand’s response to Black Lives Matter, part of which was spotting and rectifying a product feature that was propagating inequality.

“We took businesses that were African or Caribbean restaurants in the Uber Eats app – which were actually really hard to find, there wasn’t a category for them – and we moved them to the top of the app for a month,” he says. “And the reason [we did it] for a month is that is how long it took us to fix the problem of discovery permanently, not just [to treat it] as an ad campaign.”

Are you experienced?

As well as making a difference in social justice terms, that move from Uber reflects a growing business consideration: customer experience. A survey last month by Isobar of 1,350 global CMOs found that almost two-thirds had “completely or moderately” changed their customer experience strategy in response to the crisis, with almost half investing in innovative new products and services.

Illustrating this trend, Lloyds Banking Group’s Catherine Kehoe was promoted from managing director, group brands and marketing to chief customer officer in January, gaining responsibility for customer experience and propositions. The need to move fast meant the new structure was “crystallised within the space of months”, the group’s director of marketing communications, Richard Warren, who reports to Kehoe, says.

Lloyds has responded to the crisis, and the financial challenges huge numbers of people have faced, with a major boost to personalised comms via email and internet banking prompts, Warren says. “We have an enormous amount of customer insight in terms of people’s incomings, outgoings and spending patterns, where they work, who’s taken out [mortgage] repayment holidays, those kinds of things. So we’ve been able to target our customer support more precisely and in a more timely way. I think one of the enduring benefits of Covid [will be that] we’ve been able to be more supportive of our customers – rather than having a ‘one size fits all’, we’ve been able to target that help more precisely.”

In June, Lloyds made the year’s most striking agency hire when it appointed start-up New Commercial Arts to the combined advertising and customer experience account for Halifax. While founders James Murphy and David Golding were clearly in the right place at the right time – they were contacted by Kehoe on their first morning of business, following a non-compete period imposed by former employer Omnicom – their decision to make customer experience a core plank of their offer, under the leadership of NCA’s chief experience officer, Rob Curran, looks astute.

“To fix Halifax, we need to fix the experience, not just the comms,” Warren says. “For us, it’s a test. There’s no slight on Adam & Eve [which previously handled advertising for Halifax, and retains Lloyds Bank], but we just wanted to see what it would be like to have an agency doing everything… [examining] what’s the process of opening a current account like, what’s the online journey like, how are people treated in call centres?”

A pitch is not always the answer

Halifax, however, is far from the only brand that has gone after more integrated agency structures. Last summer, when British Gas owner Centrica appointed a WPP team to a single account spanning creative, media and other disciplines, its then chief marketer, Margaret Jobling (now at NatWest Group), told Campaign that integrated models were the future of marketing.

WPP is currently repitching for a similar global account with Walgreens Boots Alliance, which it first won in 2017. And BMW Group recently caught headlines when it set up a new integrated operation to handle most of its European marketing services, led by S4 Capital’s MediaMonks.

But according to Angus Crowther, founding partner at Alchemists, another shift prompted by the crisis that looks set to last is less enthusiasm for turning to agency pitches to solve problems. Often a pitch, he says, “just isn’t the right solution at the moment” either for marketers or agencies.

Crowther says Alchemists, which he launched last year, has been helping brands with their internal operations and “getting involved higher up the chain in the agency model”. Talking of one financial services business, he says: “We looked at their organisational design, ways of working, as well as individuals’ development, so that the teams were set up for success in terms of marketing effectiveness and driving better outcomes.”

He sees more agency consolidation, a switch that is likely to mean growth for agencies will increasingly come from expanded business with existing clients. A positive change Crowther has noticed from brand teams is an improved ability to give feedback to agency partners, as well as a willingness to have their own behaviour appraised.

“We’ve been impressed with the nurturing empathy,” he says. “And CMOs’ willingness to support their teams.” Marketers, he adds, are taking on board that there is no way for agencies to deal with “20 different bits of feedback” from different people in the client organisation and that if you behave that way, “you’re just not a good client – and I think they’re OK to hear that now”.

Real change comes from within

Natalie Graeme, co-founder at Uncommon Creative Studio, agrees internal culture in brands is “the biggest shift” she has seen in the past few years. She adds: “You can’t, as a CMO, be out there talking about how important Black Lives Matter is and how important it is to treat people with humanity, when these sorts of crises are happening, if you’re not fixing things internally, and it doesn’t ring true with the internal teams. Even your internal teams will call you out on that publicly.”

Saying that the agency often starts “a lot earlier in the process” of developing creative ideas, Graeme points to Uncommon client ITV as an example of the spread of positive thinking within an organisation. When the broadcaster launched its “Britain get talking” campaign last October, the idea to interrupt Britain’s Got Talent with a minute of silence was “incredibly hard to sell in” she says, because of the challenge of explaining to stakeholders “where it’s going to deliver value, and why it was the right thing to do”. When they quickly developed the idea or a follow-up at the start of lockdown, however, Graeme says there was plenty of existing enthusiasm among ITV staff and talent.

Chris Daly, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Marketing, says that, in a pressurised time, “internal marketing, that internal communication with your employees has proven to be absolutely essential, and the ability to maintain their wellbeing, their level of engagement and their understanding has been a really crucial factor in helping organisations still function and still be able to deliver and meet customers’ expectations”.

He warns businesses not to ignore the importance that marketing as a discipline has in helping them to stay afloat. “The vast majority of marketers have been focusing their energies on maintaining their brand reputation,” he says. “It’s [about] more than just short-term tactical campaigns. There is a significant investment required to ensure that the brand, brand reputation and brand value is maintained throughout these uncharted waters.”

Daly says brands with the ability to adapt will suffer the least from the crisis. “Darwin’s ‘survival of the fittest’ was not simply ‘survival of the strongest’. It’s survival of those that can adapt the quickest, and businesses and organisations that do realise the fundamental strategic impact of professional marketing are far more likely to survive.”

Find out who made the Power 100