Yesterday, the UK became the latest in an ever-growing list of countries to impose severe restrictions on people’s lives. In the US, many states are in similar conditions of lockdown and our colleagues in China, Italy and elsewhere have been in this situation for some time.
With people confined to their homes, our personal and professional lives have been upended in ways we could not have imagined. For many, the cost will be far greater than inconvenience.
We have seen the best of people – from Italians singing from their balconies to bring each other hope and inspiration to healthcare workers struggling at the front line. We’ve also seen the worst, but thankfully not that often.
Most of the industry will be working from home until further notice and I don’t think any of us will find it easy. Some will find it lonely and isolating. We have a young workforce and many share flats. Few people have the luxury of separate office space at home. Parents will argue over who is doing a video conference and who is looking after the kids (after just a few days, I can tell you this is true!). Everyone has their own personal worries about vulnerable family members and friends.
We all know that the next few months will be tough. Now, more than ever before, we need to pull together – as colleagues, as agencies and as an industry. I am pleased but not surprised to see countless examples of that happening across and beyond WPP.
I am spending as much time as I can talking to our people, via Teams video calls, and to clients over a myriad of different video systems. These calls all start in the same way: asking how we are, how our people and families are managing, and offering to help each other however we can. New friendships form quickly.
As I talk to the chief executives and chief marketing officers of our largest clients, I am ever-more convinced of the value of our industry and the role that we can play, not just in limiting the spread of the virus, but in helping society get back to work once we are out the other side.
I look around and see an industry pouring its energy and resourcefulness into supporting its people and clients, and doing what it can to assist governments and international organisations.
At WPP, we are working with international health authorities to promote effective handwashing and we have offered our resources to the UK government to assist the effort in Britain. Wavemaker is already working with them.
Ogilvy is one of 35 agencies in Spain working with five industry bodies to use the collective power of advertising to fight the spread of Covid-19. WPP Health hosted an online forum for 2.6 million Chinese citizens and more than 200,000 physicians. Group SJR is developing scripts for public-health officials in the US.
This is not a time for scoring competitive points, but a time for solidarity, and I want to recognise and applaud the great work being done by our peers as well.
To list just a few: Dentsu is working with a pharmacy client to provide free online consultations; Arthur Sadoun stressed in a video for all his people that the well-being of Publicis staff is his priority; Havas is helping its people stay healthy with meditation and yoga via Instagram Live; and BBDO brought some humour by creating a "logo generator" for its people’s home offices.
Clients, too, are putting their social responsibilities first and thinking creatively and innovatively about ways in which they can help, whether that’s Unilever supporting global and local authorities by donating hygiene products, Google launching an educational website and resources for parents home-schooling their children, LVMH switching to hand sanitiser production, Facebook’s $100m programme to support small businesses or Ford easing payments on new vehicles.
Behind all of this work is what makes our industry special – people who understand human behaviour and emotions. Not just what makes us tick, but why it does.
Creatives who conjure ideas and communications that engage people in the right way with the right tone at a troubled time. Innovators who come up with new products, new technology solutions and new ways of helping customers. Public-relations professionals who advise CEOs on how to communicate with their people, investors and customers to help them navigate the crisis. Media experts who know the best way to reach people, not just on social media, but through so-called "legacy" media such as TV, newspapers and radio – which people turn to for news they can trust.
When we come through this, the world will be radically different, but I have no doubt that the services WPP and our peers offer will be in even greater demand.
We will fly less, shop online more, educate our children differently, spend less time in the office. Technology will be even more important. However, in helping our clients succeed in this new world, we will need to combine our expertise in technology with an understanding of how people are feeling and what is motivating them. Once this is over, some will want to celebrate, but others will be in a very different place. Many will have lost loved ones or their livelihoods. Everyone will have made hard choices. Our job is to understand this and help our clients be ready.
For now, brands need to communicate appropriately, while looking ahead to the rebound. People remember what brands do at times like these. As we saw following the recession in 2008, those who invest in the right actions and the right communications during a downturn are rewarded disproportionately when consumer spending returns. That’s an important message for us all to carry to our clients, as an industry.
We also need to remember that what we do plays a vital role in driving and sustaining the wider economic activity that societies need to function. Every country will need to stimulate that activity when they move into the recovery phase. Our work will matter more than ever.
In the meantime, let’s look out for each other in whatever ways we can. Our people are anxious but also resilient, brave, adaptable and kind. I’m very proud to work in a company and in an industry like that.
Mark Read is chief executive of WPP