Stay alert: coronavirus is reshaping commerce faster than we think
A view from Gideon Spanier

Stay alert: coronavirus is reshaping commerce faster than we think

Launch of New Commercial Arts offers some hope amid economic slump.

Two of the biggest events of the past week in the UK ad industry were the troubled launch of the government’s new "Stay alert" coronavirus messaging and the slick unveiling of James Murphy and David Golding’s agency, New Commercial Arts.

The initial fuss about "Stay alert. Control the virus. Save lives" was overblown. It is a memorable message and reflects the fact that the gradual easing of lockdown requires a more nuanced approach than the previous order: "Stay home. Protect the NHS. Save lives."

The government did make errors with the launch of "Stay alert" in terms of both presentation and policy. 

Leaking the new slogan and logo on a Saturday evening to The Sunday Telegraph, ahead of Boris Johnson’s speech 24 hours later, backfired because there was no proper context to explain the shift in messaging – hence the outcry on social media and the wave of spoof slogans.

There was also some confusion about the policy. 

Citizens struggled to understand how they might be able go to work but see only one elderly parent at a time, because of the need for social distancing, and Downing Street faced resistance from the UK regions, which felt the easing of lockdown was moving too fast and they were not being properly consulted.

But that does not mean the "Stay alert" message itself is flawed. 

Some of the best government communications such as "Think!" for road safety are not "clear and actionable", as Golding pointed out in Campaign last week.

Indeed, "most of the population" is already aware of "Stay alert", while "the average our industry achieves for most brand endlines is just 4%", Golding added.

One more point about "Stay alert": we should remember that the government’s Covid-19 communications hub – a virtual agency in the Cabinet Office – took weeks to hone "Stay home" and introduce the distinctive red-and-yellow, hazard-style messaging.

"Stay alert", in more positive green and yellow colours, will be refined too – with more targeted messages, aimed at restarting business, coming in the weeks ahead.

The government has made many mistakes in its handling of coronavirus, but they have been chiefly about preparedness and policy, rather than comms.

All of the hand-wringing about "Stay alert" matters because the UK and most of the world economy is suffering from a calamitous slump in business activity.

In the early weeks of this crisis, there was a hope that companies might return to their offices in July and August, but time horizons for a recovery continue to lengthen. Now, September or later seems more likely – with talk of some offices not returning to full capacity until 2021.

Salary reductions could last longer too. Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s decision last week to extend the furlough scheme from June until October sent another signal of delay.

Given the gloomy outlook, the long-awaited debut of New Commercial Arts is especially welcome because it offers some hope.

Murphy and Golding co-founded Adam & Eve in 2008 and have the confidence of knowing they were able to set up successfully in a previous downturn – and build an agency worth £110m by the time they earned out in 2017 after the sale to DDB.

Adam & Eve/DDB made its name as a high-class TV agency, although its offering broadened in recent years. 

New Commercial Arts’ proposition, which was revealed by Campaign on Friday (and received favourable coverage in The Sunday Times' business section), pushes further beyond comms.

Murphy and Golding say their new agency will unite brand communications and customer experience – a fusion that feels relevant in the coronavirus era, when trends in digital consumption are accelerating dramatically.

The immense scale and protracted nature of this global pandemic is reshaping the commercial landscape faster than we think.

"Stay alert" is a good maxim. Many of the companies that come out of this recession – if they survive it – will look fundamentally different from the way they went into it.

Gideon Spanier is UK editor-in-chief at Campaign