Faced with this coronavirus annus horribilis, it is easy to reach for aggressive rhetoric about competition and how struggling businesses need to adapt or die.
Sir Martin Sorrell warned at the start of the Covid-19 crisis that it would trigger a “Darwinian cull” of the ad industry. But there are two sides to Darwinism. We tend to forget Charles Darwin also stressed the importance of loving and co-operative behaviour among animals. In The Descent of Man, he showed how natural selection favours sympathetic and co-operative groups.
Andrew Stephens, Goodstuff Communications’ co-founder, experienced this first hand during the pandemic. Speaking to Campaign at the launch of the “Land of independents” marketing campaign to promote 17 rival independent media agencies, Stephens revealed how the idea was sparked after a series of cross-agency video calls began in April – with bosses comparing notes about meeting challenges, such as cost savings and furloughs. “Every two weeks we would all go around the agencies and give a business update, as to what forecasts we had in the business, and [to ask] any questions we had,” Stephens recalls.
The “Land of independents” campaign rounded off a summer of collaborative partnerships. The UK’s public-service broadcasters – the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 – united to launch “Our stories”, their first joint consumer marketing campaign to promote the power of TV. The government, meanwhile, worked with news brands on a series of Covid-19 awareness campaigns in the national press. And ITV is talking up collaboration once more with the launch of Planet V, its addressable ad-buying platform.
Kelly Williams, ITV’s managing director, commercial, wants Sky, Channel 4 and others to come on to the platform in the coming years, because buying on it should become easier with more broadcasters on board. “We’re not going to win by all of us building different technologies,” Williams claims. “We’re going to win by collaborating on tech and competing on content.”
Even before Covid-19, the changing market was forcing rivals to consider working together – from the UK’s biggest news brands pooling their digital ad sales in The Ozone Project to the ITV-BBC collaboration on BritBox, a joint streaming venture, to take on the US giants.
It is tempting to write off such moves as defensive or traditional media huddling together for warmth, while Google and Facebook capture the lion’s share of revenue growth. But even tech titan Microsoft had to embrace collaboration to bounce back from decline to regain its spot (albeit briefly) as the world’s most valuable company last year. Chief executive Satya Nadella bravely decided to make its ubiquitous Windows and Office software open-source, thus embracing outside engineering ideas instead of hoarding intellectual property at all costs.
Covid-19 has certainly encouraged a new spirit of collaboration, as seen at the start of the pandemic with media owners giving away inventory to support “Clap for carers” and other community initiatives.
The judges who took part in Campaign’s recent Media Week Awards will testify that some of the most inspiring work this year was in the four, special Covid-19 categories, which included an award for best media collaboration.
When we look back on the pandemic, it may well be that those media companies that worked together best outside their tribes will emerge healthier and happier. Not so much a “Darwinian cull” as a Darwinian call to arms.
Omar Oakes is media and technology editor at Campaign