Virus crisis has brought out some of the best in UK advertising
A view from Gideon Spanier

Virus crisis has brought out some of the best in UK advertising

Even though there may be worse to come, the industry is displaying ingenuity and compassion.

Nobody knows how this coronavirus crisis is going to play out, except that we aren’t over the worst of it yet, but it has already brought out some of the best in UK advertising.

Ocean Outdoor’s decision to take quotes from the Queen’s speech and put them on the Piccadilly Lights, with the blessing of Buckingham Palace, was an inspired way of using the UK’s most famous advertising hoarding to rally the nation.

The juxtaposition of the "We will meet again" message on this most public of landmarks when it is devoid of crowds and normal advertising is what makes it so powerful, as Tim Bleakley, chief executive of Ocean, says.

Many companies have been trying to do the right thing in this crisis; agencies are creating pro bono messaging to get people to stay at home, media owners are offering free ad inventory for good causes, supermarkets are setting aside shopping hours for key workers and the elderly, and brands are offering free hand sanitiser, masks and other useful things for the NHS.

"You do see the best of people at times like this," Karen Blackett, WPP’s UK country manager, says.

Most people in advertising are working at home, far from the front line of the battle against coronavirus, but this industry is close-knit and attracts people who care.

And it has already been hit hard financially, with many media owners furloughing staff, as part of the government’s job retention scheme, and cutting pay to cope with a plunge in revenue.

Channel 4’s admission that TV ad sales will be down more than 50% in April and May is an indication of just how rapid and brutal the downturn is going to be.

Cinemas have been dark since 17 March and out-of-home has slumped to practically nothing since the 23 March lockdown.

It is a cruel paradox that other established media companies, including news and magazine publishers and broadcasters, which have an important civic value as trusted sources of information, are also suffering while online and streaming giants have prospered in relative terms.

The end of the lockdown in Wuhan, China, after 11 weeks has given some hope for European countries, but few predicted the magnitude of this crisis and therefore it is rash to forecast the timing of a recovery.

There has been a shocking rise in the number of applications for jobless benefits in the past two weeks – close to a million seeking universal credit in the UK and upwards of 10 million in the US and France alone.

It is difficult to believe they will all be quickly re-employed – and more job cuts are on the way.

Dozens of companies, from WPP to Daily Mirror publisher Reach, have already suspended their financial guidance, cancelled dividends and axed discretionary costs.

On the Beach, a leading online travel agent, told investors that it has modelled a number of scenarios, including no bookings until the end of September and no return to normal levels until at least the end of March 2021.

Many brands from Diageo to Airbnb have slashed their marketing spend because of the slump in business and lack of visibility.

Agencies and media owners across the spectrum are suffering as some clients can’t pay or are asking for deferments, longer payment terms and reduced fees.

Last week’s cancellation of Cannes Lions, which had already been moved from June to October, indicated that much of the ad industry will be in rebuilding and reinvention mode for a long time.

"It is a sign of just how painful the next nine months is going to get," one media leader says. "I suspect a lot of companies won’t come out the other side of this one."

The Easter break is a chance for everyone to pause for a moment, after a bewildering and bruising four weeks, and to remember that this industry’s strength is its people.

Kindness and collaboration will help us all to get through this.

Gideon Spanier is UK editor-in-chief at Campaign

Topics