Navigating the coronavirus: How 6 agency leaders are rethinking brand strategy now and for the future

Sadie Thoma / May 2020

Ad agencies are no strangers to disruption. They’re the experts brands call on to help maneuver through cultural, economic, and technological change. And these days, many pride themselves on being disruptors in their own right, challenging the status quo and navigating this new normal.

As the coronavirus outbreak evolves into the most disruptive force we’ve faced in modern times, agencies are now helping brands confront a new, unprecedented reality. Amid such rapid change, it’s never been more important to stay on the pulse of the current climate. For strategy folks, this means gathering real-time data, uncovering new behaviours, rethinking goals and success, and finding and creating new insight-driven perspectives. I recently spoke to six strategists and agency leaders to hear how they’re tackling strategy and data insights differently right now, and to find out what advice they have for brands.

Here’s what they had to say.

Embrace the opportunity for a mindset shift

“Many brands that are experiencing record sell-through are having to quickly shift from a ‘fuel sales overnight’ mentality to ‘build the brand over time.’ It’s not a new challenge, but the current situation requires a new lens. I’m finding that the brands with solid foundations — a strong sense of purpose and point-of-view — can weather this shift with ease. Now is your time to demonstrate your purpose to new customers who may be interacting with you for the first time in a long time.”

Aki Spicer, Chief Strategy Officer, Leo Burnett

Adapt your internal score card to measure success

“Beyond coming up with the right thing to say, we’re helping clients figure out the right thing to do — exploring meaningful ways to offer real value. There’s an appetite right now for achieving impact that requires looking beyond traditional equity measures and reflects the human indications that we have actually made a difference. When this is the goal, success measures have to reflect it.”

Jonathan Lee, Chief Strategy Officer, Grey

Invest in ‘real talk’ with real people

“We’re swimming in structured data on serious topics like job loss and disease spread. But the most interesting insights, like people’s hopes and emotions, are harder to measure and often come in the form of ‘focus groups of one.’ We need more of this data, but getting it requires that you talk to real people regularly and that you ask them the types of questions they’d expect from their friends or family, not a traditional researcher.”

Christine Chen, Partner, Head of Communication Strategy, Goodby Silverstein & Partners

Create value where it is needed most

“The harsh truth is that this pandemic is not treating everyone equally. There are whole communities and parts of the workforce that are living a very different reality from those of us ‘working from home.’ Focusing on these groups and tuning in to how they feel and how they communicate is perhaps the most important thing we can do to understand what is going on. By deeply understanding those audiences, we can help our partners take actions that are both impactful and genuinely valuable.”

Kelsey Hodgkin, Head of Strategy, Deutsch LA

Navigate messaging challenges with creative testing

“Figuring out how to talk to consumers during a time of unprecedented panic feels like walking on eggshells, but saying nothing is equally risky. It’s hard to predict consumer reaction in normal circumstances, let alone during a pandemic so leaning into creative testing is particularly essential. Brands need real-time signals on what is or isn’t resonating to inform and validate creative strategies and, when necessary, to course correct.”

Stephanie Bohn, Chief Brand Officer, VidMob

Look to audience signals to uncover the ‘new normal’

“We lean heavily on search data as a source of insight. Normally, we can rely on year-over-year trends or even recent search behaviour as a good indicator of the future. But when a crisis hits, we have to react in real time to changes in search behaviour. Panic buying, for instance, causes mass fluctuations and irregularity. The long-term nature of this crisis makes it difficult to predict what ‘normal’ will eventually look like. To help, we try to set a threshold for these fluctuations and by this standard define the ‘new normal,’ or at least the ‘next normal,’ as when these irregularities are again reduced to outliers.”

Aaron Levy, Group Director, SEM, Tinuiti
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