Why doing good is good for business: Advertising in the COVID landscape

Yonca Dervişoğlu / September 2020

History shows us that pandemics don’t change things. They just accelerate shifts that were already underway. As we grapple with a rapid transition to digital, it’s clear that COVID-19 has had a huge impact on our daily lives and our livelihoods. And with many countries across Europe and around the world facing both economic downturn and a second wave of the virus, it’s important that we take stock of where we are and what’s coming next for businesses and marketers.

Advertising Week has always been an opportunity to reflect upon the state of the industry and look ahead to the future. This year, while different in every other way, was no exception. Mark Read, CEO of WPP and I sat down to discuss advertising, economic recovery, and diversity in the COVID-19 landscape and beyond. Here’s a recap of what we talked about.

Why doing good is good for business: Advertising in the COVID landscape-1
History shows us that pandemics don’t change things. They just accelerate shifts that were already underway.

On how businesses and clients have responded to COVID-19

Read: We've told our clients to really think about the pandemic playing out in three phases. First, react. How do they get their messages right? How do they tell consumers what they're doing to keep them safe and to help?

Next is recovery. We're in that phase now. How do we get out of this? What do we need to tell consumers, and how do we get that information to them?

In every industry, we're trying to relearn the rules of marketing

Finally, renewal, which is the most interesting phase. How do businesses really think about how they're going to change their marketing, change the way they engage with consumers, use technology much more fundamentally, sell online? It’s a period of great innovation as brands try to figure out what’s going on. I think that, in every industry, we're trying to relearn the rules of marketing.

On the impact of COVID-19 on digital

Dervişoğlu: It’s a confusing landscape. We are in the deepest recession ever on record in the U.K., but e-commerce is surging. Before COVID-19 began, my daughter's school didn't even email their parents. Now it's teaching online. We’ve had five years of acceleration in digital in as many months.

The digital world has been a lifeline for many businesses and people during the lockdown. 75% of consumers have tried new stores, sites or brands. 60% of consumers expect to integrate these into their lives post-COVID-19. In the U.K., online commerce peaked at 33% share, the highest ever.1

They say that it takes 66 days to form a habit. And if you look to Asia, which is a bit further along in terms of easing lockdowns, trends have persisted and continued to grow. Online education in China doubled. Online shopping by the elderly in Singapore grew 4X. And new consumer demand is driving new services, like virtual real estate tours and “cloud clubbing”.

On what this means for marketers

Dervişoğlu: Digital will be an accelerator of economic recovery. We all need to reflect on what this means for us. I see three clear implications.

More time spent online has made audiences more digitally sophisticated. We're seeing more sophisticated searches in many different product categories, like “best bikes for urban commuting,” or “best yoga mat for travel”.

The average online shopper journey now has 140 touchpoints

We call the stage between a person deciding that ‘I want to buy’ and making the purchase the messy middle – and it has become more complex. Mobile searches including “popular” and “brands” have grown by 80%2 in the last two years and the average online shopper journey now has 140 touchpoints.3 Marketers need to show up when it matters most and help customers make the decisions that are right for them. Our Decoding Decisions research is helping marketers navigate this complexity.

Second, agility. When lockdown began, we were running a Chromebooks campaign with “virus protection” and “commuter-friendly” messaging. You can see the problem. Our teams used data to quickly swap out the creatives with new messaging, something unthinkable only five years ago.

Last, as campaign measurement and optimisation improves, marketers are driving more and more accountability. We're seeing that we can run brand campaigns with the same accountability as performance campaigns. And for someone who's been in the industry as long as I have, this is like marketing nirvana.

Marketers need to show up when it matters most and help customers make the decisions that are right for them

On what economic recovery will look like

Read: Once we get past the initial reaction, rebuilding happens in the recovery and renewal stages I talked about. Businesses need to identify pockets of demand and communicate about that to customers in a relevant way.

It's also about fundamentally rethinking the way that we do work. We can reach many more people online, when they don't have to come to an office, than we would have done before. Many things are more possible than they were, if we lean into and embrace technology and embrace the opportunity. That's what we're telling our clients to do.

Dervişoğlu: We have a duty as business leaders to bridge the social divide. And this crisis risks further widening the gap between the haves and have-nots. Helping up-skill people and small businesses is one of the things I’m most proud of.

Grow with Google, our digital skills training initiative, started here in Europe and has expanded across the globe, helping train over 70 million people for free. When the pandemic hit, these skills became even more critical.

I remember one story in particular — Janine, a resourceful pet shop owner in Germany who wasn’t online much before the pandemic. With the help of Google My Business, she was able to review opening hours and answer frequent customer questions like “do you have stock availability? Do you provide curbside pickup and online sales?”. She reconnected with customers and saw a 30 percent increase in sales.

On racial equity and inclusion

Read: The killing of George Floyd was a wake-up call to everybody, to society and to business.

WPP has pledged 30 million dollars to fighting systemic racism across the industry and in the wider world. The creative and technology industries have a unique position to be able to talk to people about what's important. So, personally, I realise it's my responsibility.

Dervişoğlu: Diversity and inclusion are things that require systemic changes. And for a system to change, you need action over a long period of time by almost everybody.

As Steve Stoute said recently, “if you don't find yourself in the problem, then you will never be part of the solution”. Internally at Google, we’ve created targets around diversity, and we’re focused on improving representation, hiring candidates from historically underrepresented groups at all levels. We’ve made progress but we know it’s a journey.

We’ve committed $100M globally to support Black entrepreneurs. We’re pioneering the use of machine learning to audit our ads and make sure our creative reflects the diverse world we live in. And we’ve trained our roster agencies and updated our creative, event and media briefs.

On optimism and doing good

Read: In many ways this experience has brought us closer to our clients. That makes me optimistic because it demonstrates the value of the work that we do as an industry. When we come out of the pandemic, people will feel differently. We're going to need to have really fantastic creative ideas to help engage with consumers. And I think that should make us, as an industry, really positive about the future of advertising and of marketing more broadly.

Dervişoğlu: Times have been tough, but I’m an optimist at heart. I’m encouraged by recent searches on Google Trends. People are searching for how to help. In the U.K., searches for “Black owned business” reached an all time high in June. And people around the world searched for “what is racial justice”, “how to be anti racist”, and “what can white people do for racial justice”.4

If we keep focusing on how we can help people, how we can create an inclusive economic recovery and how we can work to dismantle racism, I know we can end up in a better place than we were before. And that gives me hope.

The agency client paradigm is transforming. What does it mean for the future?