Prominent UK marketing figures brought a healthy dose of nuance and a sobering list of statistics to an argument that’s fundamental to our business at this moment, writes Alex Reeves
Last night the UK’s Parliamentary Forum for Media and Marketing held a debate with a motion that pulled no punches: “The pandemic has been good for marketing”. On the day that pubs, restaurants and most other non-essential businesses reopen across England, it seemed a fitting time to reluctantly talk about the pandemic in the past tense, and maybe - even more tentatively - in positive terms. Two of the parliamentary debate’s four speakers argued so.
Stephen Woodford began by sharing his perspective as CEO of the Advertising Association, looking back to the consensus view from the membership when Covid first hit, which was “this is going to be absolutely catastrophic, not just for our industry but for the whole of the economy and for the wider society.” Fast forwarding a year, his opinion is that “we've seen incredible resilience”. Having seen the industry hit very hard with huge cuts in budgets in some sectors, he characterised the British business’s response as: “In the words of that classic wartime poster. We kept calm, and we carried on.”
The pandemic has brought about three major positive trends, said Stephen, which he believes will outlast this period.
First is the breaking down of the barriers to rapid innovation. “Changes that would have taken months or even years in normal times pre pandemic were implemented in days and weeks,” said Stephen. He recalled speaking to leaders across the industry in the first few months of the crisis, “almost marvelling at the speed and adaptation that their business has been through, how closely they've worked with their partners to serve their clients to meet the needs of their customers and their speed and intensity that nobody had ever experienced before.”
The second major change which Stephen highlighted is the acceleration of e-commerce, with the last year. He estimated that we have probably seen at least five years worth of growth. It’s an area, he noted, which is led by marketing as “marketing is the voice of the consumer throughout that process. And with the digital transformation that is happening in almost every business, the voice of marketing is elevated to the C-suite if not there already.”
Finally, he celebrated the fact that the pandemic has “accelerated the desire within society for meaningful change”. ‘Build back better’, he noted, may now sound like a cliche but he believes the ambitions it encapsulates are sincere and heartfelt. He hears it all the time when speaking to leaders in the industry: “the desire to use the pandemic as the reset opportunity, particularly around sustainability, around inclusiveness. Consumers are looking for more than just the quality, the reputation and the value for money when they're making choices. It's increasingly going to be about the values of the business on those big issues, their ethics and their social responsibility.”
Liz Jones, founder of executive search and talent business Conker argued against the motion, coming out of the gates with the assertion that anyone who argues that marketing has benefitted from the pandemic “is spreading toxic positivity.” The stem of her debate was the fact that marketing spend has fallen “through the floor” over the last year. The biggest drop of budgets the UK has ever seen, totalling £1 billion. As a result, she said, certain parts of the industry have been “decimated”, with cinema, out of home and events feeling the brunt of the impact. “We have lost the richness in marketing that comes from the widest of environments and formats,” she said.
“The only other event in history that has caused so much turmoil and had a negative impact to this extent on marketing was World War II”. Advertising and marketing throughout the war had to reference the war and its impact, said Liz. Similarly, not referencing or being seen to acknowledge Covid jars with consumers. “It seems out of context. Out of reality.”
Aside from the depth of the damage done, Liz noted that the damage is also disproportionate. “Statistics for diversity and inclusion in the marketing industry have never been anything to be proud of. Covid has exacerbated this and diversity is now constantly and systemically challenged.”
Looking to the IPA agency census, she observed that last year the number of women employed full time in member agencies fell by 13%, while the number of full-time male employees was down 8%. The number of women in C-suite positions also fell from 34% last year to 32% this year, 8% short of the target the IPA set itself in 2016 of 40% of women in senior positions by 2020. “We are going backwards and fast due to the pandemic,” said Liz. “That's a pretty bleak story and it feels like this is going to take a lot of time to recover from.”
She also noted an age disparity, highlighting that “exhaustion and cynicism on the rise” and that burnout levels are highest amongst millennials.
Not that the mental toll Covid has taken has fallen only on the younger part of the workforce. The problem is widespread. “Watching colleagues being made redundant or furloughed has brought stress and anxiety to all, particularly when nothing around you is normal,” Liz argued. And that’s a particular challenge to an industry like ours, she added. “The enemy of innovation and creativity is fear. Marketing needs both in spades and that really changed due to Covid. I would argue that the marketers who still have their jobs are living in fear of losing them and they will be more risk averse and nervous. That's not good for this brilliant marketing industry.”
Businesses have repeatedly shown that marketing is not their priority over the past year, suggested Liz. “Marketing has been too much of an easy to lose department,” she said, with 9% of marketers having been made redundant during the coronavirus outbreak. This illustrates the stark reality of the financial impact on brands.”
Journalist Morag Cuddeford-Jones began her speech asserting that she was not going to argue with the fact that the industry will take a long time to recover, that areas of the female workforce and diversity have all struggled, and that budgets and investment were slashed and/or put on hold. “But I do firmly believe that the pandemic has, overall, been positive for marketing, that we're not peddling some toxic positivity.”
In the past year she said marketers have proven that they “hold a great deal of power in their hands, they’re communicators, agitators and inventors. They do so much more than just selling bank accounts or packets of crisps,” she said.
She presented some of the many examples of brands who showed “what it really means to be purposeful” during the pandemic. “They didn't have to ask themselves if they were hitting the right notes, because what they were doing was 100% in the service of the customer.” BrewDog and Louis Vuitton unexpectedly diverted resources to begin producing much-needed hand sanitizer, Aviva, Direct Line and other insurers issued car insurance premium refunds for unused cars as people stopped commuting and Burger King helped struggling farmers in France by buying their potatoes and giving them away at their drive-through restaurants.
All of these examples are tangible services, “but at the heart of it all is marketing,” argued Morag, with “its unparalleled access to the customer, with its ear to the ground for trends and for concerns, and its ability to work across the organisation to show what is needed, why and how to achieve it.”
Covid has given marketers the opportunity to prove their worth beyond simple communications, but as a strategic, creative force for change, said Morag. “For too long business has been focused on those short-term metrics and results reporting, not letting creativity and the brand strategy behind it time to breathe. It's been the opportunity for marketers to demonstrate to the business itself just how fundamental marketing is to the success of an organisation.”
You need only watch the YouTube video, ‘Every Covid-19 Commercial is Exactly the Same’ to see what happens when marketing neglects creativity, she added.
“I can understand that saying the pandemic has been good for marketing may seem like a challenging assertion,” concluded Morag. “The things that Liz mentioned - burnout exhaustion and redundancy - they are indeed at high levels, but they're not limited to marketing. We all will need help to build back. But marketing has never been without challenges, and it's what makes it such an attractive, varied and vibrant industry to work in, not just one for relentless optimists like me. The pandemic has been good for marketing.”
“The oxygen of marketing is consumer confidence,” asserted founder of The Barber Shop Dino Myers-Lamptey in the final speech of the session, “so it's no surprise to hear glass-half-full optimism and spin on what has been a catastrophic year for many, and a Champagne year for just a few.”
He returned to the cold hard fact of marketing budgets falling by over £1 billion, and that “what's left of them has been unfairly unevenly distributed into the new monopolies in marketing.”
Despite struggling with their own unique challenges such as the Facebook ad boycott, it’s the tech giants and not the small independent creative businesses that have come out on top. Dino reminded the us that Facebook’s reported ad revenue jumped 22% from the year earlier in the third quarter of 2020, Google's also rose by nearly 10% and Amazon's ad business grew by 51%.
When it comes to human creativity, Dino argued that the pandemic has challenged something fundamental to the best in marketing. “Covid has firmly placed creativity in crisis,” he said. “Creatives are less inspired than ever before, suffering from the negative effects of isolation. The result is self-confessed and apparent. Worse yet, businesses, and as a result marketers are wrongfully devaluing the impact and importance of creativity, as a key driver of profitability.” He referred to Kantar's recent study
, which showed that marketers are underestimating creativity in its role as a profit driver.
While remote working has been necessary and appreciated by many, Dino argued that “there's also been too much privileged thinking assessing its values, and deciding its future.
“Yes, beyond the big houses, great broadband and gardens in the countryside, the reality for many has been anything but ideal. Remote working in its extremes has disproportionately disadvantaged parents of young kids, the industry's young and new talent in shared accommodation, sharing internet and kitchens as boardrooms.”
It’s all very well welcoming the silver linings of change that have worn the industry up to ways things can change, but Dino finished his argument with a call for a reality check: “In reality, we'll be paying back for many years to come, and the industry needs to dig deep and make long term investments in what the belief is that marketing will recover eventually and realise the importance of people, and creativity, as something that is living outside of our houses and cannot be compromised.”
In a poll at the end of the debate, only 41% of the audience agreed that “the pandemic has been good for marketing”, with 59% voting against the motion. But despite the bluntness of that statement, the arguments presented the nuance and grey area that surrounds this historic time we’re living for. It seems likely this debate will continue for many years to come.