Monday 6 July 2020 11:12 am

Lessons from lockdown: Advertising's future is distributed

Johnny Hornby is founder and chief executive at The&Partnership

Sometimes an earthquake’s aftershocks are so severe, the main quake is re-designated a foreshock.  

From a commercial standpoint, we look ahead to lockdown’s aftershocks with apprehension, but look ahead we must. As the dust settles, business leaders are surveying a new landscape and asking, what’s changed?

Speaking for my own business, the recent crisis is already driving profound changes in both what we produce and how we produce it.

We’ve seen three years of digital transformation compressed into the last three months. Acceleration of screen time, online shopping, social media usage — all shifts I can’t see reversing — have led to an explosion of online content. It’s become the new centre of gravity for marketing.

Brands leaning into this explosion, really inventing and investing in the digital space, are seeing the most success. They’ve spotted the 80 per cent of us consuming more online content now than before the pandemic, and responded with a torrent of content of their own. Their efforts have been backed with redoubled digital investment, personalised with smart data signals, and proven with the kind of commercial results that send marketing directors racing to boardrooms to share the good news.

Among our clients, Bumble refocused on virtual dating and added five million new users globally in lockdown. Retail businesses like Pets At Home and service giants like Telus, a leading Canadian telco, strengthened brand reputation using online video and user-generated film.  

The most successful exponents include smaller, entrepreneurially-minded disruptors, to whom personal, adaptable communication comes most naturally. FaceGym embraced “online workouts” and increased followers 30 per cent and sales 525 per cent. And after closing its eight stores, fashion retailer ME+EM doubled Instagram investment — then tripled it — when it led directly to a flurry of email sign-ups and record US sales.

For agencies like ours, this explosion has a real knock-on impact on how we produce.  Success will demand large volumes of digital assets, often generated and adapted at speed.  How to ensure they’re all true to the brand’s voice, and memorable enough to be more than digital landfill?  How to manage them to feel personal but sequential too, following a narrative that makes sense to the audience over time? And how to sustain this affordably?

Thankfully, we had already integrated creative and media in a single agency structure and put digital and data at the heart of it. Clients and agencies who haven’t put the creators of online content in the same team as the distributors are hugely disadvantaged in this new world. 

But now we have to go further — and luckily this crisis is bringing answers as well as questions. The imposition of remote working, as discombobulating as it first seemed, is fast evolving to become our new distributed model of creation.

Lockdown has demonstrated that our teams need not be limited by proximity or geography.  In fact, we’re finding that by drawing on a more diverse pool of talent from across the globe and following the sun to connect their expertise round-the-clock, we can produce more online content, more efficiently and dynamically.  

The benefits are manifold. Creativity enhanced by greater diversity of thought. Ingenuity improved by greater access to specialists. Speed and agility unconstrained by timezones.  Affordability unrestricted by local ratecards. It’s early days, but we couldn’t be more excited by this new way of working.

This earthquake isn’t over. The aftershocks will keep coming. Yet the dust is settling, and I believe that the brands building more personal relationships with their audiences online — thanks to a content explosion of their own making, using a new distributed creation model to fuel it — will be the ones still standing, stronger than ever, when all of this is over.

Main image credit: Getty

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