Brands (and Agencies) Can Do Better Than Platitudes and Statements, Especially Now

Take stronger action in this double crisis of Covid-19 and racism

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Almost two months ago, we started a project tracking the actions that companies are taking to help with Covid-19 pandemic relief. We built on open-source Google Docs lists and sites, and catalogued the actions of over 450 brands, companies and multinationals.

The first thing of note was that the beneficiaries for these brand actions fall into four categories: company employees, other employees, front-line workers and consumers.

We then identified the four most prevalent brand actions: extended or free services and products, repurposing production and operations, giving money as well as platitudes and schtick.

Will brands and companies innovate enough, donate enough and collaborate enough with organizations and groups fighting the pandemic of institutional racism?

The most overindexed action focuses on employees—paying workers, doing everything to avoid layoffs, cutting C-suite salaries and helping those who lost their jobs.

The ad industry is not, on the whole, part of this overindexed group. A constant flow of layoffs and budget cuts has plagued ad land and has effectively reduced brand actions to platitudes.

This has led lots of us in advertising to do some admirable soul searching and solution seeking. And even though there’s already a template for the generic Covid-19 ad, there are also some innovative and interesting ideas forming. Here are a few of them:

No free pitch zone

According to some estimates, the average cost to an agency for a multinational pitch is over $300,000, with a win rate of less than 20%. With people being laid off in alarming numbers, can the industry continue to pitch for free without a gnawing sense of shame?

Since protocols are currently being rewritten in countless industries. Perhaps we can all sign on to a new set of pitch protocols.

Great talent shouldn’t be fired and vendors shouldn’t lose contracts because they are beholden to an obsolete pitch process. And if an agency or holding company can’t make money other than by doing that, it probably won’t be in business for long anyway. As Martin Sorrel said, we are in the midst of a Darwinian cull of agencies.

Fast, local and essential

Brands that quickly formed partnerships, collaboratives and co-ops caught the attention of their customers. And those who were able to show action at the local level found an appreciative audience.

Live For Life was started by a coalition of event and experiential agencies to build pop-up hospitals, testing stations, portable triage rooms and other temporary structures. Started by three heavyweights in the industry (Czarnowski, George P. Johnson and Exploring), the organization now has over 200 partners who once were competing fiercely for the same RFPs.

Perhaps the most forward-looking effort comes from The Art of Good. It’s a nonprofit creative network that helps small businesses survive the pandemic. Compact teams follow a flexible process that takes a business problem or sales strategy from an initial conversation to an idea in less than a week. The work helps with a massive pain point in culture, and there is a deeper understanding of and empathy for the clients because of it. The collective has so far saved seven businesses from going bankrupt.

As a recent article in Adweek points out, clients are watching “how a shop served a brand during the pandemic, and if, in fact, it has the right tools. If the end result is not an overwhelming ‘yes,’ then there could very well be a run on agency reviews.”

Find more meaning

Agencies do a great job helping “brands play meaningful roles in people’s lives,” as McCann Worldwide’s mantra states. For example, McCann’s client Verizon has done a great job with its Pay It Forward Live series. Verizon also donated millions of dollars to food banks and shelters. It donated $10 million to a small business fund. And it is giving 15 gigabytes of extra broadband to small businesses. These are the actions of a meaningful company, and McCann surely had a role in them.

As for McCann Worldwide itself, it announced double-digit employee layoffs, furloughs and salary reductions in mid-April. Granted, its revenue picture is quite different from Verizon’s, so its ability to spend is as well.

But why would it be hard for McCann to help themselves play a meaningful role in their employees’ lives, too? Why can’t the creativity and problem-solving that ad agencies tout to their clients be directed inward? Why can’t ad agencies find the meaning to save their own business? And how can you now have a business if you don’t have meaning in this day and age?

Our survey of pandemic brand actions suggests that while they might be short term, they could have lasting impacts on brands’ reputations, both good and bad. Businesses need to consider not just what they sell, but what they mean. That includes agencies. And it’s especially true now, as we come face to face with racism and criminal injustice in the starkest ways.

So far, only a handful of brands have gone beyond platitude and corporate statements addressing the national protests calling for an end to systemic inequality. The statements supporting Black Lives Matter—notably from Netflix, Nike and Twitter—are a major new step for corporations to begin tackling the most virulent and most invisible enemy we’ve faced as a nation. But will action follow these words? Will brands and companies innovate enough, donate enough and collaborate enough with organizations and groups fighting the pandemic of institutional racism?

And perhaps this second existential challenge is an opportunity for agencies to find their meaning, too. Perhaps the pivot this industry needs isn’t about pitching or crowdsourcing or technology. Perhaps what it needs is courage.

In a poignant op-ed titled “I Feel Terrified. I Feel Angry. I Feel Sad,” Leslie Collin made it simple for us:

“Start programs and mentorships that help us break into the industry. Develop platforms, town halls and experiences that allow us to have a dialogue and a seat at the table. Don’t pacify us by hiring a minority in response to Beyoncé walking out of a meeting because there was a lack of diversity in the room/team/company. Become our partner and walk shoulder to shoulder with us as we march and fight for equality. At the end of the day, we need more action and less talk.”

Enough said. Time to act.