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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Agencies need to think about what they mean. Getty Images

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.


Ethan Decker, PhD, is president of Applied Brand Science.
@maxlenderman Max Lenderman teaches at Denver Ad School (DAD), University of Colorado Boulder and is a member of the Adweek Academic Council.