Lessons Learned After Founding an Agency During the Recession

Asking the right questions will help anyone weather this storm

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Crises make transitions irrelevant. In regular times, we can test how smoothly to move from the past to the future. But emergencies drag us into the moment. Amid the chaos, the only time that matters is now.

I speak from experience. When we started Pereira O’Dell, The Wall Street Journal wrote a story about the crazy duo starting an ad agency in the middle of a recession. We told our story about how we saw the shift, how brands were feeling the pressure to rethink how they spent their dollars, the need to adjust to a world with no difference between what was digital and wasn’t. We preached that we were at the dawn of a post-digital world, unaware of how right we truly were. The truth was that we left our jobs with a hunch based on a beautiful economy taken from under our feet two weeks before we launched.

At that point, we didn’t have too much of a choice. So we pushed forward, oblivious to how the crisis was about to eliminate any pondering and move us much faster than we’d ever imagined. Things the industry had been questioning suddenly turned into action. Change happened everywhere. The idea that every agency should be a hybrid between the digital and traditional shops from the past happened right then, penned by the recession itself.

There will always be a specific place for thoughtful methods to craft ideas of weight and longevity, but that can’t be the only track on which our industry operates.

Surprisingly, timing ended up working in our favor. Instead of paralyzing the market, the pressure for results immediately pushed reluctant brands into accelerating the pace of change. Agencies like 72andSunny, Anomaly and Droga5—shops doing what everyone knew was right—were growing.

As a way to deal with the pace and uncertainty of turmoil, we decided to define the agency not by an answer but with a question: What if advertising was invented today? That decision ended up becoming another big lesson. When you need speed, questions are way more agile than answers.

Today, the challenges the marketing world is facing are different in nature, bigger and more complex. They are part of a puzzle of five different questions we need to answer, not as individual agencies, but as an industry overall.

Solving privacy and social media bubbles

Right now, the only unanimous advice in this crisis is to stay away from too much news and its amplification chamber on social media. The socially curated world is very self-aware. It knows we have been manipulated. Deep inside, we wonder how far the tentacles of data and stickiness of engines are playing with our own minds. The marketing community is the only one with the power to force publishers to get their act together. Do something; we will be appreciated. Otherwise, we are another part of the problem.

Relearning culture together

We will be scarred for life. All generations will vividly remember these weeks in confinement, and that will change their perspective on both silly and important issues. We can’t tell how yet. Our marketing ecosystem will need to quickly find ways to collaborate to better understand these consequences. The months ahead are not the time for secrets.

Honoring the time from consumers

Like the leap toward hybrid agencies in the last recession, this is time for an accelerated shift toward forms of connecting to our audience in ways that are not only good for us but for them, too. We must stop wasting people’s precious time with seconds that matter for us and not for them. We need to start cutting our interruptive ads in favor of disciplines architected for an on-demand world, like branded entertainment, sponsorships, experiential and social media.

Learning to move faster

The partnership between brands and their agencies needs to change for real. No adaptation to a process that lasts months to get to an outcome will ever lead to a result in hours. There will always be a specific place for thoughtful methods to craft ideas of weight and longevity, but that can’t be the only track on which our industry operates. Living brands need to be able to react in real-time. The good news is that this crisis and the overwhelming response that big brands gave has shown us we can.

Reclaiming our pride for selling

Making the world better is great, and we should keep doing more campaigns inspired by purpose, but if there is one cause the industry can embrace right now, it’s keeping people employed. In that fight, no other industry can influence as much as we do. It’s time to invest, to put our message out and sell—with pride. We do it right, and recovery is around the corner.

In a recent interview, Marcel Marcondes, CMO of Anheuser-Busch, made a point about how we need to fight the “it’s just marketing” syndrome, which perfectly describes the collective challenge we have ahead: a crisis of respect, relevance and credibility. If we want to play a relevant role in this new world post-Covid-19, we must get ready, decidedly and fast. In shakeups like this, hesitation has no place.

Having lived through the last one, I know we can do it. In fact, we must. No matter how daunting it may seem, our industry has the smarts and grit to implement the changes it needs to save itself, although our responsibility goes much further than our own sector. There are millions of jobs, in every area of our economy and every country in the world, relying on our sharp response.