Though There Are Certainly Bad Days in Store for Agencies, There’s Hope to Be Found

Look to the people who make up your organization for inspiration

A yellow background with two people putting a hand on a third person's back
As long as people are present, even if they are in different places, the agency exists in a strong and incarnated way. Getty Images
Headshot of Jean-Francois Sacco

When it silently appeared a few months ago in the stalls of a Chinese market, we had no idea that Covid-19 would cause such a violent and radical upheaval in the world order. We had no idea how it would shatter our Western certainties and challenge society as we knew it.

One could write thousands of things about this virus and its impact on our lives, but as the head of a communications agency, two main facts caught my attention.

The first is rooted in the nature of our trade with China. Covid-19 pushes where it hurts. By seizing up the engine of the Chinese giant, it’s rocking the international economy. With 30% of the world’s manufacturing output, China is its main factory. By buying nearly 35% of the world’s luxury goods and 30% of the world’s cars, it’s also its main customer. And now, as it produces 90% of the penicillin and 60% of the Aspirin we consume, it’s also become our pharmacy. And that’s more worrisome.

Inevitably, when China coughs, the world sneezes. This is even more true in the case of Covid-19. We pretended not to know this, convinced for a long time that we could turn a blind eye to our degree of dependence on this country. Covid-19 just reminded us of it—with ferocity. Most agencies with accounts directly linked to the Chinese market are finding themselves weakened as a result.

As long as its people are present, even if they are in different places, the agency exists in a strong and incarnated way.

By paralyzing China, the virus has also paralyzed a large number of advertisers and, indeed, a large number of agencies. In the weeks and months to come, we’re going to have to count on strong and generous advertiser and agency relationships. The crisis that we will all have to face will be terrible, and it will require a strong and supportive partnership to overcome it, with both agencies and clients needing to be able to count on an unfailing mutual relationship to make it through. This is the first lesson that this crisis has taught us about our professions.

The second is the way we work on a daily basis. Because of the confinement imposed, all agency employees went from working to teleworking overnight. Thus, in barely 24 hours, the structure of the advertising agency as conceived by Bill Bernbach, David Ogilvy and Philippe Michel exploded.

This magical place where commercials, creatives, planners, producers and clients met has dissolved. This space of exchange, confrontation, sharing and meeting is no longer—or rather, it has become a myriad of scattered workstations scattered. A constellation of unique entities linked together by videoconferencing software. The agency has reinvented itself into a multitude of agencies.

The initial feedback has been very positive on our end. Meetings are actually becoming more efficient and substantive. Punctuality’s a must because all the meetings start on time and follow one another fluidly. In addition, everyone respects each other’s speaking time and is more concentrated on the subject. Finally, even if we’re not in the same room for our discussions and exchanges, I find the necessary friction that is conducive to the creation of ideas is still there. We even managed to recreate virtual aperitifs using computers.

Despite the harshness of the situation, this experience gives us a lot of hope. Indeed, it shows that as long as mankind is here with desire, courage and enthusiasm, then nothing can be destroyed. The richness of an agency is its people. As long as its people are present, even if they are in different places, the agency exists in a strong and incarnated way. The crisis of Covid-19 may be followed by a serious economic crisis. We’ll have to be generous, strong and supportive to face it, and the agencies that can count on strong, devoted human capital will be the most capable of overcoming it.

Jean-Francois Sacco is the CCO and co-founder of Rosapark, Adweek's International Agency of the Year in 2018.