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How agencies can prove value to clients wrestling with uncertainty

By Zaid Al-Zaidy-06 November 2020

Zaid Al-Zaidy, chief executive of Above+Beyond and Group chief of The Beyond Collective offers agencies some tips on the value they can provide to clients in a very uncertain climate.

Even before Covid, we were witnessing a queue of brands standing at the door of extinction, thanks to the impossible to keep-up, transformative effect of technology and the marching in of the tech giants. I still can’t get over the fact that a powerhouse like Ford (for all its physicality and its industrial era enormity) is 28 times smaller than Facebook, which was founded in 2004, in terms of market capitalisation.

It was predicted in 2018 that over a ten-year period to 2028, close to 50% of the companies in the S&P 500 would be replaced. As marketers look to the future, what is the horizon they face? Extinction, if their business is not fundamentally rewired? Or slow growth, turbo-charged by efforts to enter adjacent markets? “If I were Pret I would be pivoting to grocery fast,” tweets strategy superwoman, Patricia McDonald.

As boardrooms crumble under the short-termism of today’s economic catastrophe, which brands will have the luxury of foresight and time to formulate winning longer-term strategies?

Seen in light of this, here are some thoughts on the value that agencies can provide in the current climate:

Use your agency to keep it real: people are not captive consumers, but empowered audiences.

GE’s Jack Welch once defined hierarchical organizations as places in which “everyone has their face toward the chief exec and their ass toward the customer”. Marketers can easily fall into this trap and, simply put, the role of the agency is to point the marketing department (and ideally the entire brand organisation) in the general direction of the consumer.

And, once facing in the right direction, agencies need to help brands to start from an honest and humble standpoint, viewing audiences not as people on receive mode, waiting to hear and act on brand messaging, but as empowered audiences who are choosing exactly what content to consume and are as cynical and demanding of brands as they have ever been.

Ironically perhaps, the current crisis has made this clearer. No one in the c-suite can possibly ignore the recent dramatic shifts in consumer behaviour. We’ve seen panic-buying as lockdown set in, an increased focus on mental health and wellbeing, and people flocking to social media and creating new online communities in order to connect with each other. A survey this month showed 60% of consumers are now modifying purchases to concentrate on essential items due to the increasingly bleak outlook for the economy and 75% of those surveyed also reported a reduced income.

Covid-19 has effectively forced leaders to stop, analyse and respond to consumer behaviour. As it ever was, it will continue to be the role of agency strategists to get under the skin of brands’ audiences, not relying on polished reports, but instead getting close to unfiltered opinions and behaviours of the people they want to engage.

Use your agency to define a credible role for your brand, to inspire how you grow and to make everything you do, and everything you spend, count.

To truly connect with customers, brands need an exciting, coherent, relevant story and they must keep telling it in new, interesting and appropriate ways. Specialist talent within an agency working around a consistent brand story which respects the role of every touchpoint (from tweets to email, ads to events) requires a multidisciplinary collaboration and a combination of left and right brain thinking. In this way, creativity creates tangible business growth.

Brands faced with store closures or a drop off in sales because of the pandemic have had to pivot in order to continue connecting with consumers, and agencies can support or even drive this adjustment. When our client Subway was forced to close stores in lockdown, we moved the brand to a digital and social-first marketing strategy so that it could maintain that one-on-one connection with its guests, be responsive and brand build. Agencies have also helped guide brands, such as the big four supermarkets, in helping and supporting communities through this incredibly tough time, thereby getting closer to their authentic brand purpose and a reason for being in the world beyond making a profit.

Strategically guided, imagination and inventiveness are our day jobs and it’s what you clients need more than ever.

It is the power of imagination that is the crux of agencies’ value to brands. Unshackled by supply chain and business-related problems like their marketer counterparts, agency talent is encouraged to see possibility, to be inspired by opportunities for creativity and magic. Agencies should bring to their clients a new sphere of influence and fresh inspiration to thinking.

The ideal is for an agency and client to co-exist as two marginally separated centres of gravity at play, united through a shared love of brand and an ambition for growth. The best brand-agency partnerships are fuelled by a combined creative force that propels the consumer relationship forward and turns audiences not only into customers but fully engaged brand advocates.

There is no question whatsoever that a great agency idea can power an ordinary product or service in a cluttered category into something that is stratospherically more interesting and successful. Yes, the canvas has changed but the opportunity for ideas to create impact hasn’t.

In summary, light at the end of this tunnel is something we are all looking towards, both in our businesses and our personal lives.

And, if there is one panacea as we move forwards, it is the eternal truth that the brands and agencies that put customers first will prevail. And, in this sense, nothing has changed, it is merely a question of delivering against this realisation.

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