The Year That Changed Advertising

The industry's sail through the pandemic is a testament of their ingenuity, efficiency and commitment

Conventionally, an industry that depended on working face-to-face and jamming together, found itself in a dreadful situation because of the pandemic. It wouldn't be wrong to say that advertising business was majorly upended by the coronavirus, along with other sectors of the global economy. 

While WFH, virtual meetings and remote shoots came up as quick replacements of events and in-person pitch meetings, the adland managed to carry its operations with this new way of working, despite plummeting advertiser spend, change in consumer sentiment and threat of layoff.

Digital, however, emerged as the savior of sorts bailing everyone out. All brands, in fact, fast-tracked their digital plans and setup infrastructure to sustain it. On the bright side, digital market also become far more mature, something that would have easily taken two-three years to happen.

Giving us a sense of the reverberations of the pandemic, Tarun Rai, Chairman and Group CEO of Wunderman Thompson South Asia suggests, “It has been a tough year for our industry. The impact, of course, varies depending on a few factors. First, what percentage of an agency’s revenues were from tech and digital. The second factor is the mix of clients in an agency’s portfolio. There were a few sectors that were hit badly. The larger the proportion of clients from these industries in an agency’s portfolio, the more significant an impact. While agencies with a larger proportion of FMCG, especially essentials, technology, telecom etc. would have been a bit better off. So, a mixed bag in that sense. However, overall, a pretty tough year.”

Such a testing time indeed brings learnings for the coming years. Sanjeev Jasani, COO, Cheil India shares how the pandemic culminated for the agency functions. “One, we have learnt how to manage our people better. People became a lot more accommodating and flexible. And yet work didn’t suffer. That’s the beauty of this profession. At the end of the day, it’s a people business and the people needed to come together to make a success out of a terrible situation. So, a big tick mark for us there,” he expresses.

Changes In Consumer Behavior & Business Realities

Experts believe that the pandemic has not started any new fires but actually acted more like an accelerant, that when poured over the small smoldering fires already burning, transformed them into raging fires. Thus, the pandemic was not the cause of any new trends but accelerated the trends that were already visible, though slow to take off.

Rai asserts, “In our business, there was already a greater focus on digital, tech and data. This trend certainly has got accelerated last year. Even our most traditional clients are now engaging with us and discussing accelerating their digital transformation journeys.

E-Commerce has got renewed attention, especially from some of our clients’ that had 95% of their revenues from their brick-and-mortar distribution chains. And consumers have very quickly adapted to the digital world. Two years of tech adoption has been compressed into two months because of the pandemic. All this, naturally, has an impact of our business realities in terms of our own areas of focus.”

Jasani also agrees that the growth of ecommerce happened in leaps and bounds. For him, E-commerce was the way to go where every player made huge changes in their processes and drove contact less solutions keeping the health and safety standards in mind. “Hybrid solutions of buy-online-and pick-offline have started to mushroom. Basically, consumers now have got a wider access to things that they can buy from their mobile phones at the click of a button, leading to greater focus on driving great consumer experiences.

Digital payments have become a reality and even the smallest shop today accepts digital money. This will definitely enable greater commerce.

And last but not least, consumers have become creators. They have used their time at home to become content creators to help brands drive greater engagement and likeability,” he adds.

Advertising Alterations In The Post-Covid Era

While a digital first approach is what is desired and preferred by clients these days, the impact of traditional media will not be ruled out. However, experts anticipate digital to grow at a much faster pace, when juxtaposed with traditional.

Additionally, there will be a huge focus on content building, snackable & thumb-stopping content and greater thinking would be required on how to use influencers better to drive advocacy for your brands.

Consumer experience building will remain at the core of all communication and brands will look for more tech-based solutions that they can provide to consumers in order to fulfil the brand promise.

Both from the consumer as well as the clients’ perspective, advertising will need to demonstrate ‘value’ much more. Consumers’ wallets, after a difficult year, are not flush. And clients’ expectations of ROI of their spends has increased significantly.

Vineet Bajpai, Founder & CEO, Magnon Group points, “There has been a fundamental shift no doubt, especially in the areas of overall ROI consciousness from clients, and a more accelerated shift to the digital medium. With Covid came the unprecedented strains of restricted marketing budgets – ironically combined with the need for superior consumer engagement. Marketers have responded with alacrity, and agencies have been their allies in managing this transformation. Data-driven advertising, analytics based deep-retargeting, dynamic creative optimization- this is the currency in which the modern marketer and the contemporary agency are dealing in now.”

Future Face Of Advertising

With everything changed, client expectations are to alter too. They would seek greater ownership and partnership. Roles of the agency will move beyond simple communication providers to a more consultative approach, to help brands navigate this change and succeed at it too.

Brands will look for more measurable and impactful work and will want to see the ROI on every dollar that they spend. Data will also be very critical for agencies to invest in, as without this, the picture won’t be complete.

Subramanyeswar S, Group Chief Strategy Officer, MullenLowe Lintas Group believes that every business will recast itself in a post Covid world and there will be increased expectation from people, and consequently, a heightened focus from the companies on the larger health, societal, economic and environmental impact for good. “Covid has created a common ground for all of us on purpose and thereby elevated the very idea of ‘Brand purpose’. The stand a brand takes and how well it addresses each customer’s beliefs and values (beyond the sum of fiscal benefits) post the pandemic, will be a big brand differentiator. Brand purpose matters now more than ever before, as it will be made visible through experiences in content, commerce, community, and convenience in a personalized and authentic way. It is time for brands to show what they can do to the consumers, giving exactly what they want – consumer loyalty (brand to consumer) over brand loyalty (consumer to brand),” he explains.

Looking at the bigger picture, all the data point towards an increase of about 23-25% in ad spends in 2021 over 2020, but it would still be lower than 2019, the pre-Covid era, suggest experts.