by Jarred Cinman (@jarredcinman) Advertising is a business predicated on two conditions: a company with things to sell and a consumer with the interest and ability to buy them. When the companies are closed and the consumers are closed inside, these conditions vanish. What’s left are brands which sell “essential” products (some of whom are experiencing a burst of economic success) and those which see a long game.


I’m reluctant to add another piece of content about covid-19 to the internet. It’s almost impossible to access any news site, social media feed or attend any (online) meeting where this isn’t the topic. It’s consumed our lives and — uniquely — consumed them in almost every nation on earth.

Hot on the heels of the virus is the viral content. Or, at least, the content that aspires to go viral. Some (the bad jokes, the cringy memes, the doctored announcements from governments and hospitals) is actually going viral. Much (the endless advisories from companies to their clients, articles written by caged journalists recommending films, books, recipes and kids’ entertainment) feels utterly transient. If you’re anything like me, most of that is in one eye, out the other.

Less easy to pass over is the calamity that’s befalling our global — and very much local — economy. The humanitarian care that’s propelled us into lockdown is sure to be followed by untold misery as the poorest lose their income and the wealthier retreat into fear and risk avoidance. The global stock markets have already writ large the panic those who own things are feeling.

For advertising agencies — small, medium and large — this is a catastrophic turn of events. Some are fortunate enough to have a client mix of the essential and the perennial and which continue remote but unaffected. These live in the fervent hope that the pain will be short and sharp, and with the knowledge that it probably won’t be.

Strategy 1: Wait

It’s natural to feel that this whole situation is temporary. And, unless life-threatening or amazingly opportune, a good approach to the impermanent is patience.

For many agencies and clients, this means treating this time as a December or April: slow down, pause, dip into cash reserves, reimagine down your annual profit estimate and hang on tight. I’ve compared what’s happening to a tidal wave hitting, one that you’ve some forewarning about but which you can’t readily escape. Climb to higher ground, look after your loved ones, and think ahead to the clean-up.

This is the most-comfortable approach for sure — and one that leaves your staff with jobs, your business with cash flow and your future secured. It’s also the least likely outcome, unfortunately. As Edcon (one of our clients) viscerally demonstrated last week, we can’t all simply wait out a storm this big and this impactful.

We need a different solution.

Strategy 2: Scale down

For most companies hitting a crunch — lost revenue, rising debt, frightened clients — the most-obvious route is to cut costs. For consumer-goods businesses, that will involve slowing or stopping production, decreasing orders up the supply chain and paring down staff costs commensurately. For those of us in the services game, the main cost parameter is always salaries. The first to go are freelancers and other temporary staff. Take internal any work usually outsourced. Shrinking the permanent team is next.

South African labour law has deep protections for full-time employees. Thus “cutting staff” is, fortunately, not as brutal as it sounds — there will be notice periods and severances paid. On the downside, this means these kinds of cuts are by their nature medium-term. They do nothing to curb costs as fast as your revenue might be dropping.

Cost-cutting right now is inevitable. How deep the cuts go depends on your level of optimism about a return to normality, or how successful you can be at the next strategies.

Strategy 3: Go tactical

A bit like waiting but, if you believe this virus is a short-term problem, then your fix will be a short-term one. I’ve seen many companies delay campaigns or events, put media budgets on ice, and prepare to ride it out. The Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity is postponed until October. (London International Awards has cancelled its 2020 show, by contrast).

A tactical approach means stopping whatever you were doing and spending the money and time reacting to what’s going on. If you’re fortunate enough to still be trading, you can make funny songs about panic-buying groceries (Pick n Pay), delay bank fees (Standard Bank) or develop insurance products specifically for covid-19 cover (Coronation).

If not, you can demonstrate to your clients that you understand their predicament and point your marketing toward underlying that (Coke in the Philippines, for example, has pointed all its adspend at relief work, and many companies are offering covid-19 content with the time and money they might have spent elsewhere).

For the braver and more pessimistic, there’s the next option.

Strategy 4: Do something new

One step beyond tactical thinking is the belief that this lockdown and associated pain is going to go on for some time — and that, when it’s over the world, will have altered irrevocably. The most-agile and -dextrous of businesses have already pivoted to offering new products and services that represent paradigm shifts for their organisations. The best of these have done this as just another change in an evolving reality. Most have done it out of necessity.

With the recency of events in SA, we haven’t seen too many examples of this yet. The training sector has been first out of the gates to offer seminars and courses on how to work from home or conduct virtual meetings, and everyone from yoga teachers to psychotherapists have gone into video sessions.

Globally, we have seen a lot of innovation in this space. Streamed ballet and Shakespeare, consultancies providing new forms of workshops and advice, and creative agencies shifting to shooting distributed films on personal devices — to say nothing of the newfound compulsory enthusiasm to remote or distributed working. (The other big winner is ecommerce — but not, as here, where even most deliveries are prohibited. Amazon reportedly hired another 100 000 people in the last few weeks and it may emerge as the dominant retailer on the planet at the end of this).

Not all of these will stick but at least some will have unearthed a path worth continuing.

Supplemental strategy: Optimism

It’s neither sensible to pretend that this is a mere blip nor that it’s the end of the world. While we’re in it, and for some time after, it’s going to hurt. Less money will be made and spent; small and vulnerable businesses will fail; and most of us will have put some of our dreams for growth and prosperity on hold.

However, if history teaches us anything it’s that this, too, will pass. There is a future date at which we will look back on this as, at best, an inflexion point toward a more-compassionate, -asynchronous and -digital world; at worst, it will be a painful memory that brings with it feelings of both loss and nostalgia.

Knowing that our clients will spend, consumers will buy, stock prices will surge and creativity will rise again is an important piece of optimism that we need to nourish. It takes nothing of the hardship away but it does guide us to make investments, not disinvestments; to nurture long-term relationships, not sever them; and to get up and do whatever we can to help each other during this time. Bonds forged now, as on any battlefield, will stand the test of time. And those abandoned may never be forgiven.

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Jarred Cinman. Credit: Chris Saunders ( Cinman (@jarredcinman) is the CEO of VMLY&R South Africa, part of the global VMLY&R network. He founded one of the first professional web services firms in 1995 and, after selling this to the VWV Group, he became part of the founding team of VWV Interactive, which went on to dominate the web development industry during the late 1990s. In 2010, Jarred was part of the team that merged Cambrient into NATIVE, which became NATIVE VML in 2013 and VMLY&R in 2018. Jarred was IAB South Africa chair for three years, sits on the Loeries committee, is a board member of the ACA and DALRO and, in his spare time, answers his email.

This MarkLives #CoronavirusSA special section contains coverage of how the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, and its resultant disease, covid-19, is affecting the advertising, marketing and related industries in South Africa and other parts of Africa, and how we are responding. Updates may be sent to us via our contact form or the email address published on our Contact Us page. Opinion pieces/guest columns must be exclusive.

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