by Wendy Shepherd (@thewordshepherd) I’m not an important person. I don’t run a company. I’m not building inspiring strategies to get businesses through the pandemic, and I don’t feel like I have any profound wisdom to change the course of any reader’s life. I spent much time paralysed as to how to write this article as a result. What I do have though, as discovered very early one insomniac morning, is a voice. An ordinary voice in extraordinary times. It occurs to me that perhaps we need more of those right now.

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Everyone got off the merry-go-round

Nine months feels like forever when you’re waiting for a baby. Then suddenly, one day, the baby is here, and you’re expected to grow up in the same moment, just like that. I feel like that about this coronavirus pandemic. I left work as usual one afternoon, and the next day everything changed.

It wasn’t a paradigm shift. Those are usually gradual, and glossy with revelation. This just felt like the entire world suddenly got off the merry-go-round, and all at once, the playground went silent.

We’ve all seen the eerie pictures of famous spaces devoid of tourists and bustling citizens, and penguins pootling down the street in the absence of traffic. The world went quiet, and all the noise moved online.

Video FaceTimed the radio star

Some smart people started making company videos and doing stylish TED talks about a diversity of truly clever things to fill the silence. Comedians have had a field day. Musicians have done endless Zoom collabs. People have ranted and reposted their rage. It’s not like nobody is talking. People are talking a lot. The memes have naturally taken over social media like a rash, and every second post is either about how okay it is to feel terrible right now, or how to look at the pandemic as a lovely opportunity to spend time with your family and grow your own mielies.

Behind the surface noise, though, is a deeper silence. Ad agencies, among the best communicators on Earth, are seeing their billings curtailed by frightened clients, their markets shrinking back behind closed doors, and everything they need to do business suddenly becoming very thin on the ground.

This isn’t the time to keep quiet, Susan

I know this kind of silence. My dad merged his own small agency with Grey in 1989, setting off a buyout that had a number of consequences. One of these was the OK Group deciding to take its advertising in-house. As the CEO, he discovered he’d have to personally retrench 47 people in one day. Many years later, he told me this was the worst day of his life. He took it very personally, and very hard. It kept him awake for a week. That was a very quiet time in the office. One morning, shortly before that awful day, he woke up and made a lot of phone calls before he left for work. That afternoon, he corralled all his talent connections to set up an in-agency recruitment company, charged with finding new jobs for 47 people. Most of them ended up in a better position than they had held at Grey.

Not everyone can do this, of course, and I’m not suggesting anyone should at this tenuous juncture. The point is that it only takes one voice (and a bunch of phone calls) to find hope in the rhetoric. He could have just gone with the old “I’m so sorry. Finances etc. Changes beyond our control. Here’s a great reference,” and nobody would’ve thought less of him. He didn’t have to be the one voice. He did it because rhetoric and bullshit were the same thing in his mind, and he couldn’t bear either.

There’s absolutely a place for good business strategy, thoughtful planning and realistic goal-setting. We should be sharing our wisdom, and important people should be saying the right things. We also can’t ignore the parallel reality. Right-sizing — possibly corporate’s worst term ever for people losing their jobs — is happening all over the show, economies are gasping, and there’s no shortage of depressing news and positive pet posts to further confuse the shit out of your brain everywhere you look. I’m still looking for the one clear voice that cuts through all that and tells me to have hope based on what they are doing, not what they are saying.

Smells like teen spirit

Why do we need advertising right now? It’s not like we’re in retail nirvana. Okay, nobody needed a BMW, either, but a mouse on a steering wheel gave us a charming new way to look at things. This isn’t a question of brand need; it’s about what people need. Yes, the billings have diminished, but this isn’t the time to forget how amazing you can be. This industry is a powerful voice in the silence. Don’t stop speaking. Find a way to make it count. Dig up those old scamps and knock up a concept that kicks up the dust. Charities and feeding schemes are doing wonderful work but it’s not just about advocating for an NGO or applauding from the sidelines. Ad agencies have special powers. How could those be made available to the people who need them the most?

We need a voice. If there’s any way you can find yours, please let it out.

See also


Wendy ShepherdWendy Shepherd (@thewordshepherd) is a pharma copywriter and true-crime fanatic. She contributes the regular column, “Herding Words”, which takes a sometimes irreverent look at copywriting, adland and the human universe in general. Other BHAGS occupy the rest. 

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