by Carey Finn. Anne Dearnaley, PHD Media South Africa CEO, shares insights into powering the South African ad industry through the covid-related crisis.

Q5: What is the biggest challenge facing South African brands and adland right now?

Anne Dearnaley: Consumer uncertainty and shifting perceptions are probably the biggest [ones]. With consumer uncertainty comes a change in consumer behaviour — a difficult discipline for brands to navigate during a global health pandemic. Brands are seeing habitual routines disrupted and, for marketers to navigate their way through the turmoil, they need to demonstrate agility and nimbleness in the everchanging landscape. For example, pivoting to ecommerce as consumers move from street to sofa.

However, in this new world of fast-changing consumer behaviour and with no previous history or data to compare, change is not necessarily a “one and done”. This is an ever-evolving, constant ebb and flow of changing consumer behaviour, driven largely by emotion, that does not necessarily follow a straight line of prediction. Brand marketers need to dial up on agility and constantly evaluate the landscape, and then make informed decisions on whether to react. More importantly, marketers should not make impulsive decisions that are detrimental to long-term value, such as shifting too much investment to bottom-of-the-funnel activities that can erode long-term brand benefit.

Q5: How can agencies best protect the brands they work on during times of crisis — and during this pandemic, specifically?

AD: It has never been truer that fortune favours the bold. Taking the right action at the right time, based on the right insight from the right data, will help brands weather the crisis — but brands must act with conviction. Those brands that take up the baton early and follow through will likely see long-term uplift that far exceeds expectations. Brands need to double down on creativity and innovation and make the leap to secure their place in this “new normal” world.

At times like this, it is important that decision-making is science-led — and that should include evidence-based marketing, too. Brands should consider adjusting bottom-of-the-funnel investment when sales or category levels are down and focus on creative-led and brand activities, even in a crisis. The greatest return comes from the long-term impact of advertising investment, and stronger brands make it harder for new emerging brands to enter the market.

Keeping the lights on for as long as possible is imperative, supported by studies which show that those brands [which] continue advertising in a downturn reap the rewards in the long run — not only financially but consumers will not forget those brands who maintained a share of voice during these difficult times. Brands should also consider pivoting to ecommerce where possible, as consumer trends shift more towards online.

Q5: You’ve said that innovation and creativity may flourish in challenging periods. Do you think that holds true here? Are we seeing evidence of it in South Africa?

AD: This definitely holds true in SA. With consumers more attentive than ever, there is a remarkable opportunity for brands to do something different. Arguably, it’s the perfect time for a creative renaissance. Brands can fall into the trap of producing work that is deemed relevant but perceived as the “sea of sameness”, referencing support to [lockdown] “stay at home” messaging. Brands need to focus on making themselves relevant and, given the humanitarian crisis, to be highly sensitive and communicate with conviction.

From marketing messaging and creative execution, to business operations and product innovation, the successful brands have redistributed their resources to promote unity at a time when we’re socially distanced.

Q5: You emphasise the importance of collaboration to carry the advertising and marketing industry through the pandemic. Why is that so crucial?

AD: As the public remains divided on the way in which the government [has handled] the pandemic and with anxiety around covid-19 still [being] high, collaboration is more important than ever. For the marketing and advertising industry, this means tighter partnerships moving towards iteration, co-creation and collaboration in the media-planning and -buying process.

At PHD, collaboration is one of our core values. We are obsessed with people, understanding what matters to them and connecting with them. From inception, we believe collaboration is knowing the strength of teams working together. This also translates to our proprietary platforms, Omni and Omni Studio, which enable collective intelligence of the PHD network.

Over 80% of our business’s success today can be attributed to our staff and the great clients we work with. Prior to covid-19, we prioritised a collaborative and inclusive culture for everyone to connect and now, more than ever, this has become vital to us. A productive, happy workforce not only enables employees to share knowledge and work more efficiently and effectively but leads to better team performance and overall productivity, even in a crisis. Needless to say, collaboration with our clients is of key importance to producing work that has game-changing effects on their businesses.

Q5: What does that kind of collaboration look like?

AD: Being a service industry can sometimes mean an odd power dynamic between media partners, agencies and brands, and partnerships are not always easy. However, given the unprecedented circumstances we find ourselves in, coupled with an ever-changing consumer landscape, opportunities to thrive in this crisis will be minimal unless all parties work together. Whether you’re a media owner, agency or brand, you need to accept and acknowledge each other’s strengths and expertise, allowing each party to flourish in their individual specialisms.

The Solidarity Fund, a public benefit organisation, enlisted PHD to handle its media strategy to help play its part in fighting the pandemic. The Solidarity Fund was set up with a mandate to support the national health response and mobilise South Africans in the fight against covid-19. With collaboration at the core, we worked alongside 20+ media owners and 10+ creative agencies/consultants to successfully implement an integrated campaign. Working in collaboration with all other partners allowed the Solidarity Fund to reach 81% of all adults in South Africa — a good example of the strength in collaboration.

One big positive to come from collaboration during this crisis is that it’s a chance to redefine business models and build something stronger, more conducive and resilient for the future.


Carey FinnCarey Finn is a contributing writer to MarkLives. Q5 hones in on strategic insights, analysis and data through inspiring interviews with professionals in diverse fields.


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