Anything but normal: Review of the year 2020

By - CTL
December 20, 2020
Anything but normal: Review of the year 2020

By Simon Gwynn

With a global pandemic, extreme social unrest, the continuing climate crisis, battered economies and an astonishing fight for the White House, this year has proved to be anything but business as usual.

Change starts as a drizzle and then becomes a monsoon. For years, advertising has been caught in a conundrum: consumers, with ever greater awareness of the environmental and social impact of their own behaviour, have increasingly expected businesses to choose the moral or ethical path. But how should this decree be accommodated when advertising’s very raison d’être is to grow consumption – and when public companies are legally obliged to maximise the return for their shareholders?

Until the start of 2020, the answer was “purpose-led marketing”. At its best, this was a way for genuinely virtuous brands to use the influence bought by their media budgets to create beneficial effects, from persuading consumers to buy greener products, to promoting a kinder and more inclusive society. At its worst, it was an exercise in turning emptiness into philosophy. But to return to the opening metaphor, all this has been swept away by a flood of social and economic turmoil delivered by the poorly anticipated coronavirus pandemic. Like any flood, it has left devastation and fertile ground.

Lest we forget, the world was already in crisis before Covid-19 appeared on the scene. On Christmas Day 2019, Tourism Australia debuted its epic showtune-esque ad “Matesong”, fronted by Kylie Minogue, right before the Queen (of Australia)’s speech on ITV. “This year’s been tough and confusing, but progress is moving”, sings Kylie, in a dramatic irony for the ages. But before the 12 days of Christmas were over, the tourism body was forced to pull the campaign as devastating bushfires tore through the land, eventually burning 72,000 square miles – almost the area of Great Britain.

Sars-CoV-2 enters the picture

A few days after the ad was pulled (on 9 January) came the first suggestion from Chinese scientists that the mystery form of pneumonia afflicting, at the time, 59 people could be caused by a novel coronavirus.

But even after medical researchers and the health service manage to bring the illness caused by Covid under control, its social and economic consequences will continue to be felt on a gentler, slower wavelength, potentially for many years to come.

“Could coronavirus tip the global ad market into recession?”

One of many indicators from the time of a failure to grasp the size of the rocket that had been fired and was making its way towards us. ITV was warning at this point that ad revenue in April could be down by about 10%, based on shrinking demand from travel brands; there was little appreciation yet of how the looming lockdown would ravage activity across almost all sectors.

By early March, Italy had become the first country in Europe to go into a nationwide lockdown; Advertising Week Europe, which had been set to take place later that month, was pushed back to September; and ad-land began to wake up to the blow it was about to take. In a poll half of respondents predicted a hit to the advertising market of at least 20% over the following six months.

Even this suggested rose-tinted crystal balls, though – by the end of the month, broadcasters were steeling themselves for a loss of half their revenue in April and May. In mid-March, Cannes Lions followed AWE’s lead in pushing its event back to October; just two weeks later, under heavy pressure from an industry steeling itself for catastrophe, it was called off altogether as a live event.

“By the end of the month, broadcasters were steeling themselves for a loss of half their revenue in April and May”

What was happening? The economy was facing a battering on various interconnected fronts. Once the countries went into lockdown, large parts of their economy’s, including hospitality and live entertainment, ceased. Some businesses, not least airlines, found themselves in dire straits – and with their survival at risk, there was no question of continuing to advertise. Others, such as Coca-Cola, looked at the absence of sales from places like bars, zoos and theme parks, and made the call that continued media investment made little sense. It was a decision that exasperated commentators who maintained that brands that continued to advertise through a crisis came out of it stronger, but Coke’s decision was given the seal of approval later in the year by marketing sage Professor Byron Sharp, in an interview British media magazine.

At the same time, consumers read the mood in the room. In any recession, workers who don’t feel like their jobs are secure will opt for belt-tightening. And this year, the decision to rein in spending was made for them. With people forced to work from home, city-centre businesses saw their patrons vanish. The combined impact of these factors meant there was little surprise when it was revealed that many countries GDP had slumped in the second quarter by 21-30%. The damage to the advertising market in Q2, according to Warc, was a staggering 39%. The only saving grace was that the downturn across the year turned out to be less severe than feared when Group M revised its estimates at the start of December.

Zoom Zoom Zoom Zoom, I want you in my room

While things were bleak, it would be hard to argue these weren’t fascinating times that will no doubt be pored over by social historians in years to come. While many people struggled with childcare, loneliness and, of course, illness and bereavement, they used their ingenuity to make it through, and new cultural practices emerged. Before coronavirus, video calling had always been a minority sport. But now, everyone recognises that it offers advantages over both face-to-face contact and old-fashioned phone calls – and also that it will never replace either.

The pros and cons of remote working was the subject on everyone’s lips, and it wasn’t long before a consensus emerged that, for most people, the working pattern of the future will aim for the benefits of both home and office: the social cohesion and creative alchemy that comes from being in a room together, and the calm and focus offered by ditching the daily commute. A survey in May found that only one in eight adlanders was looking forward to a return to full-time office work.

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Because of restrictions on movement and congregation, and nerves about the mood of the public, brands that opted to stay on TV were left with little choice but to join in with what quickly became an established new genre of advertising that could be dubbed coronacore: usually showing people learning to embrace technology or clapping for the NHS. At their best, these ads were touching – but boy, did they get dull. It was no surprise that some of the year’s most engaging creativity went meta on advertising’s own limitations: Publicis.Poke gave us a couple making a car ad for Dacia in their living room, with a power drill and singing wine glasses for SFX; Droga5 London brought us a standout comic performance from Stephen Graham in his own “homemade ad” for Barclaycard. The latter agency has been on terrific form in the last third of the year, racking up four Campaign Picks of the Week for Barclaycard, Setapp, Rustlers and Amazon. UK creativity continued to break new ground, not least in Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO’s “Womb stories” ad for Bodyform – arguably an even more significant achievement than the agency’s previous work for the brand.

Extinction event

As a warm spring gave way to summer and Covid cases continued to fall, many dared to dream that the worst was over. But much of the damage to the industry may play out on the longer, slower wavelength. All of the advertising holding companies have made redundancies; there may be many more when the government’s job keeper scheme, now extended until March 2021, finally comes to an end. Most of the traditional media owners have been forced to cut significant numbers of staff. As many as 37,000 marketers have lost their jobs, according to a Chartered Institute of Marketing survey. Over in the US, more than 50,000 agency jobs will be lost by the end of 2021, according to Forrester. And in November, Unilever chief executive Alan Jope warned that the public was being misled over the severity of the economic crisis as a result of a few companies – including his own – holding up reasonably well.

In typically visceral language, Sir Martin Sorrell in April predicted a “Darwinian cull” of the advertising industry – though one in which, naturally, his own S4 Capital will be a nimble mammal rather than a dinosaur. If any big beasts do suffer a mortal wound, there will be no shortage of evolutionary upstarts ready to replace them. In May, Adam & Eve founders David Golding and James Murphy introduced their latest agency, New Commercial Arts; it has already picked up accounts from Halifax, Vodafone and Uber. Then there was a splurge of new outfits from adland veterans starting in October, many offering a new business model based on simplicity and efficiency. They included ScienceMagic, Friendly Giants, Orange Panther Collective, Motel and Platform. There were also new spin-off shops from Mother (called Other) and Mr President, which will hope its new operation, Vice President, is more Emmy-winning HBO sitcom Veep and less Mike Pence.

A landmark moment came in November when WPP confirmed the long-rumoured merger of AKQA and Grey into AKQA Group. Unlike its traditional agency counterparts J Walter Thompson and Y&R, which both underwent mergers in 2018 but whose names survived in part, it looked as though the 103-year-old Grey brand would disappear completely. But WPP, apparently faced with discontent from some clients, has insisted that shades of it will remain within the new organisation “for some time”.

Don’t pull up the ladder

For the sake of the creative scene and the brands that rely on its ideas, we must hope that some of these businesses are in a position to provide a stepping stone for the career starters facing a lack of available placements from agencies struggling to retain their existing staff. This situation poses an existential threat to the diversity of agencies – on which, more below – because it is much easier for those from privileged backgrounds to wait it out until an opportunity comes along; those without the luxury of family support, who rely on taking whatever work is available to them, are far more likely to call it quits.

One development that could prove to be a lasting effect is chief marketing officers, when faced with unsatisfactory business results, feeling less inclined to plump for a full agency pitch. 2020 has brought an increase in alternative strategies, such as offering a trial period before committing to a long-term relationship. If this continues, it could offer a degree of counterintuitive stability as the economy rebuilds. But for agencies that live for the thrill of the pitch, it will require a cultural change as significant as that demanded by the growth of working from home.

The necessity of virtual pitches conducted entirely over video has divided the industry: some smaller agencies have said they are a great leveller, while plenty of leaders have been “pleasantly surprised” by how well they have worked – but the extent to which this reaction is an example of look-on-the-bright-side bias is unclear.

Minneapolis, 25 May 2020

The frustration and anxiety that came from being cooped up at home all day, facing extreme job insecurity and the poorly understood threat of a novel disease, combined to create a context that was ripe for an outbreak of extreme social unrest.

The match that lit the powder keg was the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police on 25 May. According to data tracked by the Washington Post, US police forces have killed about 1,000 people each year since 2015. These have crossed all racial groups, but black Americans are proportionally more likely to end up dead – along with vulnerable groups such as mentally ill and disabled people. The actions of Derek Chauvin – the officer who kneeled on Floyd’s neck for eight minutes, while Floyd protested that he couldn’t breathe – were shocking, but not because they were unprecedented: plenty of previous deaths, such as those of Michael Brown in Missouri and Eric Garner in New York, within a month of each other in 2014, have stoked similar outrage. But with people’s usual busy lives on hold, this time the sense of outrage had space to grow and develop into a movement for change.

Vast street protests across the US have so far led to significant police reforms in many cities, not least Minneapolis, but the effects were also felt globally, and throughout society.

Countless brands, meanwhile, made a nod in their communications to racial justice, some more convincingly than others. In September, ITV won acclaim when it took out a newspaper ad expressing solidarity with Diversity, after Ofcom dismissed more than 24,000 complaints over the dance group’s performance on Britain’s Got Talent on 5 September. The story was striking because of the bold, progressive actions of the broadcaster, while Diversity’s routine itself was spectacular – and not just for its depiction of police brutality. Given it was being shown on a commercial TV channel that just months earlier had posted the steepest decline in advertising revenue in its history, the routine’s narrative of the harmful consequences of contemporary consumerism was also eyebrow-raising.

Give a little love

One early sign that change is being made as a result of Black Lives Matter could be the noticeably diverse casting in this year’s batch of Christmas ads. Advertisers were faced with a difficult challenge this festive season, but most made the wise decision to avoid making people cry: while Tesco went upbeat and wacky, John Lewis and Waitrose reinvented their trademark schmaltz with a less manipulative format.

Many retailers sensibly chose to accompany their marketing efforts with a major charity push; but it is the high street that will be in need of a helping hand next year. With a rush of consumers enthusiastically taking to ecommerce, Amazon’s position of power in the global economy is more daunting than ever, and the fortune of founder Jeff Bezos now sits at more than $180bn – a little less than the GDP of New Zealand. But there are signs of big changes in the roles businesses choose to play, with one of the starkest examples, John Lewis Partnership, moving in radical directions such as providing housing.

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As 2020 drew to a close, the battle to contain coronavirus was far from over. With more than 1.5 million globally deaths by the start of December, the pandemic had left a terrible toll. News in November that multiple potential vaccines have shown high rates of effectiveness boosted morale but came too late for one Donald J Trump, who is on his way out of the White House. It did mean that families, as well as businesses, will at least be able to spend Christmas looking to the new year with something like hope.

The economy will eventually return to full steam, holidays will resume, restaurants will again be packed – but the questions forced on us by this year’s crisis are not going away. There is likely to be a long-term rise in unemployment for a start, and a generation who will find opportunities closed off just as they’re starting their working lives. People’s minds became focused solely on the wellbeing of their families, friends and neighbours. This year has given us flashes of a world that prioritises happiness, looks after everyone, and will still be fit for human occupation in centuries to come. That requires an economy calibrated to solve human problems, boosting innovation but without relentlessly driving consumption.

Images: Getty Images


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