These are exceptional times, what do you see as the dos and don’ts for brands and agencies to emerge stronger from the current pandemic?

Trisha Sircar: Coronavirus is causing huge disruption to everyday life, economically and socially. With 75% of the globe in some form of lockdown, physical boundaries are contracted and the human need for connection is greater than ever; as shown by the increased use of Zoom, TikTok, and Twitch. This has created a significant opportunity for brands and agencies to build strong relationships with highly receptive audiences — if they take a considered approach. 

Most companies want to stay visible and in contact with consumers, but many are overlooking the importance of making connections meaningful; with communications acting as bulletins on responses to COVID-19. The brands that stand out against the masses of updates will be those who focus on authentic, human, and purpose-driven messaging. For instance, as awareness of sustainability increases, now could be the time to enhance efforts in this area and highlight a brand’s ongoing dedication to making a positive difference, now and after the pandemic. 

Meanwhile, agencies must work closely with brands to help them effectively adjust to the shift in media consumption. There is potential to use these unusual circumstances as a chance to move away from business as usual, experimenting with new channels that are gaining prominence amid the pandemic, such as influencer marketing.

Present-day challenges can facilitate change and provide the perfect environment for transformation. Would you say there is a link between creativity and leveraging new ideas to support business contingency?

TS: At a wider level, today’s challenges are set to fast-track existing change across the media industry, especially digitalisation. Any ‘digital transformation’ programmes that were already in place will now go into hyperdrive as companies work to boost their agility in multiple areas; increasing remote working capacity and adjusting to the rapid acceleration of online media engagement, and spending. 

For individual brands and agencies, turbulence at this scale will ultimately serve as a reset button. With business norms sent off kilter, companies can take a step back and evaluate their offering, abilities and delivery processes, and weigh all of this against current demand. The gap between demand and capability is where creativity comes in to play a crucial role in helping companies re-tool and re-align to meet that need. 

Applying creative thinking while keeping core business requirements in mind will allow companies to strip out non-essentials and distil their purpose, giving them a streamlined vision that will build unity and pave the way for building better solutions, systems and ways of working, as well as a unified forward-focused culture.

What do you think successful brands and agencies will look like in a years’ time following this period of adjustment?

TS: The exact shape of each brand and agency will vary, but what will be common among tomorrow’s leaders is mastering the basics. The value of getting fundamentals right should never be underestimated; whether that’s fine-tuning websites to offer a more seamless user experience, shoring up supply chains so they can consistently fulfil demand, or ensuring outputs have the flexibility to bend and shift in line with changing consumer habits. 

When it comes to messaging, successful players will have forged closer connections and illustrated their commitment to change. Right now, consumers want companies to engage with and support personally, and brands that are there for audiences will thrive once the storm has passed. Consumers also want proof that brands share their values and are prepared to be drivers of change. Durex, for example, is setting itself up for future success by harnessing the ‘new normal’ message to call for change in perceptions around sexual health. 

Agencies that emerge as frontrunners will not only have powered the creativity behind these campaigns, but also pushed media planning and delivery forwards. Seizing this moment to innovate, shake up ‘same as last year approaches’, and take risks is what will set top agencies apart for years to come.

We know brands and agencies are feeling the effects, however, if history repeats itself this will create a wave of innovation. How do you think businesses can integrate innovation effectively and efficiently in these testing times?

TS: Testing times often fuel ingenuity, but any brand or agency hoping to implement innovation has to make it part of their DNA. That means embedding innovation into company culture. Businesses keen to ensure contingency beyond present challenges need to empower their people by establishing internal programmes that encourage, reward and nurture talent, as well as facilitating continuous innovation. 

At a practical level, the key is to start small. The knee-jerk reaction is to look for large-scale innovations that will address the crisis at hand, but creativity doesn’t have to mean starting from scratch; companies can still be creative by making more of their existing assets. 

For example, companies may see current tools as tied to particular purposes, but what if they test those assumptions and explore opportunities for near-term pivots? Lately, we’ve seen many examples of businesses re-purposing their offerings for new use cases, from Jack Daniels producing hand sanitiser to Louis Vuitton making face masks. 

Finally, it’s critical to combine innovation with planning. Pioneering concepts are great, but to generate real value they must be workable. The most effective route to enduring innovation is establishing a robust planning mechanism, where each idea is plotted on a roadmap that sets out how project integration will run in the short-term, mid-term and long-term.

Speaking of innovation, talent plays a vital role in nurturing this from the inside out in businesses. Do you have suggestions or personal experiences on how best to cultivate this?

TS: It’s a truism, but nobody innovates for the sake of it — nor does innovation come from a vacuum. Innovation arises among people who feel they work in a company that hears and amplifies their voice, and as a result, businesses emerging strongest from the crisis will be those that treat their talent as their main assets.

It may sound like a tall order when budgets are squeezed and survival is a major priority but giving employees space to be proactive, not reactive, is what will lay the most fertile ground for growth. At Xaxis, this is exactly the kind of environment we aim to create by continually investing in new ideas and providing an open platform. In fact, we believe enabling collaboration is especially important to not only gain valuable insights on how to navigate COVID-19 now, but also prepare for the new media reality that will follow. 

Personal experience has taught me that galvanising such a cooperative climate means breaking down barriers. When people with different skills, perspectives and experiences come together, they can tackle problems from a new angle and produce solutions that benefit the entire business. Plus, extending collaboration initiatives beyond the office walls to include budding young talent can provide an even richer mix of ideas, in addition to supporting the next generation of varied talent.