Has the pandemic driven change & elevated marketing's role?

07.05.2021

Debate: Has the pandemic driven change and elevated marketing's role?

By James Delves, Head of PR and Engagement, CIM

On 12th April 2021, leading members of the Debating Group met not in parliament like usual but online in the group’s second virtual debate. CIM and the Advertising Association were joined by representatives from the International Advertising Association and Alliance of Independent Agencies to debate the effect COVID has had on marketing and the sector’s response.

Speakers for the motion ‘that the pandemic has been good for marketing’ were Stephen Woodford, CEO of the Advertising Association and Morag Cuddeford-Jones, journalist, author, broadcaster and editor of Catalyst magazine who represented CIM. While Liz Jones, founder of Conker and Dino Myers Lamptey of The Barber Shop took the opposing position for the IAA and the Alliance of Independent Agencies.

The debate swung from side to side as each party presented passionately. The terrible health impacts of COVID were discussed and the pandemic’s specific impact on marketing. The AA and CIM highlighted that the pandemic had brought many negatives, including shattered businesses and redundancies, as well as lost education and missed opportunities for young people. However, there were also positives as the marketing sector rallied, proving its resiliency, adaptability and innovation. In the words of the wartime poster, ‘we kept calm and we carried on.’

Since the first lockdown started, the marketing community was forced to adapt quickly, with marketers embracing working from home and adopting technology seamlessly into our daily life. For many of us, the most intensive working weeks were collectively experienced during this period. Rapid re-thinking and radical change happened everywhere, from large businesses to SMEs, with new strategies and solutions designed and implemented in record time. Marketing was the business discipline at the heart of all this change, the central point of focus and organisational objectives, marshalling business’ responses and adaptations to the unfolding crisis.

The pandemic was a huge and unprecedented disruption for everyone, while at the same time fuelling three major trends which both the AA and CIM believe will outlast the pandemic and be good for marketing. The first trend was that innovation was accelerated with changes which would normally take months or years to implement, happening in days and weeks. Marketing agility had been transformed at a scale and speed that would never have happened without the pandemic.

The second major change was the increased use of e-commerce, which was five years of growth in one year. The AA and CIM argued that this was good because marketing has the insight to lead the online end-to-end customer journey and with digital transformation happening in almost every business, marketing’s voice had been elevated to the C-suite. Furthermore, with rapid digitalisation increasing competition for all businesses, marketing had become ever more important throughout the pandemic.

The third and final point was that the pandemic had accelerated society’s desire for meaningful change, with the ambitions of building back better now being sincere and heartfelt from the top to the bottom of most businesses. The pandemic has triggered a desire to reset opportunity, particularly around a business’ sustainability, inclusiveness, and purpose – big values that consumers increasingly look for in a business. With marketing at the heart of making these choices and communicating them to consumers, it further reinforced marketing’s leadership position now and in the future.

The opposing team led by Liz Jones argued that marketing budgets had dropped (as they had across many other sectors) and that head count had been cut with marketing budgets in lockdown reducing and a 48% fall in ad spend last year (£1billion pounds). Both sides debated changes to working practices and individual wellbeing, financial pressures and how getting the right work-life balance was key for creativity.

The conversation then moved to the future with Morag debating that there had been set-backs for many marketers but that now they held a great deal of power as communicators, strategists and innovators – dispelling any outdated opinions that marketing just creates pretty things to help things sell.

The pandemic has demonstrated to the c-suite that marketing, as an industry can achieve tangible results for businesses and society, listing a wide number of brands that had succeeded during lockdown. These brands included Brewdog through to Louis Vuitton, who turned their production facilities to produce hand-sanitiser, or insurers who organised car insurance premium refunds while vehicles were unused. Or Burger King who brought excess potatoes from struggling farmers and distributed them for free to customers. The list went on. As a discipline that has unparalleled access to the customer, and ability to work across an organisation, marketing has shown to be a vital tool for businesses and society during times of crisis.   

The group also debated that marketing had a unique position, as the marriage of art and science allowed businesses who put their faith in marketing to not just survive but thrive during the coming weeks and months. Creativity is at the core of every marketer, for too long, businesses had been focused on short term metrics and results reporting, however the pandemic had shown that brands can really ‘be there’ for customers when given the space to think creatively.

The debate concluded with a discussion on how working practices would change for the better with a likely future for many organisations being a hybrid way of working. As a result, the hybrid work life, would hopefully make marketers happier and more creative in the office, while delivering a better work-life balance. Everyone agreed that the pandemic had brought a wartime level of crisis with much suffering for most of the marketing and many other industries, but that the pandemic had driven changes and elevated marketing's role in the business world.

To learn more about the debate or to join future debates please click here

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