2020 will perhaps go down in the media and advertising industry’s history as the defining year to have created a dramatic change in consumer behaviour and brand communication, accentuating the need for digital transformation. When the pandemic struck in March this year, no one anticipated the dramatic change it would drive in consumer behaviour, thereby forcing marketers and advertising agencies to stop in their tracks and re-evaluate their communication and consumer outreach strategies. What has become clear now though is that these consumer behaviour patterns are likely to continue until the COVID-19 threat is diminished. In these extraordinary circumstances, how are media agencies reinventing the wheel? What is at the centre of the media agency’s agenda for 2021?
Digital takes centre stage
March 2020 saw marketers and their media agency partners revisit their annual plans and put campaigns on hold in the face of an unprecedented pandemic. Across companies and media agencies, everyone took a step back to understand what is happening across markets especially those like China and Italy that witnessed the brunt of the coronavirus early on. At one point earlier this year, media agencies saw their billings take a hit of as much as 50-60%. This took agencies and brands both back to the drawing board.
The one big change this year has been the shift in consumer behaviour – an increased adoption of digital and e-commerce in particular. “The past six months have seen a significant growth in e-commerce and ‘first-time’ e-commerce shoppers - consumers who purchased products online for the first time to avoid physical retail store visits. These consumers will likely continue to buy online, with more of such consumers coming in each month. This shift certainly has implications for many categories, and brands will need to ramp up their e-commerce presence and even consider building their own direct-to-consumer platforms. As partners to brands, media agencies will therefore also be required to further strengthen capabilities in e-commerce,” notes Anand Chakravarthy, Managing Director, India at Essence. Chakravarthy also notes that the emphasis on media ROI, which was growing even before the pandemic, has now been accelerated, with marketing teams being held even more accountable for business results. “The expectation of media agency partners is therefore to be able to demonstrate clear linkages between media and business results, such as through Essence’s test-and-learn, as well as data, measurement and analytics-driven approach with our clients,” he explains.
Speaking earlier in August, 2020 at the unveiling of the Pitch Madison Mid-Year Report, Sam Balsara, Chairman of Madison World drew the attention of marketers to the need for advertising and investing in brand building especially at a time like this. “Advertisers should focus on supply chain management and focus on advertising inputs in the select high potential districts of semi urban and rural India. Madison’s Town and Country software tool can help advertisers to identify these high potential districts in semi urban and rural areas, as these districts are likely to yield higher returns to advertising investments. Advertisers should also focus on e-commerce and set high targets as percentage contribution to sales from e-commerce,” he had said.
Media agency leaders also point out that with outdoor entertainment options being limited today (despite the reopening of cinemas, malls, hospitality and tourism), consumers are looking at OTT platforms, social media and TV to fulfil entertainment needs while staying cooped up indoors. “With Indians spending more time than before on OTT platforms, TV and social media, marketers have the opportunity to reach out to them in such a diverse range of formats. If you map the mobility constraints stemming from being at home with family and avoiding going out, to category-wise spending, you will notice something – from fitness to at-home entertainment, consumers are looking at building a secure environment for themselves, both physically and mentally,” points out Kartik Sharma, CEO India at Omnicom Media Group. The agency’s recently released research findings indicate that there are significant and nuanced changes just from one quarter to the next, and therefore agencies and brands must have the agility to keep up with these rapid changes.
Given the rapid changes across consumer behaviour and client requirements, agencies are taking another step forward, and helping clients gear up for the future. Prasanth Kumar, South Asia – CEO, GroupM explains how. “The emphasis will be on both design and delivery. While we build strong practices in these times, our focus will also be to strengthen and develop expertise in this changing landscape. We are witnessing services like e-commerce, analytics, consulting and many new tech-enabled products scaling up. There is a significant opportunity in these times to learn and shape the solutions for all our clients. We believe it is important to be adaptive. Leading clients by preparing for the future is very critical in shaping consistency across business outcomes and our efforts will continue to bring that advantage to all our clients,” Kumar remarks.
Building future-ready capabilities
Even before the pandemic struck, media agencies were already equipping themselves to adapt to an increasingly dynamic ecosystem driven by digital growth. What the past few months have done is simply speed up the process, as Navin Khemka, CEO, MediaCom South Asia notes. “Digital acceleration is a given reality. It is critical for agencies to be future ready by having media agnostic teams. The digital, non-digital divide is still quite stark in most agencies and this needs to change sooner than later if they have to survive this change in media landscape. Increasingly it will be difficult for agencies to attract clients and talent if the experience is not seamless across media touch points,” says Khemka, adding that 2020 has become the watershed year for marketers, one that will set the foundation for an era of measurement and accountability.
Even as Digital takes centre stage, media agency heads are emphatic that the role of traditional mediums will not diminish in any way. And while mediums like Print and Outdoor were heavily impacted, the future will see a merging of digital capabilities with traditional mediums.
Explaining how the agency is building relevant capabilities to adapt to this rapidly evolving ecosystem, Anand Bhadkamkar, CEO India, dentsu says, “We are working on multiple solutions using MarTech and data for the clients. We are also working to enable the e-commerce and digital transformation journeys for our clients. In addition, our agencies are actively gathering multiple insights for clients through research and surveys. For example, as part of our latest CMO survey, as many as 1,300 CMOs were interviewed to determine the future course of action and strategies the CMOs are planning and how we can partner with them. Consumer habits are changing, and empathy has become an important factor in everything we do. We need to keep in mind that the pandemic has brought some serious challenges for everyone – consumers, marketers and agencies. It will certainly have a significant impact on how we operate, interact and transact in the future.”
The buoyancy brought on by the IPL and the festive season indicates that consumer sentiments are gradually becoming more positive. Consumers have recognised that the virus is here to stay, and there is a fatigue that is building up among them. Brands should be quick to leap at these positive sentiments and leverage new opportunities, observes Priti Murthy CEO, OMD India. “Quick changes have also led to greater agility in the media agency ecosystem. Take preferred mediums for instance: While in the initial stages of strict lockdown, the digital medium seemed to be the main option, the opening up of inter-city travel gradually allowed for OOH to be leveraged in airports and on inter-city road routes. This meant that brands and agencies had to leap at the new opportunity. So, in a slightly uncertain phase like this, fast decision-making capabilities are important. Strategies need to be constantly changing,” she says. Murthy also adds that a key part of the agency’s futuristic approach is that it is focused a lot on e-commerce to ensure that its clients continue to gain value.
Focus on automation and technology
Media agencies will have to continue investing in data and technology capabilities, in order to action with agility and respond in real-time, points out Anupriya Acharya, South Asia CEO, Publicis Groupe. “Data sciences, Digital, Commerce, Experiential, Consulting and Content are the new growth drivers for media agencies and are likely to remain so, in the times to come. So most media agencies will further increase focus on future-facing technologies such as automation, AI, and ML for advanced communications as more of machine-gleaned insight will be used in planning,” she notes, adding that in the future, media agencies will continue to target consumers in new environments such as in-app, AVOD and potentially even on video conferencing platforms.
In keeping with the agency’s core philosophy of building meaningful brands, Havas Group India too is driving a transformation agenda with greater client centricity. Speaking about the company’s plans to ramp up its capabilities in commerce, Rana Barua, CEO Havas Group India says, “A lot of senior and multi category experts are being added to the organisation to help us build more meaningful brands. We are also planning to launch our global e-commerce offering ‘Havas Markets’, to create more meaningful shopping experiences for consumers and thus drive meaningful growth for brands in commerce, given the significant increase in the importance of online commerce during the pandemic.”
There is also a new accent on building new skills, learning and making agencies future-proof. Shashi Sinha, CEO, Mediabrands India tells us what his agency is gearing up for in 2021. “The last eight months have also been a lot about training for skills and knowledge, test-learn and capability building around technology, data and analytics. For us at Mediabrands, it is about future-proofing our product, our people, our business for tomorrow. 2021, for Mediabrands India, will be about 4Cs: Collaboration, Commerce, Content and Community.”
The order of digital transformation in 2021
Agencies are also discovering newer ways to adopt technology more effectively in the face of the pandemic, as Amin Lakhani, COO, Mindshare South Asia points out. Explaining how the agency has adopted technology significantly in its way of working, Lakhani says, “As an industry we successfully pivoted to new ways of working and we will carry many elements even in the post COVID scenario. For instance, geography is not a deterrent for right talent. This will unlock significant potential of people who earlier couldn’t be explored on account of physical availability.” He adds that as the agency’s business model is evolving, there will be a notable investment in acquiring new talent with the right skill sets, in getting quality talent on board and in upskilling talent with the best there is across touch points and platforms. Thirdly, Lakhani insists that the consumer will remain at the centre of everything the agency does. “The consumer will remain at the centre of everything that we do. This isn’t new but now we will need to look at multiple signals on the back of technology to ensure our plans are more effective,” he notes.
Brands today are also under serious pressure to keep their offerings relevant and compelling to the consumer. Agencies therefore need to go beyond just driving campaign visibility and have to deliver measurable business results. Explaining that brands want their agencies to be ‘meaningful partners’, Mohit Joshi, CEO, Havas Media Group India says, “We have turned the challenges into opportunities and reorganised our talent in line with our Media Experience [Mx] philosophy. We call it Meaningful Transformation. This will ensure higher client centricity, more omnichannel planning and will also ensure that we keep ‘audiences’ and ‘behaviours’ at the centre of our planning exercise.”
Agencies are equipping themselves to stay future ready, with an eye on 2021 and armed with huge learnings from a rollercoaster 2020. Explaining why the agency will focus on data, insights and automation, Ajay Gupte CEO – South Asia, Wavemaker, states, “Most of the investments we are making is in the area of data and automation for a lot of the implementation work. That way, our people can focus on strategy and driving results for the brand. The second key focus are is training people. The training will be in understanding the consumer, consumer journey and advising the client in a media agnostic manner. The third area that we are invested in is data and analytics.” Gupte also points out that the pandemic months have provided a much needed impetus in terms of data mining and insights.
COVID-19 altered the world and disrupted businesses like never before. It forced businesses, including ours to reimagine the operating model, navigate the times and, yet not waste the crisis. It has turbo-charged core transformation for all organisations alike; a force multiplier for every aspect of the business, be it the core product, people, purpose or processes.
Media agencies must become growth partners
Onwards and forward, the success of media agencies will be determined by how they stay the course, transform and innovate to emerge a trusted partner to brands and clients. Be their ‘growth partners’ beyond just marketing or media partners. The consumer yet again has emerged the king and also a kingmaker! The behavioural shifts have made the case for integrated consumer journeys paramount to fuel growth. In the last eight months, many have adopted leaner and flatter structures towards agility in decision making.
Transformation on the back of Digital
Digital and technology taking centre-stage have propelled transformation. The last eight months have also been a lot about training for skills and knowledge, test-learn and capability building around technology, data and analytics. Deep engagement with client business, own people and teams, staying positive and agile has been a key mantra.
The Mediabrands India vision for 2021
For us at Mediabrands, it is all about future-proofing our product, our people, our business for tomorrow. 2021, for Mediabrands India, will be about 4Cs: Collaboration, Commerce, Content and Community.
The top priorities definitely continue to be a focus on Digital. So Digital will continue to remain the core and we will work towards strengthening the digital offering. The three Vs that we mentioned in our report earlier – voice, vernacular and video will continue to be key focus areas. However, looking ahead at 2021, we are working towards e-commerce solutions for our clients. But just because the focus has increased on Digital, it doesn’t mean that traditional solutions will go away. This year, traditional media like Print and Outdoor were heavily impacted but going forward, they will still remain relevant mediums to reach the consumer. What we will see is a greater merging of traditional and digital capabilities, so that our execution is seamless
Driving new-age solutions backed by empathy
Data solutions and MarTech solutions for clients, enabling their digital transformation, creating personalized experiences for the consumer and building capabilities in e-commerce will be important. That goes for the whole industry, not just us at dentsu. Another important factor we must not lose sight of is empathy, which must be at the centre of all that we do. Consumer behaviour is changing and advertisers and agencies must remain agile and empathetic so as to reach the consumer at the right place, the right time and with an empathetic message. From another perspective, we should also not lose sight of the fact that all of us – the teams, our people and our clients are also working in highly unusual circumstances, because WFH brings its own share of challenges. 2021 will also be about how we manage all of that because as a society, the pandemic and the effects of it will continue to be felt for a while.
In 2020, global e-commerce sales growth jumped three years in the first three months of stay-at-home mandates. Brands require a holistic solutions provider with whom they can partner across the commerce value chain. Publicis Groupe’s Commerce Practice covers all go-to-market channels namely – marketplaces, direct-to-consumer (DTC), modern retail and omnichannel retail. Our portfolio goes beyond media and continues to adapt to changing client and consumer requirements; some of the services we offer are in the areas of commerce advisory and consulting, commerce audits, e-content and merchandising, commerce intelligence and reviews and ratings management.
Another capability we have enhanced is data management. We have built a platform that allows us to pull in key campaign data, metrics and KPIs from a variety of disparate data sources across mainline and digital platforms, and display it in a unified intuitive dashboard. Through automation, the platform replaces manual error prone processes allowing our clients to glean deeper insights in a timely manner.
Furthermore on research and analytics, the team has focused during the pandemic on keeping a finger on the fast changing consumer pulse, their sentiment and intent, through agile mobile panels as well as all signals available across search and social.
Furthermore, we launched Marcel in India! Marcel, as you might know, is our global AI-powered enterprise level platform that connects all our 80,000 employees around the world. Given that the WFH situation led to a sense of isolation in many pockets, it’s not surprising that the platform saw a quick adoption rate – we launched it in June and we reached 95% in just four weeks’ time.
I believe that the most important thing for brands and agencies currently, is the agility to keep up with such rapid change. Our research findings (OMG Festive Season Report, 2020) tell us that there are significant and nuanced changes just from one quarter to the next. And many of these as we know, are unprecedented changes. With 15 key cities covered, across tiers 1 and 2, we at OMG have gained some holistic insights on what’s in store. Consumers are still displaying caution when it comes to stepping out. As we become more familiar with social distancing norms and hygiene habits, there also seems to be a growing optimism, with 80% consumers feeling like they will emerge stronger post the pandemic. The positive buying sentiment is especially apparent in categories like personal care and entertainment at home where we are expecting increased spends. Daily essentials will of course continue to reign supreme, and certain discretionary categories like hospitality may continue to be subdued for a while.
Adapting to changing consumer priorities
Brands and agencies need to examine and respect consumer priorities in these turbulent times, rather than attempting to change these priorities. And with Indians spending more time than before on OTT platforms, TV and social media, marketers have the opportunity to reach out to them in such a diverse range of formats. To sum it up briefly, if you map the mobility constraints stemming from being at home with family and avoiding going out, to category-wise spending, you will notice something – from fitness to at-home entertainment, consumers are looking at building a secure environment for themselves, both physically and mentally.
COVID has expedited the digital transformation across agencies and clients. The consumers have become more digitally dependent be it for their daily needs or for their entertainment. Clients expect agencies today to drive their businesses with greater accountability and not just provide visibility and effective plans to their campaigns.
The Havas ‘Mx’ system
Our objective at Havas Media Group is to understand where to leverage the most meaningful media using our unique Mx system. We build a Media Experience (Mx) that connects a client with their target audience – in the context of where they are, through the content they pay attention to. The Mx system creates value for our clients by turning consumer intelligence into clear growth targets, aligning stakeholders and KPIs through the custom Mx brief, and measuring the impact of rich and respectful media experiences.
Keeping audience behaviour at the centre
This transformation ensures greater client centricity, more omnichannel planning and will also ensure that we keep ‘audiences’ and ‘behaviours’ at the centre of our planning exercise, with the support of best-in-class tools, talent and processes. As a result of the above, a lot of senior and multi category experts are being added to the organisation to help us build more meaningful brands. We are also planning to launch our global e-commerce offering ‘Havas Markets’, to create more meaningful shopping experiences for consumers and thus drive meaningful growth for brands in commerce, given the significant increase in the importance of online commerce during the pandemic.
The pandemic has brought in rapidly changing consumer behaviours. These changes have reflected across touch points from media consumption to product/brands consumption. Consumers opted for safe, hygienic, convenient, at-home usage and many of these propelled buying from e-commerce platforms as well as neighbourhood stores. Many of these changing trends required a lot more preparation and solutions that would enable outcomes for clients in these evolving times. Most of the marketers want their agency partners to lead them, and this essentially meant agencies must prepare and build expertise across design and delivery. At GroupM along with our agencies, we have been in constant dialogue with all our clients to collectively offer improved solutions. We as an organisation have put upgrading and upskilling as a top priority for our talent. AI/ML-enabled new services and products have contributed to new learnings and opportunities to shape greater solutions for our clients.
Key shifts to look out for
This year has accelerated many trends such as accelerated pace of growth across digital platforms. Some of them as we see are e-commerce, social platforms, OTT, e-wallets, Voice and many more. In the future there will three key themes:
1. There will be more emphasis on insights, tech-enabled way of working and integration of content with insights and technology for better outcomes for brands.
2. This also means diverse skills, specialisation and building expertise become very critical from a talent force perspective.
3. Enhanced collaborative working would build a powerful advantage for any marketer.
For all my advertiser friends:
• Our belief is that advertisers should not and will not sacrifice brand building efforts to protect their profits in H2 20.
• Advertising is the cheapest known stimulus to stimulate demand and retain and build share. Enlightened advertisers know that share once lost is extremely difficult to regain.
• Advertisers should focus on supply chain management and on advertising inputs in the select high potential districts of semi urban and rural India.
• Madison’s Town and Country software tool can help advertisers identify these high potential districts in semi urban and rural areas, as these districts are likely to yield higher returns to advertising investments.
• Advertisers should focus on e-commerce and set high targets as percentage contribution to sales from e-commerce.
• Digital adoption is likely to continue, and advertisers should hone in their capabilities and expertise in these channels.
Some advice for all my media friends:
• Media should be as flexible as possible and try to attract as much advertising as possible and help advertisers maximise their return on advertising investments, at a time like this.
• It is in media’s interests to attract as much advertising as possible in volume terms and not in terms of cost per unit. This will bring demand back into economy and push the economy into an upward spiral, which in turn will benefit media.
(*From Balsara’s advice given in August 2020 at the release of Pitch Madison Mid-Year Report)