Slow and steady will win the COVID-19 race

The industry is rushing to 'do' without thinking, just like toilet paper hoarders, Wavemaker's Marco Del Castillo argues. Cut spend, map out all possible scenarios, create content, add another message, insert an offer, tell them we're here for them. Look at how much we're doing! Turns out the answer might be: Not that much at all.

Sprinters don’t win marathons. You know the ending of the story…

Yet, we still always want to rush, always moving fast, wanting to be the [insert media] first. How many agencies have “Agile” in their pillars? We’re all so unique.

As an industry, we always celebrate the quickest, flashiest move, rarely ever the best move. Maybe it’s purely the nature by which we consume media, daily trade news updates filled with exciting new campaigns versus annual effectiveness awards.

Perhaps it’s because we’re just cognitively wired that way, always chasing that quick dopamine hit of excitement, instead of having to fully engage our rational, thinking brain, analysing. The best move isn’t always the most entertaining.

Thinking about thinking

COVID-19 has had the world rattled over the past couple of months.

If ever Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow principles have been pertinent, it’s now. People are largely emotional, irrational beings.

To know information is not enough, we aren’t as rational as we’d like to think. We’re more Homer, than we are Spock.

“Yes, we get it. Consumers use their system 1 thinking, more than they do their system 2 thinking – we’ve heard it a million times. I understand my consumers and my purchase journey”. Sure, but do you understand yourself?

Social distancing has presented a good opportunity for introspection and metacognition – thinking about our thinking. What you’ll find is that, not only do ‘consumers’ make decisions based on irrational, system 1 thinking, so do we – as consumers and as communications professionals. The next step forward is coming to terms with this.

This pandemic has shaken people, leaving them scrambling in uncertainty and without direction.

Just weeks ago, we saw a noticeable segment of consumers clearing the shelves and stockpiling toilet paper without any rational justification. Based off this observed reaction, the rest of the majority started buying a couple extra, just to be safe – classic irrational behaviour, followed by herd mentality. People were focused on wiping their arses, before they’d even been fed.

At the same time, marketers are slashing media spend with a knife bigger than Mick Dundee’s and agencies are messing with strategies and campaigns because they saw Nike ‘just do it’. Classic systemic emotional reactions: flight and fight. Again, knowing the right information is not enough, we are irrational beings. We have acted like this knowing full well the evidence-based principles of growth, that we’ve all come to learn from the likes of the IPA, Effies and EBI.

The silver lining

We know that maintaining, or better yet, growing ad investment in a downturn will lead us to a more fruitful outcome in the recovery.

We know that now is a ripe time to build brand, strengthen distinctiveness and grow mental availability over the long term.

Yet, most of us won’t.

Without direction, we will scramble and rush, to do, just like the toilet paper hoarders. No time for thinking (maybe a day or two), but just do. To do is to survive.

Cut spend, map out all possible scenarios, create COVID content, add another message, insert an offer, tell them we’re here for them. Look at how much we’re doing!

Management versus leadership

A quick mentor coffee with Havas’ Mike Wilson recently had me scrambling thoughts more than the eggs I’d ordered. He suggested I read the book ‘7 Habits of Highly Effective People’ by Stephen R. Covey to help organise myself (thanks, Mike). Through this book, I’ve come to notice that what we’re seeing now is the contrast between leadership and management.

Management is concerned with efficiency, to deploy producers into the jungle, have them cut through the undergrowth with their machetes to say, “we’re making so much progress!”

Leadership is concerned with effectiveness. To climb the highest tree, carefully survey the situation and yell, “Wrong jungle!”.

Effectiveness – often even survival – does not depend on how much effort we expend, but on whether the effort we expend is in the right jungle. And the metamorphosis taking place right now demands leadership first, and management second.

We are more in need of a vision or destination and a compass (a set of principles) and less in need of a road map. We often don’t know what the terrain ahead will be like or what we will need to get through it; much will depend on our judgement at the time. However, an inner compass will always give us direction.

Positive provocation

My provocation to communications in this time of crisis? Less is more. Cut the fat and strengthen the core.

Work on foundations that have been traditionally overlooked (i.e. owned assets, emerging distribution channels, SEO, leg day) and go back to deploying (and not just knowing), the fundamental basics of effectiveness in communications (a healthy diet full of greens).

Remember that most people don’t care about our brands, they care about the issues they need solved.

Our brands act merely as a mental shortcut to fulfilling those buyer needs (in a relatively short decision window) and advertising is but only a weak force to influence that. Thus, our efforts need to be focused. Our communications require codes and creative consistency to prime audiences, over a long period of time, short-cutting decisions in the active stage.

Cut media support for brands that won’t deliver long term growth, cut the number of messages, cut trying so hard to be ‘agile’ to gain short term cut-through with reduced budgets. Reinvest that into fewer, stronger brands with fewer, clear messages, in a bigger way, to more people, over the long term.

The principles haven’t been trashed, if anything, they’ve been tailored to relevant context.

Move from simple emotion, to EQ.

Evolve from strengthening distinctive assets, to stretching distinctive assets.

Transition from over-reliance on physical distribution, to strengthening new channels of distribution.

We tend to overstate shifts in broad consumer behaviour and their implications. Fundamental motivations and behaviour don’t break or die that quickly and neither should we.

This is a marathon, not a sprint. You don’t need to be quicker, you just need to be fitter to go longer. Put down the donut and eat your greens.

Marco Del Castillo is strategy director at Wavemaker


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