We’re being complacent – taking the soft option with pay cuts and messaging – in our approach to COVID-19

From not implementing tough cuts now or preparing for staff morale and productivity to fall off a cliff, to the CMO unhelpfully saying they won't be cutting their agency retainers: Chris Savage thinks industry leaders are being complacent, when they cannot afford to be.

The creative and communications industry is moving too slowly to address the business crisis brought on by COVID-19. We need to do more, and fast, if we are to have no regrets.

At the moment, many agency leaders are simply being complacent. And it’s understandable. We hate taking tough actions. We hope for the best. And if we don’t own the agency, and it’s not our home on the line, it’s even easier to err towards being passive.

We’re also all in ‘strategic grief’. The phases of this ‘commercial grief’ are almost identical to life loss grief: denial, anger, rationalising, despair, acceptance. Most agency leaders are still early on in this process.

Some agencies have displayed leadership, but most are lagging well behind

But we need to leapfrog to acceptance. COVID-19 is going to impact our business much more violently than we think. What we have done so far is simply not enough. And we need to lift our leadership game, now, to lead our business with decisiveness and pace.

Yes, many agencies have taken some strong action. But many others have taken softer options. Leaders need to go harder and faster – now.

Clarity of message

Our employees and colleagues are responding much better to decisive, brutally honest, direct messaging and leadership (delivered with some personality and charisma), than to messaging clouded in too much compassion, empathy, and half-truths.

Too many agency leaders have taken the soft option on cuts, delaying ‘sharing the pain’ while they ‘wait and see’, or cutting the least they can. I hear “We don’t want to demotivate the team” a lot. Costs have been taken out of future planned new spend budgets and forecasts, but those on the team have felt little impact.

Being more direct is a path to consider. Tell them what the reality is. Be completely frank. Tell them what you think is likely to happen to revenues next. Explain why and how you’re bunkering down. Be clear about how the government subsidies and support can help.

Commit, if you can, to trying to save jobs, yes. But be clear you can’t do this alone. It needs sacrifice from, and for, all.

Communications with clients

There’s lots of communication happening between our teams and day-to-day contacts. Problem is, we’re spending most of our time talking to operatives client-side who just do not know what their company response will be to COVID-19.

There are some early instructions, yes, but few corporates have got their full response strategies nailed. This will happen in the next two weeks or so. Easter provides bandwidth to get forward plans locked in and board-approved.

Are you talking to senior enough clients to get a real feel of the impacts on their business, and likely go-forward strategy? Many agencies are not. Get ‘senior’, and often.


In almost every agency I look under the hood of, or discuss this with, it’s clear that their energy is just not where it needs to be on key clients. There are bursts of energy, yes. But it has to be consistent, every day, every week, for the duration of this crisis.

We have to crank up the nimbleness, communication, ideation, and problem-solving. Yes, many clients are distracted and confused, and approvals, in many cases, have slowed.

Nevertheless, we need to be the most energising people in their lives. We need to come with stories, ideas, options that give them hope, and something to talk about with their colleagues. Keep thinking ahead. Four weeks. Four months. Give them great thinking about their ‘fight back’ options and strategies.


Most agencies think they’ve gotten off to a great start on WFH. It’s been kind of exciting, and different. Here’s the reality: staff morale and productivity is about to fall off a cliff. It’s going to be our biggest challenge.

Our teams are already deep in ‘online fatigue’. It’s exhausting. Chief executive officers need to become what Dominic Monkhouse calls ‘chief energy officers’. Get your leadership team together now and decide how you’ll be ‘dealers in hope and energy’, every day.


This is simple, but very painful. If you have not gone far enough already (and that’s most agencies), then take action, today. Do not delay.

It’s the first principle of crisis management. Across our industry, I see an average of 20% revenue decline already for the April-June period. This is what agency leaders have told me, on average. Prepare for your revenues to slide another 15%-20% in a week’s time, and for the next six months.

What is your plan to reduce costs, dramatically? How will you manage cash? Resist cutting costs in dribs and drabs. Take decisive action, within the law and leveraging all government support possible to preserve jobs for the long haul.

What is your plan to cut costs?

Protect jobs as passionately as possible. Share the impacts.


It’s not helpful for the leader of a global agency to come out with: “There will be no job losses at our agency due to COVID-19”. Often, it’s weasel-words. There may not be job losses short-term, but massive pay cuts, jobs ‘furloughed’ or ‘hibernated’, and forcing leave is all happening.

Plus, it puts many other agency leaders who have no option but to cut jobs in an even more horribly awkward position.

Rather, say: “We’ll do all we can to minimise impacts on jobs”. Don’t create issues for others to navigate. Be collaborative.

Same for the CMO who basically said last week: “We won’t be cutting our agency retainers.” Good for you. Maybe your retainer arrangements are at a level and stage that you can say that. Perhaps you’re in a business that’s busier than ever. And maybe you haven’t checked this claim with your boss yet.

Saying that through media is inadvertently unhelpful to many other CMOs, just as keen not to see their agency partners hurt, but with no option but to cut spend.

And then there’s the PR agency owner (who has achieved a lot, to be fair) who loves her media profile so much than when she opens the fridge at night and the light comes on, she gives an interview. “75% of my clients have stopped spending,” she moaned. “But 25% have stayed loyal.”

Loyal? Why shame your clients? This is not about loyalty. It’s about commercial realities our clients are facing. We need to respect it’s frickin’ tough for them too.

Configure for the future

Now is the time to start nailing our strategy for how we will outperform our competitors and take share through and beyond this crisis. Martin Sorrell says it will be a V-shape recovery. Six months of pain, followed by a fast return to big spending and growth. Others feel the recovery pace will be mixed, depending on the industry.

Here’s the given: We need to plan for and leverage a ‘leapfrog’ of change in consumer behaviour, mainly through digital channels. That massive change will also occur in how our clients engage and use agencies. For years, we’ve spent a lot of time talking about what ‘the agency of the future’ looks like. That day has arrived.

So get big brains thinking about how our clients’ business model, channels, and customer engagement is going to change with this massive long-term change in consumer behaviour.

What does that mean for the services they will need from us? And do we have enough grunt and capability in those service offerings? If not, can we retrain? Or do we need to recalibrate capability?

I know we’ve all been busy. But when I ask agency leaders about how we need to configure for this massive change, and quickly, most have little to say.

Sorrell: We’re in for six months of pain


Agency leaders must get some ‘good chat’ nailed, and shared with your leadership and client-facing team.

There needs to be a powerful narrative about how clients can respond to short-term challenges. And a clear, persuasive point-of-view about this ‘future that’s happening much faster’.

We need clear, smart ideas about what our clients are facing, and what they need to do. Remember – done is better than perfect. If we do this, the work will flow.

No-one has the answers to a crisis on business and people like this one. I don’t. I’m just sharing ideas from 37 years of trench warfare, and survival through several ‘what we thought were crises but now just look like blips’. At the very least, I hope these spark some thinking and ideas for you.

It’s up to us, the leadership of this industry, to be brave, bold, consider all ideas, be collaborative, and most of all, take action, now. We can do this.

No complacency. No regrets.

Chris Savage is the former chief operating officer of STW Group (now WPP) and was the founding staff member of Ogilvy PR Australia


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