Spooner on…why it’s good to talk during troubled times

spooner newWell, well, well. As I write this, my 39th column for Lord McKelvey’s proud and prestigious organ, we find that Sleepy Joe is now President-elect of the United States and that some monstrous pharmaceutical manufacturing conglomerate (a pharmaglom?) has developed an effective vaccine for Covid-19. These bits of news have caused global stock-markets to SURGE by billions of basis points.

So everything is going to be alright. Ha ha ha ha ha ha!

I hesitate to rain on the jolly parade, but elsewhere in this excellent publication Lord McKelvey notes that: “More than 132,000 marketing and media jobs are at risk from the effects of Covid-19 on the industry, with a total of 22,898 businesses in the sector in ‘significant financial distress’, up 6% since Q1.”

And that’s just our own tiny industry. Reputable statisticians estimate that unemployment in the general population will rise above 10% with more than 4.5 million people jobless – and this is without taking into account the myriad deceptions practised upon us by government statistics that subtract people on training schemes and in other mysterious circumstances from the total figure which, according to my sources, take the figure closer to 5 or even 5.5 million.

Oh dear.

So what can we in the marketing industry do to save ourselves?

Already, advertising and marketing agencies are coming to terms with the complexities of remote working. There is talk of much smaller “physical agencies” with a few desks and more presentation rooms. Branded backdrops for virtual meetings (I ask you) are being mooted. And, according to its developer, Atlassian, enquiries about the project management system Jira (other project management systems are available) are “at an all-time high”. So yes, we will be able to work,

But all this feels a little otiose unless there is work for us to do.

At the risk of sounding even more elderly than I actually am, may I remind you of the two previous recessions that have occurred during my illustrious career in advertising and marketing: The ‘Savings and Loans’ recession of the early Nineties and the ‘Great Recession’ of 2008, a.k.a the ‘Sub Prime Recession’.

During both of these, there was a centripetal movement in the agency world, agencies merged, merged and merged again forming ever bigger groups in the hope of being ‘too big to sink’, just like the Titanic.

But what was more interesting than that predictable convulsion of late capitalism in response to disaster (recession not the big boat) – was the emergence of specialism as an option to stay afloat (I’m running with this clichéd nautical analogy). And by specialism I don’t just mean specialism by industry sector, where agencies like Fin and AML (hello chaps!) specialise successfully in financial services and others thrive in the third sector, travel or retail. No, I mean specialism by channel.

There are innumerable successful agencies specialising in SEO and PPC, in social, in filmed content and in ‘influence’. Those smart people at WPNC (forgive me Bob and Maria, as I know you do a lot more than this) are even specialists in the ancient skills of DRTV and direct mail.

Is this the way forward or is it just fragmentation?

The danger with specialisation, of course, is that whatever challenge your client faces, the agency answer will always be whatever channel specialism that agency promotes.

So though I have made impassioned pleas here and elsewhere for clients to consider direct mail during lockdown (talk to people in their own homes in a tactile, impactful way that they will share and retain!), I don’t think mail is the answer to all of the questions being asked of us by the ‘Covid Recession’ we are enduring right now.


I firmly believe that the answer is an even older one than talking directly to the consumer.

Talking directly to the client.

Agency heads (CEOs, MDs, CSDs, ECDs) need to talk to their clients and persuade them that their worst conceivable response to the recession is to slash marketing budgets.

In both of the recessions that have occurred during my illustrious career, the winners were those who continued to advertise throughout the toughest times. Media space online, in the press, OOH, and on TV has never been cheaper. Impact therefore has never been greater. Make clients see that making contact in a purposeful way with customers is the best conceivable response to the recession.

You won’t be asking them to splurge against their instincts, you’ll be asking them (with the assistance of your brand, campaign and media planners) to set up meaningful, measured campaigns that combine tactical dexterity with strategic intent in order to seize more market share through media where a smaller spend will secure greater impact.

Now you may say, ‘that’s all well and good Spooner, you pretentious arse but my agency is tiny!’

My response to that would be to say that by using old-fashioned methods like ringing people up, writing to see how they are, and, of course, publishing trite and nonsensical posts on all available social media platforms (not to mention writing a regular column for the UK’s most prestigious magazine for through-the-line marketers – or whatever we’re called this week) Spoon Creative Limited has enjoyed a bumper year. Yes, a bumper year.

Talk to your clients, above all existing clients, but also clients who went away, clients who are in your ‘prospect pool’, clients you once met at an awards do, clients you can finagle a social media connection with, clients who are in your ‘target bullseye’, clients who are only vaguely connected with your current client list, clients senior and clients junior, that client who went off to work at that business you didn’t understand, the client with the mad hair, the one addicted to bow-ties, all of them, charming or horrid, generous or mean. Talk to them.

Because in these weird times, clients, like all of us, crave human connection. And isn’t this industry supposed to be packed with practitioners of the ‘art of persuasion’.

Explain it’s good for them and even if they see at once that means that it is also good for you, what matter?
And I don’t mean send out an email. I mean think about each one as an individual human being and arrange to have a telephone conversation with them. Trust me, a call is infinitely less obtrusive than a Zoom meeting and the results will speak for themselves.

After all, if it works for Spoon Creative Ltd, it might work for you too.

Jonathan Spooner is consulting creative director at Spoon Creative

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