The crisis will quickly breathe new life into our industry.

Choose your character: Old world traditionalism or uncharted bravery.

Read this with empathy sidelined. Because, obviously, the shocking impact COVID-19 is having on the health and mental well-being of so many is first and foremost — not advertising’s ecosystem. That goes without saying. But I said it anyway.

With that disclaimer, let’s get into it: This global pandemic is exactly what our industry needed.

It’s drawn a line in the sand between those who are truly real (authentic, as the industry prefers) and built for positive transformation, and those who are not. There is no halfway house. Not any more. And that’s a good thing.

Nancy Hill, founder and CEO of consultancy Media Sherpas, told Campaign US this week that those who came out the other side of the crash and 9/11 relatively unscathed had two major qualities: “The agencies that survived, notably Goodby, BSSP, Grey, BBDO and Duncan/Channon, to name a few, survived because the leaders were transparent and decisive about what needed to be done and what everyone’s role was in making it happen.”

Those commanding with transparency and decisiveness are winning. It’s a hard thing to do when you’re a WPP responsible for more than 100,000 people globally. Some are crazy good at it. Most are not. 

The antiquated ad agencies/holding companies which are not (where rigid hierarchies and stifled thinking run amok) have proven to be slow in every sense since this whole thing kicked off. 

They are slow to communicate because leaders do not have answers. 
Guess what — no one has answers. Own that. On a daily basis. Be human about it. Most companies unburdened by the shackles of bureaucracy have been honest and open from day one: There will be lay-offs; executives will take voluntary salary cuts; hiring freezes are a must; but all of this is short-term loss for long-term gain. The narrative has been opposite and opaque from the other side. This is wreaking havoc on the minds of their employees. 

They are slow to innovate because of legacy red tape. 
Innovation needs investment. Investment needs sign-off from the agency CFO. Sign-off from the agency CFO needs sign-off from the holding company CFO and CEO. Meanwhile, you’ve got scrappy shops born of constant innovation, and older companies with a business model transformative enough to embrace the required change quickly. These are the firms pushing ahead successfully — and with purpose — right now. 

Look at We Are Social for example. It’s part of a holding company (Blue Focus) serving global, big-named clients. But We Are Social’s U.S. office was quick to offer small businesses a lifeline with free tutorials and marketing services at reduced rates to aid the effects COVID-19 is having on high street footfall. Meanwhile, staff at IPG’s Huge have been given the space and tools to breed an innovative mentaly that can spawn answers to new business problems emerging every day in this new world, like Dining at a Distance, which is helping eateries and their suppliers. 

They are slow to embrace virtual creativity because there’s no physical room for ego to live in.
Remote creative sessions were a first for many agencies last week. Those already living in a world of continual change know that you can get on a video call with any number of creatives around the world (even ones you’ve never met before) and collaborate as well as being in a room full of people. There’s something about sharing ideas virtually that encourages more of us to speak up, when we might stay quiet in a physical space commanded by ego. Word on the street is that virtual creativity is actually very democratizing. 

They are slow to make decisions because they’re playing a game of Tom and Jerry with the clients. 
An agency’s number one priority at this time is its staff. Not its clients. That is not open for debate. I’ve been genuinely alarmed by internal memos slipped my way which underscore (in bold) that the client comes first. These are the agencies making decisions based on what the client wants, not the need of its workforce. My friends, if you’ve received one of those memos, brush up that resume immediately and start searching for a new job when this whole thing blows over — they don’t care about you as much as they should.

There is a sad truth to the fact these stuttering companies are also the ones which have the financials to keep breathing throughout this turmoil, while many smaller agencies are laid to rest after suffocating from poor cash flow. 

As Greg Paull, founder and principal at R3 Worldwide consultancy, recently said: “In this case, the meek shall not inherit the earth. Strong networks will become stronger, they have more means to leverage their capital to ride the next one year. The crisis will accelerate the cut on fat layers and dead wood, and there will have to be new ideas for becoming nimbler in ways of working.

“Independents, especially media-based or small, with clients mostly on project basis will struggle because they will run out of cash.”

These times are unprecedented, but the truly transformative and authentic will prevail, and the best will capitalize.

Not every company in our sector is slowing down and making lay-offs. Some are speeding up. We Are Rosie, a network of 4,000 marketing experts who parachute into agencies and brands and install greater internal flexibility to fuel growth, have just hired three more people this week alone. There is no official HQ office. It was founded on remote working. Once a fantastical idea scoffed at by industry traditionalists, now the envy of adland.

It’s a very black and white, money-where-your-mouth-is stretch we’re in. I like that. For years, we’ve sat back and watched every agency leader with a spotlight gas about how metamorphic they are. Well, thanks to COVID-19, we’ll soon know how much of the industry is built on hot air. 

My guess is quite a lot.