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Six experts reveal the post-COVID-19 truth about the advertising business

Is advertising really dead? Reports may be greatly exaggerated. Here’s how the leaders of Droga5, TBWA, Wieden+Kennedy, and more are inching forward.

Six experts reveal the post-COVID-19 truth about the advertising business
[Photo: AlexSecret/iStock]

For Fast Company’s Shape of Tomorrow series, we’re asking business leaders to share their inside perspective on how the COVID-19 era is transforming their industries. Here’s what’s been lost—and what could be gained—in the new world order.

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Colleen DeCourcy, copresident and chief creative officer at Wieden+Kennedy, leads creative for the world’s largest remaining independent ad agency, which does work for major clients such as Nike, Ford, McDonald’s, KFC, Uber, and more.

We’ve talked about the death of irony before, but I think this could be the death of bullshit. What did [a campaign or ad] do? What did it do for the brand? What did it do for people?

We’ve talked about the death of irony before, but I think this could be the death of bullshit. What did [a campaign or ad] do? What did it do for the brand? What did it do for people?”

Weiden+Kennedy's Colleen DeCourcy

Entire companies are just getting wiped, people hitting roadblocks they just couldn’t have seen coming. It leaves [agencies] vulnerable to their business problems.

Clients’ business problems are often bigger than what advertising can fix. What I think the optimistic part of this is, the longer it goes on, the more people’s minds are going to be wiped of brand preference in many instances. That specific brand of toothpaste is going to matter to me less than just toothpaste. I think when people start to step outside again, brands will be re-proving themselves, re-introducing themselves, restating why they should be a preference. So I’m hoping, but I do think, that our clients will need us more than ever . . .

[Wieden+Kennedy cofounder Dan] Wieden had a lot of famous sayings. One that I learned when I came to the company, that I think I’ve just now begun to understand, is that chaos is the only thing that honestly wants you to grow. I’m hanging onto that right now.


Steve Stoute, founder and CEO of Translation, has worked with major brands and sports leagues such the NFL, Brooklyn Nets, Anheuser-Busch, and State Farm. Translation was tapped in January to lead a rebrand of the New York Knicks. Stoute and Translation were part of the team behind State Farm’s clever ESPN ad during the Last Dance doc in April.

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Brands have tried to use the humble hype, where they basically say, ‘We feel sorry for you and therefore buy this product.’ There’s been a disconnect between a need for whatever that product is and the actual consumer sentiment. So there are a lot of brands that’ve gotten slapped on the hand for that. Then there are brands that’ve done a good job of sticking up their hand to say, ‘We understand you, we’re with you, and we’re not trying to sell you anything right now, we just want to engage.’ I think that’s the work that’s resonated the most for me. Brands with good intentions. They’re selling something at a discount that you need. They’re speaking to you in a way that seems empathetic to what you’re going through.

Let’s just deal with brass tacks. We have no idea when the [NBA] season’s going to start. We have no idea when the work [we’re doing for them] needs to launch. It’s tough to put together a cadence [for our work] without a calendar. As a marketer, these things are critical for a go-to-market strategy. It’s completely unknown.

Let’s just deal with brass tacks. We have no idea when the [NBA] season’s going to start.”

Steve Stoute, founder and CEO of Translation
But when sports return, the appreciation of your hometown team, of your hometown hero, of the game itself, is going to be huge. And I’m going to lean into that. I guarantee you, no matter what the Knicks’ record was before the pandemic, or how you felt about the team before the pandemic, you’re going to be as excited as ever when they hit that court again. The momentum and engagement of that excitement is an opportunity for marketers like myself.


Margaret Johnson, partner and chief creative officer at Goodby Silverstein + Partners, leads creative at the award-winning San Francisco-based agency that does work for major brands such as Doritos, Pepsi, BMW, Golden State Warriors, HP, Panera Bread, and more.

We’d just shot a commercial for Panera’s coffee subscription before the whole COVID thing hit. It was a big L.A. production, with lots of people. Now our approach couldn’t be at a more opposite end of the spectrum. We’re getting drivers to shoot themselves with their phones on their delivery routes [for upcoming Panera spots], texting us the takes, then we’re texting back notes and direction on how to do it again differently. It all seems so foreign at first, but you quickly adapt. I believe the people who haven’t really embraced this new world will be in big trouble.

I can’t even imagine a situation now where you’d spend the amount of money it takes to send eight people to a shoot out of the country. You can just as easily see takes online. I think it’s going to have a big effect not just on production, on business in general, to be honest. Are you going to send five people to fly business class to New York for a one-hour meeting? That doesn’t seem like a good use of money.

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Jaime Robinson, cofounder and chief creative officer at JOAN Creative, has created work for clients that include Google, Netflix, Pillsbury, Youtube, Fiber One, and SafeAuto.

We all had the wind knocked out of us collectively. We’ve all seen the compilation of all [those] ads that look the same, and I gotta say, we did one too. We did one that was more on the nose, with, ‘In these difficult times . . .’ We’d wanted to make it a bit funnier and cheeky, but the first couple of weeks was about reaction and despair.

I think now we’ve turned a corner, and there’s a general feeling of creative optimism. Obviously this is an awful time for a lot of people, but in the context of this industry, I think this could be a moment of unprecedented creativity. The ideas our creatives and strategists are bringing in have been great.

It’s also kind of the Wild West. All the channels, the gatekeepers, have been knocked aside, and you’re seeing things in entertainment like John Krasinski basically replacing Ellen as America’s sweetheart show host. Could he have done that six months ago? Probably not. He’s used his creativity to write a good show that’s charming and of the moment . . .

What we’re trying to ask ourselves is, what are some things we can do now that we couldn’t before? Depending on how long this goes on, Hollywood’s pipeline is going to be pretty empty. This could be an opportunity for brands to consider how they can create entertainment. We’re sharing ideas for that with our clients, and they’ve been incredibly receptive to it.

You always want a brand to be in service to its audience. Sometimes that’s utility, sometimes it’s a business innovation that provides relief, and sometimes it’s about entertaining people. We’re finding with the brands we work with that everyone’s taken that initial hit, now they’re getting back up.

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Troy Ruhanen, CEO, TBWA Worldwide (which has 11,300 employees across 275 offices in 95 countries), has a client roster that includes Apple, Adidas, Gatorade, Nissan, Mountain Dew, and more.

We have this platform called Next, where we take a three-year view of what’s coming over the horizon, and I think some of those things have really accelerated. Before it was, like, an additional thing [clients] could add. Now it’s more of a necessity. Take something like conversational marketing—anything to do with voice or AI chatbots. That’s really started to ramp up over this time, because businesses have had to rely on their virtual services more than they were previously. Now the customer is quite comfortable having this exchange with a chatbot to get levels of services they previously had at a store.

There has been a lot of conversation around purpose-built brands over the last few years, but I think values and behavior are much more important right now. They’re connected, but a lot of people were putting out pithy words and manifestos, and right now that matters a lot less than how you behave. We’re going to see some trends come out of this, whether around cleanliness or something else, but there will be actions you take that will actually demonstrate you give a hoot about the consumer, and it’s going to be shared and acknowledged that you’re behaving in a way that is in the interest of the consumer.


David Droga, founder and chairman at Droga5 (part of Accenture Interactive), established the agency as a leading creative shop with innovative work for brands such as Under Armour, Android, HBO, The New York Times, and more. In April, the agency created the Facebook ad “Never Lost” under lockdown in just six days.

We’re lucky that we’re in an industry that’s mobile, in the sense that the majority of what we create and produce is thinking, and that you can do from quarantine. We don’t have a factory floor with presses, robots, laboratories.

Our job is to help our clients figure out where they fit in all this.”

Droga5's David Droga

Every week has felt like a month, in terms of our reactions, clients’ reactions, consumer reactions. Our job is to help our clients figure out where they fit in all this. You’ve seen every brand come out with something about how they understand it’s difficult times, which is fine and appropriate, but eventually that runs out. What are you doing now?

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Our industry is always one of the first to be hit in a downturn because people don’t want to spend on marketing and communications. Almost every agency has had layoffs—10%, 15% of their employees—and it’s heartbreaking. So everyone’s slightly nervous. I’m optimistic. Our job is to add value, rigor, creative thinking, and problem-solving to our clients and not lose our nerve in the process. Just because some people are now doing it in their pajama bottoms, with a six-year-old running in the background, it doesn’t change their capacity for great thinking and quality output.


More from Fast Company’s Shape of Tomorrow series:

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About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.

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