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4 experts reveal how COVID-19 has changed the advertising business

Client relationships, production, and hiring may never be the same, according to top executives at McCann Worldgroup, BBDO New York, the Martin Agency, and Johannes Leonardo.

4 experts reveal how COVID-19 has changed the advertising business
[Photo: AlexandrBognat/iStock; rawpixel (bulb) (person 1) (person 2) (person 3)]
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For Fast Company’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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Kirsten Flanik, president and CEO of BBDO New York, leads the New York office for the global agency network and creates work for clients such as Foot Locker, Pedigree, M&Ms, and AT&T. The firm also develops award-winning cyberbullying campaigns with Monica Lewinsky.

[The pandemic] has probably been one of the biggest tests that I’ve ever faced. We’ve had to adapt our production methods entirely, but we’ve been able to take a lot of that in-house. And as a result, we’ve launched what we’re calling the Creative Development Studios. It’s a new arm of our in-house production studio that is direct-to-studio. So we have makers embedded in the studio who can produce rapid-fire content on a budget from ideation through editorial, no matter how big or small. This new capability is also allowing us to capture revenue that existing clients might have otherwise been spending elsewhere.

We’ve had to adapt our production methods entirely.”

Kirsten Flanik, president and CEO of BBDO New York
From a client standpoint, I recognized early on [that] there was a reinvigorated appreciation for the agency of record, because our clients saw that we are there for them in ways that maybe a project agency, or somebody working on a consultancy basis, can’t be. We are their real, true partners. We will stay up all night for them to solve their business problems. We are communicating with them on a daily basis, from a thought leadership standpoint, so that they understand what’s going on in the world, how to get through it, and how to get everything on their plate done when they’re also working from home. We’re closer to our clients than we have ever been before.


Jan Jacobs is CEO and cofounder of Johannes Leonardo, an award-winning independent agency that works with brands including Adidas, Volkswagen, Kraft Heinz, Mass Mutual, and The Gap.

In the past, we would fly six people [somewhere] for a meeting or new business pitch and then fly right back the same day, sometimes. Four or five agencies [might] be doing the same thing, and you do it once or twice throughout the pitch process. I think of the carbon footprint, the hours of time involved in those things, and that’s all gone now. I hope it stays that way. Because you can do those same gut-check meetings remotely.

I think of the carbon footprint.”

Jan Jacobs, CEO and cofounder of Johannes Leonardo
I do believe that being together, certainly in the creative industry, is more productive and leads to better outcomes. Having said that, I think flexibility is going to be more important in the future. Maybe the model changes to certain days you’re in the office and certain days you’re not, or flex time.

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The entire working world has suddenly had physical, practical training in how to use technology. Before the pandemic, you’d walk into a boardroom and no one knows how to get the thing going, how to dial anybody. Now, suddenly, we, clients, suppliers, you name it—everyone has been trained. That’s a wonderful thing. In the future, [if] 10% or 20% of the company is on a flex day that day, then you just quickly dial them in because everybody knows how to do it.


Danny Robinson is the chief creative officer at the Martin Agency, the Richmond, Virginia-based firm with a client roster that includes Geico, Old Navy, DoorDash, and Buffalo Wild Wings.

As you might guess by looking at me, the need for change isn’t lost on me. For those reading this, I’m a Black man. For us, progress is working primarily because we started building it a long time ago. It’s proof that change doesn’t require a dramatic event, if you’re committed at the top to change and know that change is work and isn’t just a moment in time.

You have to know inside the building that you aren’t invisible, that people see you.”

Danny Robinson, chief creative officer at the Martin Agency
It absolutely makes zero sense that every agency isn’t considering the importance of diverse talent. When I started, there were 2% people of color in my department of more than 40. Now there’s 27% people of color in a department of 87; 50% of our hires have been people of color in the past two and a half years, and 62% of those hires are Black. That was a decision we made that the composition of the agency needed to change, and the only way to change is to start inside, with a foundation that allows that to happen and for us to retain them.

You have to know inside the building that you aren’t invisible, that people see you, that you have a voice, and you can speak that voice. You have stories you want to tell. We will listen to those stories. Everyone has to be able to contribute, and we have to allow space for everyone to contribute.

There’s a quote—it’s not mine—that says, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I’ll spend the first four sharpening the ax.” We’ve been sharpening the ax, and in March a tree sprouted, then a lot of trees. We have been as successful as we have been at this point because we’ve been ready and we’re going to keep sharpening. Because if something else is going to happen—I don’t know what it is, and it doesn’t have to be a pandemic—but something else is going to happen and we have to continue to be ready for that thing.

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Rob Reilly is the global creative chairman of McCann Worldgroup, which has 17,000 employees and develops campaigns for Microsoft, MasterCard, General Motors, and L’Oreal. The company was behind State Street’s famous Fearless Girl sculpture on Wall Street.

A lot of [the early pandemic-related ads] unfairly got ridiculed. There was someone who made a video of all the work sounding the same. [But] I think consumers at that time desperately needed to feel that brands were there and were empathetic and understood what they were going through. That work was really important, and I’m proud that we did [some of] that work. If someone wants to make fun of it, go for it, but at the time, I think it was very important for consumers who don’t have a lot of confidence in governments, whether it’s in this country or other countries, to see that brands were there and healthy, and were going to try to help.

All the concepting, all the work internally, all the presenting to clients, it’s all done on Microsoft Teams. We’re so used to it now. We’ve gotten the rhythm of it. You’d be surprised how we’ve done some pitches, where the clients literally have their cameras off and you’re presenting to a blank screen. It’s really hard.

Our brand partners are so great and giving us a lot of their time and energy, and you need that back and forth. We need this—I need to see you and you need to see me. In some ways, it’s become better where we’ve been able to have that interaction. Where I don’t think it’s better is in the agency concepting work. As our CEO, Harris Diamond, says, we are an apprenticeship business, and people and work and ideas flourish when you’re just sitting there listening sometimes.

You’d be surprised how we’ve done some pitches.”

Rob Reilly, global creative chairman of McCann Worldgroup
One of the benefits of open-floor planning is you can listen to meetings that are not even your meetings, and you can learn from them. None of that’s happening now. So the concepting part, I think, and the ideas blossoming, has changed. We’ve figured out ways to do it online and make that work, but that’s been a challenge.

The other place where we’ve been highly challenged is in production. We’ve pulled off some amazing pieces of work and continue to, but not being there with the director and being able to discuss the nuances of a performance is a challenge. You’ve got a team that’s sometimes waking up at 2 a.m. for a production that might be happening in Europe or Australia.

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We just shot a piece of work for Verizon, where we shot all around the country. We got great performances, but when you’re actually getting into the details of directing (“We’ll play that a little smaller,” or “Can you have them play that a little bit bigger?”), those conversations you have with the director, they just are not happening as much when the director is in one room and you’re not there.

More from Fast Company’Shape of Tomorrow series:

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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