How can you guys live like this?

It’s the splenetic final sentence of ‘Inventing Desire’: the decades-old biog of LA adman Jay Chiat and his agency, Chiat Day, whose ‘1984’ spot for Apple alone warrants its legendary status in advertising circles; the despairing cry of the agency’s banker, for whom the discontinuity of the agency model holds only spills rather than thrills.

I’ve been rehashing that phrase a lot recently.  The apparently unstoppable drift towards project-based rather than retained relationships has nudged the agency business closer than ever towards a ‘pay as you go’ rather than ‘pay monthly model’, swapping visibility and certainty for the nebulous concept of agility.  

Many agencies live on the edge, their success more contingent than ever on campaign success and new business virility. Turbulence is steady state: a procurement-led predicament (and frankly, problem) for both agencies and clients, even in good times.   

That’s the backdrop for the sudden arrival of COVID-19 and its inevitable impact on the super-cyclical world of the agency.

But here’s the thing. Agencies are naturally optimistic. That’s a precious business commodity right now, acknowledged even by McKinsey, with the caveat that it is ‘bounded’ by the very real world context swirling around us.

At our best, we are also practitioners of the ‘deliberate calm’ that the venerable management consultancy also prescribes. When our clients ask for urgent advice, we are appropriately objective, disinclined to do anything other than help. As Creative Director Anselmo Ramos tweeted last week: “COVID-10 is a pandemic, not a brief”.

The organising ideas that we write for our clients help them to direct their efforts accordingly: preserving brand discipline and avoiding accusations of opportunism. And by dint of being convenors and aggregators of a client community we can share best practice, fast.

In short, the work that agencies are now undertaking as client partners is as valuable as ever, if not more so: guiding their immediate response to unprecedented trading times and contemplating how they might - sooner or later - power out of the dip.

Week 1 of remote working bore witness to all of the above, and two fundamental changes to BAU above and beyond the rupture to our daily routines.

Firstly, there’s been a palpable shift from ‘making’ to ‘thinking’ as shoots become instantly problematic and the client agenda shifts from assets to advice. Some production continues (there’s no shortage of remote recording studios and edit suites; animation and animatics continue apace), not least for MullenLowe Group in our role as the government’s coronavirus campaign lead. But agency resource more broadly is occupied with strategy (and the odd tactic).

Secondly, our clients’ lens has broadly swivelled from ‘prospecting’ to doing the right thing by their existing customer base. We’ve seen marketing resource migrate instantly from ‘campaigns’ towards immediate customer communication and ongoing digital transformation efforts.  (The defensive benefits of running a broad-based Group suddenly apparent to us as leaders.)

For some clients, of course, the shifts are even more dramatic: some are having to re-define the market they are in and their customer proposition at lightning speed: once-a-decade marketing tasks are being completed in ten days. Optimism and deliberate calm remain the watchwords even here; agencies can help.