How are agencies preparing for a fourth wave?

Cautious optimism, with a healthy dose of lessons learned over the last 17 months, are shaping plans for the back half of 2021.

Just as it seemed we were heading for recovery, a Delta-driven fourth wave is on the horizon for Canada. While wide-spread lockdowns aren’t expected at this time, Delta has led to increasing COVID-19 cases around the world, as well as here at home: Quebec has recently extended its state of emergency indefinitely.

But we’ve been through this before, so what have agencies learned in the past year and half, and what are they and their clients thinking about a fourth wave?

Increased daily communication is an important aspect of how Horizon Media is dealing with the current situation and uncertainty of the future. Sheri Rogers, SVP of business solutions, says Horizon continues to plan for both best-case and worst-case scenarios with flexibility and fluidity.

“Much of the planning for the back half of the year takes into consideration changed media behaviours over the last 15 months, as well as anticipated level setting as we continue to emerge from our bubbles and engage socially and in work environments,” she says. “We have increased communication – daily – with client teams, creative partners, and media partners to ensure we can adapt our plans quickly as things evolve. While there’s no doubt the last 15 months have been rocky and hair raising at times, one silver lining is closer and more collaborative relationships with our clients and partners which continues to carry us forward.”

Media Experts is generally optimistic when it comes to the ongoing and evolving COVID-19 situation, but the agency is constantly balancing that with a degree of realism and pragmatism.

“To ensure our clients realize success, we structure campaigns to include tactical elements that can respond to quickly changing situations,” says¬†Kris Davis, SVP and client business partners. “We’re exploring the issues and solutions for various scenarios. For example, how do clients approach branding by targeting geographic differences in lockdown¬†situations. Or, how to adopt different channel strategies that offer flexibility, especially for certain categories that can scale up their ecommerce, should a fourth wave bring back brick-and-mortar restrictions.”

Davis says it’s important to plan for the potential expansion and contraction of the purchase cycle as restrictions tighten and ease, since the agency has seen some consumers spend more time in the consideration stage. Plans need to reflect that longer engagement period and means rethinking the path to purchase a bit and keeping consumers engaged at various stages.

The fourth wave threat has caused some brands to be hesitant about advertising. Fauve Doucet, VP of national media design at Cossette Media, says the agency has noticed a reluctance to use cinema, restaurant-bar and even OOH to a certain extent. But while the primary concern is another lockdown looming, it’s not the only reason for hesitancy.

“There is also the underlying issue of Canadians simply not being ready to frequent those common spaces,” Doucet says. “Additionally, as businesses, media consumption, and supply chain logistics have shifted, we’ve noted a move to focus on new messaging, and thus new media opportunities. Brands that have moved to an e-commerce first model have had to amend their general message and inject large investments in uncharted media buys to reflect this change.”

For example, Doucet says, many clients’ media mix has skewed more heavily to programmatic buying to react as quickly as possible to an ever-changing environment. This has opened the opportunity to test new channels as new consumer behaviours emerge, such as use of TikTok, audio and video streaming, and gaming.

Although contingency plans are not at the center of conversations like they have been for the past year and a half, Devyn Perry, SVP and managing director of Carat, says that given the recent new case numbers, it would be ill-advised to completely walk away from the idea that there could be barriers to living the way we did in a pre-COVID world.

“The unpredictability of the pandemic and the impact it has had on consumer behaviour has amplified the need to buy people instead of placements, and allow flexibility to pivot if necessary,” Perry says. “Most media channels have evolved to support the changing landscape, and this is where we need to focus including OOH, where we no longer need to buy a location, but instead can buy impressions.”

Scott Stewart, general manager of Glassroom, says the agency has developed a plan that is based on there not being a fourth wave, but with a pivot strategy to protect employees and address the effects of one, should it occur.

He says that in terms of budgets and channels, for the most part, Glassroom has seen a return to pre-COVID spending across most of the consumer categories it operates in as well as audiences returning to pre-COVID levels on most channels it operates across. Budgets have come back faster than normal and, as a result, business somewhat normalized quicker than initially anticipated.

“For now, we’re focused on what ‘business as usual’ will mean for the agency in the coming months, but if we’ve learned anything during this past year and a half, it’s that we’re still in recovery mode, and we need to be ready with contingency plans as we navigate through the second half of 2021,” Stewart says.