Marketing in the Time of Quarantine

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How marketing leaders can adapt and thrive.

Conventional wisdom holds that marketing is the business function that best understands the customer, but I’m not sure that’s true anymore, especially in today’s A/E/C firms. Most marketing groups I’ve encountered are geared toward getting proposals out the door—a reactive process that has become the engine of many large practices’ marketing departments. But marketing in the time of quarantine (with apologies to GGM) needs more than snappy proposals and screen shots of the gang’s last Zoom meeting posted to Instagram.

It’s self-evident that the business climate is somewhat frazzled right now, and the great bulwark of commerce and industry seems to have come to a screeching (or limping) halt. Companies are hunkering down; people are holed up in their homes; and the Zeitgeist peals a foreboding vibe.

To state the obvious: the customer journey has changed, and, as a marketing leader, you must not only acknowledge that but show empathy, concern and guidance. Oh, and bring home the bacon, too.

In no defined order, a few thoughts on how to do just that.

Hey, Jack, be Nimble

Go all-in on agile. Think about one- or two-week sprints as the standard speed of what you do, which may even be too slow (or too long) for the world as it is now. Successful marketers will be those who adjust their operations to deliver on-message and on-point campaigns and content in a matter of days, if not hours, and adjust based on freshly harvested data.

Don’t be afraid to try something new but be prepared to jettison it and move on at the first whiff of failure. Also, because so much of today’s situation is unprecedented, rapid testing needs to be the norm so that you and your team can quickly learn what works and adjust in as close to real time as possible. Maybe not fail fast, but definitely fail better. And with more gusto.

Time is a Flat Circle

The hipsta’ hat tip notwithstanding, time ain’t what it used to be. In the fog of today’s working-from-home Skype-a-thon, our weeks are no longer cut into digestible 24-hour nuggets. Semesters, weekends, holidays and the idea of 9-to-5 are quaint relics of a bygone era. Everything is now. So, buckle up.

Anyone who has worked globally (or across multiple time zones) has already tasted this, but “the flat circle” is now our new space/time continuum. I finished up a small piece for a regional practice last Thursday morning and my client suggested we get it out the door first thing Monday morning, when everyone is back to work. Oh how I laughed. Nope. Goes out now. Right now. We’ll monitor analytics over the weekend and do a follow-up on Monday. Everyone is on-line right now trying to do whatever they can remotely (including reading emails); and this is unlikely to change any time soon.

Successful marketers will be those who adjust their operations to deliver on-message and on-point campaigns and content in a matter of days, if not hours, and adjust based on freshly harvested data.

Embrace Plans B, C and D

Now more than ever, it’s important to know what your clients feel and do, and why they do what they do. Stop thinking of your company as a group of practitioners and shift to an adviser or navigator sensibility—someone who has a (probably out-of-date) trail map, a compass and a destination but knows how to go off-piste and calculate alternate routes.

While many marketers believe they have an enlightened understanding of their clients, circumstances are now so radically different that we should question everything we thought was fundamental and true. Based on your experience, calibrate and re-calibrate your message to address your clients’ new realities and engage with them more thoughtfully and authentically.

Because the drive for revenue will likely be all-consuming, set your priorities based on what will secure business without compromising your values or jeopardizing client trust. The tendency for some is to chase the ambulances and go where you think the action is. Maybe. But support your clients and protect those relationships while staying honest about what your firm can and cannot deliver.

If something seems hinky, it probably is hinky. Drop it. Move on.

Push timelines back on those initiatives that won’t bring near-term results…but don’t scrap anything. Just because a campaign has elements that aren’t appropriate right now doesn’t mean it needs to be permanently nuked. It’s highly likely that some things will re-awaken once the outbreak subsides, and I’m a big fan of re-purposing past ideas—but now may not be the time for unguarded perkiness, snark or edginess.

The tendency for some is to chase the ambulances and go where you think the action is. Maybe. But support your clients and protect those relationships while staying honest about what your firm can and cannot deliver.

Let No Part of the Buffalo Go Wasted

If it hasn’t happened yet, expect all organizational functions to be called on to prioritize (and likely justify) spending. Do what you need to do, but try to avoid across-the-board cuts. Look instead for ways to remove inefficiency from the system, drive economy and reduce or postpone obligations that won’t bring value—and may even come off as tone-deaf—in the current climate.

Instead, adopt McKinsey’s investor mindset: aggressively adjust your marketing spend and continuously track performance so you can reallocate quickly (and with minimal administrative brain damage) to those initiatives that bring more bang for your buck.

Be Relevant, Always

This is not about you, so please stop posting screen shots of your last Zoom meeting, as kooky as it was. Yes, it’s great that your employees are all working from home and your IT department has done a great job of making that happen, but tell me how you’re solving real-world problems, helping in these challenging times, or responding righteously to the crisis. Your clients will respect (and remember) that once the smoke clears. By the way, Claire wrote a great piece on the CEO emails that mean so well but do such damage.

Hire a good writer (call; I’ll hook you up) and, yes, push out as much content as you can, but make it useful and relevant to the current situation—the things that can make a difference with your client base and the world beyond.

There’s more, of course, but this covers the basics. We would love to hear what you’re doing to poke the bear. Share any and all ideas. Leave a comment or feel free to contact me directly.

Some companies and some marketers have been truly inspired over the last few weeks. No reason you can’t be, too.

Stay healthy. Be bold.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Mahmood Faruqi

    Good points Thom – and just as applicable for non-crisis times. I would add that crises are times for communication not (just) marketing – the message being, of course, that we are in this pandemic together and willing to help shoulder the burden. Crises are also times for leadership from the front – messaging and actions needs to come from the top, not delegated to subordinates or marketing teams. Clients want to see that management understands their predicaments, is stepping up and being responsible, and proactively taking actions to help them.

    1. Thom McKay

      Mahmood: Totally agree with you. My hope was to whack marketers out of their traditional paths, if only for a moment, and get them to think about what they do (and why they do it). Your point on leadership is of course spot on–we both know what it’s like to have a squishy captain at the helm. Hope you’re doing well and will continue to read and comment. Nice to know smart people are out there.

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