Chief Strategy Officer Walt Barron: There is no playbook for this

Chief Strategy Officer Walt Barron: There is no playbook for this

April 8, 2020

Our industry prides itself on expertise. We look up to the experts in our collective fields, through our trades and blogs and awards shows and conferences and seminars. Our industry depends on it, as we are paid, in large part, based on what we already know — about culture, consumers, categories, and how to do the work agencies do. Like how to create a strategy, or a campaign, or a playbook. 

If you’re like me, you’ve felt the pressure to have all the right answers to tough questions at a time when we’re all stuck at home, learning how to work remotely, sharing our space with our families, while trying to help others. And stay sane. And alive. 

Where’s the playbook for this? 

There is none.

There are no hard and fast rules. No “best practices.” No luminaries. No panacea webinars. 

Not for this. 

We’ve never lived through a pandemic like this before. Not even the “old” agency folks (you know, we Gen Xers and boomers). Maybe you’ve heard some compare this to the Great Recession of 2008. Or 9/11, which some of us vividly remember. No matter the reference point, COVID-19 is coming at us and surrounding us, no matter where we work or live.

Like those events, this also feels scary, sad, restrictive, inconvenient, and exhausting. But this is different in one pervasive way: it’s also very, very strange. That’s the best word I can come up with. Strange. The word itself is even strange. Its origins mean “external” — outside, new, foreign (I had to look it up). We’re forced to stay in our homes, the places we spend the most time, and where we’re supposed to feel the most comfortable. And yet, trying to do our work from this place feels foreign. 

If all of us feel that way (we do), then we can take heart. We’re in good company. We don’t have all the right answers. We can’t. 

But we can (and must) try, and learn, and adapt as we go. It’s in our DNA. And we’re pretty good at it. 

Look at how we’ve all been forced to learn how to better conduct long-distance meetings. Whether it’s Zoom or another video conferencing platform, we’ve learned how to set them up, when to put ourselves on mute, how to make custom backgrounds, and when to even have a meeting in the first place.

We’re learning new etiquette in Slack (too many channels!), and email (a moderately full inbox is a happy inbox), and calendars (how to assert boundaries between work and home).

We’re learning how to manage the tidal wave of updates around COVID-19, both in how it’s affecting our clients and how it’s affecting us personally. While trying to read one article, or POV, or report, I see updates of four or five others that I’m never going to be able to read. And then the brand responses start coming in, never seeming to stop, and then the press conferences and new rules and regulations, and more updates, and it feels like I’m drowning in simply trying to know what is happening.

As an industry, I think we’re also learning to be more open, vulnerable and generous. This isn’t easy for agencies and companies used to looking for competitive advantages.  But we’re doing it. And it’s helping.

Here are a few examples beyond the more holistic overviews we would expect and rely upon from larger research companies…

I will always remember this honest thread from Farrah Bostic at The Difference Engine about what agencies and clients should expect from each other during this. It set me straight and put me in a realistic frame of mind heading into our current state of self-isolation.

In the early days (weeks ago, but seems like years), one of our strategists found a framework from Sinclair that provides perspective on marketers’ changing roles as the pandemic evolves. We have used it and adapted it to various categories to help our clients figure out what they can and should do over time. 

The ever-generous Julian Cole and his friends at Planning Dirty have amassed a list of some of the more prominent brand responses to COVID-19 for our collective convenience.  

Finally, I love this post from our friends at Baldwin&, just down the road from our offices here in North Carolina, that takes an honest look at some fundamental truths to remember during such a turbulent, uncertain time. 

It may seem odd sharing everything we’re learning with each other. But while we may compete in normal times, we’re going to need each other to emerge from this.

We don’t have the playbook for this, but we are all writing it, in real time, together. And because of it, we will be more ready the next time something like this happens.

This article was originally published on Walt’s LinkedIn page, go there to learn more about Walt and his thinking.