Picture: THE TIMES
Picture: THE TIMES

These are spicy economic times. International newswires are furiously waving flags, warning us of another recession, and locally both agencies and clients are experiencing rapidly shrinking profits. There’s no avoiding it – what started out as a rough patch is proving to be storm like no others.

So what do we, as agencies, do to support our clients through these turbulent times? Quite surprisingly, evidence from past economic downturns shows that companies that maintain their marketing and advertising during the downturn experience greater growth than those that reduce budgets and go quiet.

The take of McGraw-Hill’s research on the 1985 recession is that companies that either maintained or increased their ad budgets during that time experienced a 256% increase in sales versus companies that cut their ad budgets. 

In essence, this means we need try to formulate some sense of business as usual, but perhaps more in the way of “business unusual”.

 First and foremost, you need a plan. What has worked till now is not likely to work in the current climate. It’s time to put together a concrete plan of how you intend to do things during the downturn and how you aim to ramp things up when the market eventually starts to recover again. And once you have that plan you need to make sure your client sees it as the holy grail.

And that brings me to my next point: your client needs to be completely and 100% on board. Now more than ever relationships are vital to the success of your business. The client/agency crew needs to be a single team with one vision – not even a partnership but the same team.

Consolidate your relationship and ensure that you are honest and ethical in each and every interaction so you can weather the storm together, and hopefully, when you emerge on the other side, you’ll find a super-committed, grateful client that has a whole lot of trust and respect for its agency.

Maintaining a presence in the marketplace during a recession needs not to equate to huge budgets and giant campaigns. It takes courage to keep spending but the goal is to keep the momentum going and your audience engaged by ensuring that you have something happening every month. You don’t have to break the bank – think e-mails, PR, newsletters and social media advertising. PR provides a huge amount of bang for buck and can take a brand to places that traditional advertising can’t. In addition, as many companies invariably cut their ad budgets during a recession, there’s not as much marketing noise, so you don’t need to shout as loudly for your message to be heard. Be smart with different channels and get super-clever with messaging.

In difficult financial times, it’s important for brands to reinforce the attributes that make them unique and appealing in the eyes of existing customers. It’s a good time to focus on the core brand offering, and this is when great, inclusive content is more important than ever. Forget about all the ad-ons and nice-to-haves, get straight to the nitty-gritty of what the brand stands for and send that message home in the most powerful and effective way you can.

Companies that maintain their marketing and advertising during an economic downturn experience greater growth than those that reduce budgets and go quiet.

Take a look at the values your brand promotes. If you’re all about the good times, status and aspiration, that message could be hard for most consumers to swallow in the current climate. You might want to move your messaging towards a focus on value for money or a “We’re in this together” type of approach that conveys a sense of community and a real understanding of what your consumers might be experiencing.

Sustaining a positive profile in the marketplace during a recession also gives the perception of strength. A continued presence during tough economic times will be viewed as a sign of stability, showing you are strong enough to survive the recession and have the leadership to continue to thrive. 

Staying committed to marketing during challenging times will not only prevent you from falling behind your competitors but will also allow you to be better positioned for the rise in business when conditions improve. So, fear not. Hold that ship steady through the storm and keep on spending. You’ll sweat now, but all recessions end. And when they do, you’ll be the one basking on the sweet, green shores of improved customer confidence, dominant share of voice and a world of positive memory structures.


  • Mike Beukes is the executive creative director of Duke.