Warren Upton. Picture: Supplied
Warren Upton. Picture: Supplied

If big metropolitan ad agencies are having a tough time right now, spare a thought for those operating in smaller markets where client budgets are often tighter and output demands have become more onerous. These agencies have had to pivot more quickly to changing demands and rewrite the book on agility.

Boomtown is a midsize agency in Gqeberha (formerly Port Elizabeth) and works on brands such as Ricoffy and Sovereign Foods. CEO Glen Meier tells the FM that a greater focus on its digital offering and the changing business objectives of clients have been key to the agency’s survival.

"Confidence in the relationship allows for solution-driven strategies. As budgets have tightened, we have needed to ensure measured return on investment — with a heavier priority on digital investment — as well as brand equity through more purposeful communication."

Warren Upton runs Strategy Advertising in the city and works on small boutique clients, including a coffee roastery and a craft brewery. He also had to change his business approach when SA went into lockdown last year.

"The immediate sentiment shared by our clients was rapid delivery of return on investment," says Upton. "Overnight, clients’ brand-building strategies needed to be placed on hold to focus on critical business preservation tactics. The past 12 months provided our agency with the impetus to refocus on our clients’ needs, and uncovered new opportunities to reinvest in skills development and training of our team. This, in turn, has seen good organic growth through our clients."

Both agencies have had to rethink staffing and capacity.

Says Meier: "Every brand needs to be culturally relevant and we achieve this through being on the ground … In the Eastern Cape we have a diverse and transformed talent pool of young people to whom we are providing opportunities to enter the creative industry through our Bayeza graduate internship programme. We see this as the future of developing the region as a creative hub."

Upton says the lockdown forced many young people to return to the Eastern Cape from larger centres. "This has resulted in a number of talented young marketers, designers, copywriters and strategists reaching out to agencies … However, as the economy grinds back into motion and clients’ budgets increase, the trick will be for the local industry to retain the talent we have in the province."

Meier and Upton believe that while a survival strategy has been central, the tough times are not over. "The best and most relevant will survive and flourish," says Meier. "Budgets are going to remain tight in many sectors. We have to pursue reinvention, remain agile and focus on digital growth with personalised messaging and culturally relevant, tailored, engaging content on all platforms."

Upton says the next challenge will be to plan for different scenarios this year and next. For consumers and brands alike, the overwhelming desire is probably to go back to the way things were, even if initiatives to make life better than before the pandemic still continue. Clients wish to align their brands with sustainable business practices that focus on preserving the planet and consumers’ overall health. "Now, more than ever, good business also means showing good values."

New technologies, he adds, should lead to more "targeted communications and improved accuracy when reporting on campaign performance … [and allow] agencies to transform analytics into meaningful action".

In short, brands that are digitally savvy, have a holistic outlook and act as beacons of hope will be ahead of their rivals.

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