COVID-19 and a year of lessons learned: Perspectives from agency leaders

Apr 28, 2021
Brand Thought Leadership

For marketers, the pandemic brought forward a common experience of facing new scenarios that we had never seen before. Many questions raced through our minds: How long will this last? Do we turn off our media? Is our messaging even relevant? We had no case studies, no textbooks, no precedents to follow.

Six agency executives recently shared with me their own reflections and key learnings from this period. Below are the insights from of our conversations.

We need to look after each other

At the heart of any organization is its people. There has been a clear need to ensure the physical and mental well-being of employees, help consumers with their essential needs and ultimately keep the business running. Many exedowcutives I spoke with stressed the need for ongoing open and transparent communication about mental health, workload capacity and business health with their employees. Although there have been many ups and downs, overall agency leaders are optimistic that this experience has really enabled teams to connect on a more personal dimension.


During the initial months of the pandemic, consumer behaviour was changing at a rapid rate. “One day people were hoarding toilet paper and the next they were focused on donating to small businesses. Clients were starving for insights into what customers wanted and needed to help them make decisions,” says Mo Dezyanian, President at Empathy Inc.

Agency leaders believe timely and frequent data points and insights are key success factors in building strong client relationships and providing much-needed support, stability and comfort to their stakeholders.

Actions speak louder than words

Clarity often comes in times of crisis, and throughout COVID brands have been tested and challenged. COVID-19 highlighted a lot of inequity and while we’re all in the pandemic together, the journey is so different for everyone. This period has pulled back the curtain on brand purpose and values, as many consumers are closely evaluating and selecting brands based on alignment of actions and messages.

If your brand purpose and actions are not aligned, it’s an opportunity to reassess what you do want to stand for and define how you want to show up beyond a marketing campaign. The voice of a brand can be a very powerful thing – as long as you are clear on your purpose, values and why you exist. And more importantly, you need to showcase your action in your organizational policies, products, services and community support programs.

Rethinking diversity and inclusion

The murder of George Floyd sparked necessary discussions on diversity and inclusion. Brands of all kinds were challenged to assess themselves in these areas and rethink how they should reposition under evolving cultural movements.

Erin Manning, Managing Director at Ketchum, notes the need for organizations to have an authentic voice: “[It’s not] only in what you say and how you say it, but in the follow through. Avoiding a say-do gap is critical in managing reputational issues externally and internally.”

Ishma Alexander-Huet, VP of Client Advice & Management and Head of Learning & Culture at Initiative, also reinforced this point: “What’s most critical to ensuring credibility in the Diversity and Inclusion space is the actions of your organization and ensuring those actions are truly supporting the cause.”

Here are some tips for navigating if and how your brand should contribute to these conversations.

  • Purpose: What is your brand purpose – does engaging in the conversation align to what you stand for and what you are doing for the cause? Authenticity about who you are as an organization and where you are on the journey to addressing racial inequities is crucial.
  • Audience insight: Is this relevant and important to your customer base? Alexander-Huet states: “You really need a deep and ongoing understanding of what your audience is thinking and feeling and what’s driving that sentiment. And then you can ensure your messages are consumed in the right place at the right time.” Social media listening is a good place to start uncovering insights. Remember, what you thought you knew about your audience may have shifted with recent cultural and societal events.
  • Scenario planning: Map out the scenarios and implications of the options that you are considering in order to understand the business impact of certain actions. And at times, it may be best not to enter the conversation and that is okay.
  • Listening: Continue to listen to the tone of the news and the conversations amongst your customers to understand how you may need to evolve or adjust your communications. It’s not enough to do it once and move on.

Emerging stronger and better

Despite the challenges, COVID has presented opportunities to learn and emerge stronger as an industry. It ultimately gave us permission to do things differently for the brands we represent, and for our people. Here are some final thoughts from our contributors:

  • More diverse talent: Jordan Doucette, Partner and President of Creative at No Fixed Address Inc., elaborates on how the pandemic has allowed agencies to think differently about recruitment: “Instead of solely focusing on one local geographic location for recruitment, companies are now able to recruit from across the country. By breaking down geographic boundaries, I am optimistic that there will be a larger pool of talent to choose from and that we will be able to cultivate more diverse talent.”
  • Marketing at the decision table: “COVID has been a catalyst to signal the importance of marketing at the C-Suite level,” says Dezyanian. “There is a need for marketing investments to have proven returns. In some industries, marketing had become too focused on the last “P”, Promotion. In retrospect, we’ve learned that in order for these promotional messages to have any backbone, marketing needs to be tasked with the key business decisions to get to the promotion -- across all four P’s -- to truly drive sustainable and accelerated business growth.”
  • Media transparency: “When a crisis happens, the spotlight shines brightest on an organization’s key challenges," says Cathy Collier, CEO at OMD. “One example of this was the under-researched investment in digital platforms. This has now changed for the better.”
  • Acceleration of trends: “Beyond the obvious acceleration of e-commerce and an increasingly mobile workforce, we’re also very conscious of the accelerated movement towards living/buying with purpose, the simplification of our lives and the increased value of relationships and lifestyle," says Gino Cantalini, Co-Founder & Chief Operating Officer at Giants and Gentlemen. “We believe these have become engrained and will remain.”
  • The power of marketing: Matt Hassell, Chief Creative Officer at Forsman & Bodenfors, highlights how this period has reinforced the power we all hold as marketers. “It’s a responsibility, as much as a social purpose, to live up to your brand. You shouldn’t be silent when you could be helpful. The key principle is that we can all make the world a better place (or worse).”

    As I personally reflect upon the journey we are still on together, I am inspired by the fact that leaders are forecasting optimism and opportunity ahead. Marketers have always been resilient, able to harness creativity and data to respond to the moment. The pandemic has enabled us to think differently, to use those skills in holistic and more meaningful ways that may ultimately redefine the importance of the role of marketing in the Canadian economy.


Lori Rayner, VP of Marketing, HSBC Bank Canada


  • Ishma Alexander-Huet, VP of Client Advice & Management, Head of Learning & Culture, Initiative
  • Gino Cantalini, Co-Founder & Chief Operating Officer, Giants and Gentlemen
  • Cathy Collier, CEO, OMD
  • Mo Dezyanian, President, Empathy Inc.
  • Jordan Doucette, Partner & President, No Fixed Address Inc.
  • Matt Hassell, Chief Creative Officer, Forsman & Bodenfors
  • Erin Manning, Managing Director, Ketchum




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