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Life, Lemons, & PR: How to Upturn a Downturn.

As a recent report from PR Week shows, 2023 was a bit sh!t. Well folks, the initial reports are in, we’ve put our indexes firmly towards the prevailing winds. Although 2024 is comparatively lively so far, it looks like the year won’t take us fully out of the woods. Initial calls with clients all agreed that this year will require a degree of strength and fortitude, as we persevere with some global macroeconomic pain and conflict, all of which filters into the budgets we rely on. They say the first casualty of war is truth, but in fact, it’s marketing budgets. Impoverished marketing teams start making their dens and prepare to disappear from the world. But do we really need to hunker down, batten down the hatches and hibernate until it all blows over? On the contrary, if my experience is anything to go by, this is the best time to keep marketing budgets steady, invest in the time to re-evaluate business needs and ensure you come out smiling on the other side.


Broadcast Tower - A Marketing Analogy

There is a ‘sunny side up’ approach to downturns: they create time. Time to think. Time to reorganise. Time to plan. When the pandemic hit, the phone went quiet and our creative event agency was taking a forceable nap. It’s hard to create experiential when everyone is locked down inside their homes. What was an event production company to do? Having operated a lean and profitable business, I realised I had the time and capital to think about our core values, strategize and build back better. So, re-brand and strategize we did.


Crane Building Clouds - Rebuilding in a Downturn Metaphor

Sunny Side Up Strategy


As Covid put the world into lockdown, it coincided with an issue already at a crisis point – our environment. Being eco-friendly has always been important for me, but I then had the opportunity to devote time to making KGA a 100% carbon neutral event production company. No easy feat, it involved taking steps to accurately calculate, reduce and offset emissions. We used Carbon Footprint Ltd to simplify the process as well as independently assess our figures, moderated under the Verified Carbon Standard. Although it sounds effortful, it was worth it. Plus, as there was time available it didn’t detract from business focus.


When an event production agency is in full swing, it’s hard to catch your breath. Costs, timelines, revisions, and the sheer logistical weight of events propel you from one month to the next. During the pandemic, I had time to consult and examine how my business was running. If things are busy, the business must be doing alright, right? But what if it could be better? I worked out that most of my business was coming from the same clients who knew KGA well and knew the experience they could tap into. But there was a whole host of businesses who we could be reaching out to, connecting with, and helping to build the agency. The result was a complete redesign of our creds, and website, and the hiring of more marketing, new business, and comms resources to promote our work and attract new business. Post-pandemic the taps were on full, and we were busier than ever. This brings about a very important point: When downturns happen, you keep your marketing active.


Car City Lights - Busy Speed Metaphor

Once upon a time in Brandopia


The industry is littered with stories and brand folklore about companies who, to paraphrase BBH, zig when the world zagged. Take the fable of P&G and Coke, which has increasingly become a totemic representation of this argument. P&G not only kept their marketing spend up in 2020, they increased it. Increased it. In a downturn. Meanwhile, bearish Coca-Cola execs pulled the plug. These poor execs (doomed to be cited forever for missing a trick) ensured that Coca-Cola suffered an 11% reduction in sales, versus P&G, who hit 4% growth. In some ways, my story with KGA is not a dissimilar tale and provides a useful anecdote for PR creatives and experiential production agencies.


Takeaways


  • Keep talking to suppliers. Keep talking to your clients. We’re always in the same boat together, and it’s healthy to be in regular comms with your business community. If there is an opportunity, you’re the agency or brand that’s front of mind. 


  • When it’s Friday night and everyone in Ad Land is cramming into the local boozer, it’s hard to hear what anyone is saying. But when everyone’s gone it’s easy to have a conversation. When the world is quiet, the whisper wins. The same is true in the world of marketing. I believe that experiential remains one of the most appealing channels for brands post-pandemic. There is still that craving for ‘IRL’ experiences, especially with Gen Z, as reported recently by Vogue Business. With 2024 also being an Olympic and Euros year, there is ample opportunity for brands to connect to their audiences with valuable experiences. 


This year may continue to be harder work than usual, but the time spent thinking about the business, and in sales and marketing, will pay dividends. The world may already be turning.


Dan Keam-George is Founder and Director of KGA

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