CEO & President Member Newsletters
3Q 2020: Finding Opportunity Despite Uncertainty
When I wrote my last quarterly update in April, we were in the early days of the pandemic and the outlook was very uncertain, for both the public health crisis and its attendant effects on the economy. I had hoped that by now we would have greater visibility into the future and a surer sense of how these crises would play out, but sadly that is not the case. The recent spike in COVID-19 cases has slowed efforts to reopen the economy and return to some semblance of normalcy. If you believe, as I do, that economic recovery depends upon conquering the coronavirus (or at least developing surer means for managing its presence), then the economic outlook remains cloudy. Poor visibility makes for slow economic growth.
However, at the ARF, things have been anything but slow. After all, the ARF was founded in the midst of crisis during the Great Depression and, throughout its history, it is precisely at times of adversity that ARF members have most valued access to unbiased research, guidance based on empirical evidence, and the ability to network with peers to compare notes on best approaches. As a result, our indicators of member engagement have been through the roof:
- Attendance at our virtual Town Halls and Insights Studios have been amazing. Taken together, they constitute larger audiences than we typically see at even our largest in-person events. And because they are virtual events, we have enjoyed active participation from members and guests, not only around the United States but in Europe and Australia as well. And those who couldn’t catch the events live have been streaming the videos and downloading the presentation decks from our website. For the past few years, we had been evolving away from reliance on large NYC-based conferences as a primary means of content distribution, but the pandemic has accelerated this transition considerably.
- We have seen a surge in requests for help from our Knowledge Center, much as we have also seen a lot of self-service document downloads from our website. These always provide an interesting perspective on the pulse of the industry and of the questions being discussed at member companies. The themes won’t be too surprising to you:
- What are consequences of reducing advertising in moments of trauma and/or recession? What are best ways of defending advertising in these times? How do we get ad creative right?
- What are best practices for developing brand purpose campaigns that fit a brand’s DNA while avoiding the pitfalls of cliché and inauthenticity? What are the best roles for consumer research and data analytics in this work?
- What can brands learn from the Black Lives Matter protests and related cultural conversations around the country?
- Which consumer behaviors – especially shopping behavior, media behavior, and brand choice behavior – seem most likely to persist after the pandemic passes? Which vary by generation or by consumer segment?
- With so many disruptions to supply and distribution chains, and so many consumer behaviors shifted as a result of the pandemic, what are the best ways that companies can preserve the utility of their historical market mix and multi-touch attribution models?
- How has the pandemic affected the basic work tools of research and analytic functions? How are panels holding up? How about cooperation and response rates? Is there evidence of demographic or situational distortion in market signals? Which types of questions have demonstrated good predictive validity, and which should be avoided?
Of course, our ability to answer these questions varies depending on the specifics. For some, we can tap into a robust vein of prior work. For others, we are simply developing cases or piecing together answers from a fragmentary literature. The ongoing engagement with member questions has stimulated a remarkable number of recent white papers that summarize the state of industry understanding on some of these emergent topics. If you have missed the white papers that have come out during this recent period, you can find some of them here:
- The Duality: Advertising in a Pandemic Driven Recession
- Cracking Brand Purpose
- How Brands Have Responded to Social Unrest
- How Will Media Use Evolve After the Crisis?
- Attribution in a Leaner Data Environment
- The State of Insights and Data Analytics Disciplines Today
And new work on these topics will be featured at upcoming ARF events scheduled for the balance of the year—including:
- SHOPPERxSCIENCE on July 27 & 28
- AUDIENCExSCIENCE on September 21-23
- ATTRIBUTION & ANALYTICS ACCELERATOR on November 16-19
- DATAxSCIENCE on December 3
This has also been a time when many individuals at member companies have come forward to show thought leadership and help tackle the difficult problems. Participation has been robust in the ARF Council working groups, the Young Pros, and the Research Leadership Committee. These have all also been active sites for “share groups” where candid, small-group discussions take place among non-competing peers. Many member companies that have been doing their own research on COVID-related topics have shared that work with the ARF community by allowing us to post it in the COVID corner of the ARF website. I thank them for their contributions and welcome others to share their relevant work.
The strictures of work-from-home have not slowed progress on most of the ARF’s 2020 primary research projects. In some cases, the pandemic has even provided an opportunity to make an inquiry more interesting – as is the case with our study of shifts in brand loyalty over the past decade, which now can include observations from March-June 2020. Similarly, the ARF’s annual tracking survey of attitudes toward privacy, fielded each year in April, was able to include in this year’s wave questions related to health data and contact tracing.
Not only are we marching ahead with plans and research hatched prior to the pandemic, but we are undertaking ambitious new initiatives as well. The recent announcement of ARF WIDE (the Workforce Initiative for Diversity and Excellence) is a case in point. Keep an eye out for further announcements soon on research and education initiatives currently in preparation.
So, the bottom line is that, despite the pain and disruption that the pandemic has visited on us, the ARF remains a vibrant industry hub rendering valuable service to its members. Just as accurate data, science and analysis will lead the way to understanding the safest way to re-open and manage the economy, so too will this be the case in marketing and advertising. This goes to the heart of the ARF’s founding mission: to apply the discipline and objectivity of scientific methods to the study of marketing, media, and advertising. Volatile and uncertain times make the ARF’s vast repository of knowledge even more valuable to members, as does our ability to bring people together to share best practices, identify new methods, and help the industry advance.
Stay safe. Stay in touch. Keep busy. Keep imagining the great future that lies beyond the crisis.