“We have to fight so that the drop in value is not significant, because otherwise it is the market itself and the industry that are at stake”. The alert is left by Susana Albuquerque, president of the Clube de Criativos de Portugal. In conversation with M&P, Uzina’s creative director also discusses how the pandemic is impacting the market and the Club and how brands are, and should, react.
Means & Advertising (M&P): “We are all on the same side, all against the same enemy, and the chains of solidarity, for now, are more than those of contagion”. The phrase is part of an opinion article he wrote to M&P early in the state of emergency. How did you feel that the market saw, and reacted to, this tsunami?
Susana Albuquerque (SA): In March, I wrote with some naivety and ignorance of what was to come. It is like everything, good things continue to happen, but now we are beginning to deal with the consequences a little more dramatically than living a pandemic and a stop of economic activity that, perhaps, will not recover as quickly as we thought. We are in June, almost July, here a couple of weeks ago we were thinking “the worst is over, let’s all start going to the street”. And suddenly … We are on this terrace, full of people around us, there are people who are starting to want to live a normal life, but the news says otherwise. People are too relaxed, thinking that the worst is over, but the truth is that as long as there is no effective vaccine or medication, there will be no normality. Not being normal means less consumption, less economic activity. We are all much more still than would be normal and this has a very strong impact. The chains of solidarity seem to remain more or less on the agenda. But it is difficult to draw large conclusions. From a business point of view, now I don’t speak so much as a Creative Club but as an agency, the impact on our activity was immediate.
M&P: How did your customers react?
SA: In Uzina we have very exposed businesses, there was a suspension of fees, reduction of fees, postponing of productions – because there were ideas that had been thought of in a context that had stopped making sense. I think it’s only now that we realize how much our creative work, and our ideas, go through bringing people together and socializing. Suddenly you are in a situation where that is impossible and, perhaps, 90 percent of the ideas you had on the table no longer make sense. The impact on our activity as an agency was enormous. Which does not mean that, very quickly, do not try to adapt and find solutions. In the case of the Clube de Criativos, which is more the scope of this conversation, the impact was huge.
M&P: Leaving the Club, how are these pains being experienced?
SA: Agencies and brands have a great deal of uncertainty and anxiety about what will come next. It is very difficult to predict, we are not able to know how people will react, if they will have jobs, if they will have money to consume. How can we also provide safer consumer experiences. On the other hand, it’s also giving us a little bit of the notion that… Okay, we don’t control it. But something must be done. In relation to lay-offs, for example … We know they are there, they serve to protect jobs and they have been a good help for companies. But I think we have all had the notion that it is important to roll up our sleeves and do something to get the country back on its feet and to suspect it in a more symbolic and metaphorical way.
M&P: Are there many agencies in lay-off?
SA: I don’t have a sense of the whole, I can talk about mine. Yes, we are currently in a partial lay-off, but I have seen a desire, a voluntarism and solidarity in the sense of “although we roll up our sleeves and do it”. Without that, I think that nothing can be done, because the solutions that come out of here will also have to be created by us. The government is there to help and defend us, the European Union is there to support us, but then there is a part that has a lot to do with us. And I think there is a side … I would say that there is a fundamental quality to work in this profession, which is a certain amount of optimism. When I speak of optimism it is not that bacoco, that it is all a bed of roses and everything will be spectacular.
M&P: Realistic optimism?
SA: I’ve been thinking about this a lot, I think it’s one of those things that can prevent us from moving forward. One of the most important things to be able to do a good creative job is when we receive the briefing we believe that we can really do a good thing and that it makes a difference. Then there may be problems, the project may get worse, but you need a certain amount of optimism and realize “ok, the conditions are not ideal, we are in the middle of shit, there is a pandemic, there is no money, there is no job, it is everything terrible”. But if we wake up with the feeling that it is possible to grab hold of what we have and try to turn the boat around… Thinking “I’m going to do something that makes a difference, that calls for tension, that is visible, that is relevant”. Without that dose of optimism, we do nothing. In all markets there are people who are leaning. But people who are leaning on last for a while, then change professions or lose their jobs. This is a market where it is difficult to live on the side, because you get so beaten up… There was no money for a long time, the ideal conditions no longer existed, we started to be kind of frowned upon by society.
M&P: Are they kind of frowned upon?
SA: I think we are. There was a time when we were kind of rock stars. It was a glamorous world, full of money, full of ideas that everyone saw in the evening paper and then commented on the next day. Today, with the fragmentation of means, with the impoverishment of the market, we are there in the area where part of us does things and the others do not see, everything is very diluted, it is not so glamorous.
M&P: They still have nice wages.
SA: Some people, but there are a lot of people who don’t. A few years ago, in the golden age of advertising, especially for creatives but in other areas too, in two or three years of experience, if you got a great goal and if you did a job with visibility, you had the expectation of earning more than a doctor or the President of the Republic. Today it is not like that. How many people do not have to wait years and years and years to expect a good salary? And many of them don’t. Taking up the thread, our market has been very eroded in recent years, very impoverished.
M&P: At the beginning of last year, also in an interview with M&P, he said that fees could not go down any more, they had already fallen so much that it was impossible.
SA: Now maybe they’ll fall a little bit more. In Uzina, also because we have very exposed markets, we had customers saying “we have to lower the fee, we have to suspend the fee”. I think that, extraordinarily, we are all kind of committed and sympathetic to holding the boat, but this has to be temporary. If you stop being temporary and become permanent, then everything has to be reevaluated. And, invariably, there will be business cases that will not survive. The best will survive, the less good will die, it is the law of supply and demand. But, going back to what the market is experiencing, I think we are still in the temporary phase. We are all making an effort to take it. And I even talk about the customers’ businesses, everyone is trying to tighten their belts, cut where they can in order to be able to survive the business. But then it is necessary to resume some real normality. Businesses have to give money because otherwise they are not business, and we have to add value because otherwise we are useless. And to be able to add value and serve something, there has to be this optimism. When I speak of optimism it is to realize that it also depends on us. It’s waking up in the morning and realizing that “I can also create value, I can also help”. There is a part that is our individual responsibility, not waiting for them to resolve for me.
M&P: Investment in advertising, real numbers via the media agency, fell 25 percent from January to May. All studies point to a big break. How do you see brands starting to react? At first the communication stopped. It also didn’t make sense, because it wasn’t adequate.
SA: Yes, having nothing to say, it is better to remain silent.
M&P: And now, how should brands adapt communication to this new normal, how do you say?
SA: Brands needed to stop and understand how they were talking again. All brands, I think, are rebalancing and adapting, finding their way. For example, in Uzina we work in several shopping centers. Obviously, while they were closed, they were silent. When they resumed, it was necessary, not only to adapt the way it works, but to communicate it. New needs will appear and new opportunities too, of course. There is a paradigm shift, which just means, I think, that the briefings will be different. But the need to communicate will be the same. We have to fight so that the drop in value is not significant, because otherwise it is the market itself and the industry that are at stake. And we have to defend the value that we have, because in fact it is real. We make a difference, we are able to value a brand, we are able to communicate and make the brand reach people effectively. Now, the paradigm changes and the briefing changes. The message is different, the idea of value that has to be passed on to people is different, but it is necessary to communicate. If you do not communicate, you will die.
M&P: And is there this awareness on the part of brands?
SA: I think so. This weekend I met a friend who works at a media agency and we were having a funny conversation about whether the most important thing is investing in media or what you say. Obviously making noise is essential, but it has to be in a relevant way. Make the noise in the right place, be on people’s radar, and then say something that interests them. And there we go. We have to say something that interests people and in a way that can surprise them, that has an impact. First it was the moment of panic, but then it is necessary to return to invest. If you don’t invest then you really die. Nobody guesses that you are there and that you are very important to people.
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