Why David Scribner is calling on marketers to fight for brand investment during COVID-19

Former CMO and oOh!media chief customer officer shares views on the impact of the crisis on out-of-home, marketing mindsets and innovation

David Scribner
David Scribner

 

There are plenty of tough challenges facing all industries and the marketers supporting them as we progress through the unprecedented COVID-19 crisis. But for oOhmedia’s chief customer officer, David Scribner, this is time to brand build, not shut up shop.

“There’s that internal battle of how as a marketer I convince the c-suite I should be still be spending and have a presence in market. That’s the critical one right now,” he tells CMO, acknowledging both the caution marketers are exhibiting in the current crisis, as well as how they keep securing the dollars to keep investing.

“But hibernation would be the absolutely worst thing you can do. The world will leave you by and to recover will be too difficult. It’s imperative marketers have some form of investment to keep that brand ticking along.”

CMO recently caught up with Scribner to talk all things COVID-19, from the impact it’s having on the out-of-home (OOH sector) and the way marketers think and campaign, to his own marketing lessons in crisis during the GFC, and why it’s a time for data reflection and innovative thinking.

We’ve seen oOh!media go through some extraordinary steps in recent weeks to keep afloat in the face of the COVID-19 crisis. Can you explain how it’s affecting your portfolio of products and assets?

David Scribner: We’re a strong and robust company that has developed over 30 years. And that has been evidenced by the way the market has responded. We moved quickly to enhance our financial position through a capital raise, we were second in Australia and first in the industry to do so post COVID-19. That package included cost control, capital raising, extending our banking capex. We believed it was important to take these measures and it improved our balance sheet massively.

The reality is COVID is impacting all industries and out-of-home is far from immune. We are seeing different patterns around how Australians are moving and using out-of-home. Think about retail product with regards to supermarkets and the increase in traffic to those locations. People are out and about, particularly in the suburbs, and they’re out and about more regularly. Also, retail and road products are seen more consistently throughout the day and offer opportunities for brands. Our street furniture, bus shelters then become more important.

We’re calling this element of street and retail coming together… hyperlocal… and it’s approach that provides solidarity with audiences, can help with community feel and build engagement.

I’m not saying for a moment it’s all ridgy didge, but there are some upsides. Sure, some out-of-home is impacted - our flight products obviously. But other products are being consumed more regularly than they probably ever have been.

What is your take on how brand and marketing leaders are responding to the COVID-19 crisis?

They’re understandably cautious and they’re facing individual issues too. I spoke to one FMCG marketer who said he was struggling to get people to turn up to factories to explain it’s an essential service. I didn’t think of that challenge when I was thinking of grocery buying going up by double digits.

What I am pleased to see is many talking about an ending of the crisis and what they’re going to do next. There is a feeling they’ll really open up and bounce back. That’s good.

We have advertisers asking how can they hit the ground when the current situation ends. They want in a way to say ‘Baby I’m back, we’re back open for business’. That’s going to be critical. And it’s across the board – auto, FMCG, QSR, for instance.

Because COVID-19 is not an economic downturn, but a disease-related pandemic, it’s different to what I’ve seen and experienced through the GFC. Yes, it’s impacting economically and there’s a lot of talk of recession, stimulus and how to get back on track. But because it’s not fundamentally economic, it’s changed the way marketers are thinking. I do think they’re thinking there will be some change back to normality, albeit things will change.

A good example is auto. Because they’re on such a long lead time for launches of products, they’re still going to go ahead. Yes it may be delayed til just the right time, but when it is right those launches will go ahead. That will be a good catalyst for a lot of other industries.

There’s a good opportunity for banking here too. They’ve come out of the Royal Commission, and been able to show a positive brand purpose side in recent weeks through what they’re doing with pauses on mortgages and so on. I do see them getting into much more of a brand building scenario as they come out of this crisis. There are some silver linings.

As a marketer, are there any lessons from your own experiences on coping with a crisis or disruption that could be potentially applicable to today’s unprecedented situation?

Nothing in my lifetime compares to what we’re experiencing now. This is unique and unprecedented. But there are some parallels to the early 1990s. Unemployment at the time was 10 or 11 per cent. I was a young marketer with Nestle at the time, which doubled down on marketing spend.

It was really impactful and what I learnt was to invest in marketing, because you’ll come out stronger, with greater saliency in your brand. That is why I make the point you can’t go into hibernation. Other marketers will take the opportunity if they can convince their boards and c-suite to do it.

If you are not being tactically smart using your spend to have a presence, people are likely to forget about you. That’s the negative. The positive is if you do it, you’ll find the community respects you for being there and for them. I think it’s really being highlighted in the financial sector. Their opportunity to do that is strong and they’re embracing it. So has Telstra and Optus – they’re doing some strong stuff.

It’s the categories struggling who have the toughest task convincing their boards that shutting up shop isn’t the right strategy now. You have to be cautious and be smart, thinking about what’s working. You have to lean on your support people, agencies and so on to help you do what you need to do. But I’m firmly of the view if you close it down, you may not recover. And if competition goes, we could have other real issues.

What behaviour, operational and organisational changes need to be occurring for marketing teams to keep up with this rapidly changing environment?

You have to go deep on the data. You have to understand what your audience is doing, what are you doing and where you want to be. Highlight that investment, reflect on what you can do and where you could have done it better. Look at data sets available and drill down on your marketing investments, as opposed to taking cursory looks at the data provided, which is probably what you do in real time.

Now’s the time to do it, because you’ll come out better at the other end. You’ve probably accepted some information in the past without having the time to analyse it appropriately without someone telling you what it’s saying and knowing it’s working for you.

The other part is you can’t run away from your purpose. I know it’s an overused word, but what is your purpose and what are you driving your business towards? Do you have the foundations in place? What you don’t want to do is lose sight of that light on the hill, your purpose, or corrupt it by not pursuing that direction. It’s the data that helps you do that.

Whatever happens today cannot ruin your long-term position to pivot for growth when this crisis stops. If you’re doing something contrary to that purpose, that’s where you’re going to get stuck. It might change and be nuanced because of where you’re going, but you need to be clear on that.

Times like these create opportunities for brands to show their true colours. All the investment they might put in technology or customer service comes to the fore. It’s a great opportunity to let people know, but do it with sincere, clear and community-based messaging.

Up next: What boards and c-suite expect of CMOs right now, plus data's criticality, team management and innovation opportunities

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