Advertising Audience Engagement
6 mins read

Advertising and the COVID-19 pandemic: Insights from the World Media Group

With the COVID-19 Pandemic changing the world as we know it, advertisers need to look at brand safety in a new light. How can they work with media to advertise safely? Is it even appropriate to advertise in a time of crisis? These were some the questions posed to a panel of 11 industry experts last week during a webinar hosted by the World Media Group. The discussion, chaired by Alex Altman, Global Client President at Wavemaker, was surprisingly upbeat, with a sense that our learnings from the current crisis could lead to positive change for the industry when we come out the other side.

The role of media in a crisis  

Altman’s first question, addressed to Emma Winchurch-Beale, International Sales Director at the Washington Post, was how the newspaper’s editorial team balanced the need to report what’s going on without causing undue anxiety within its audience.

“People are frightened and it’s our job, along with our colleagues in other news organizations, to be the guiding light and help them through this pandemic,” she said, emphasizing the newspaper’s role was to offer reassurance by delivering trusted information, as well as practical advice, so most of the COVID-19 coverage is free, outside of the paywall.

Denise Turner, Insight Director, Newsworks, the UK body for national newspapers, agreed that people turn to trusted news sources in times of crisis. She said print subscriptions and newspaper home deliveries were on the rise, and traffic to digital outlets was up by 30-50% in the UK. Engagement is also up: “There’s an uplift in not just dwell time, but also comments on articles [and] shares. So people are not just passively absorbing it, they are actively engaging with the content.”

The need for trusted information

Johanna Mayer-Jones, SVP of Partnerships at The Atlantic, agreed that the significant spikes in traffic and engagement across the board are because “people are hungry and they need information and news that they can trust at the moment.”

Referencing a popular article called ‘How the pandemic will end’ by Ed Yong, she explained the importance of delivering thoughtful, well-researched, scientific-based content exploring the long-term impacts of the virus. “We want to be thinking about conversations that might take place in two or three day’s time or a week’s time and provide a different type of perspective at this moment.”

Altman turned to Damian Douglas, Managing Director EMEA at Time,
to ask how they were adapting to consumer expectation of news brands in light of COVID-19.

“First and foremost, this is a humanitarian crisis,” Douglas said, so publishers will look at it through a more humane lens. The shift in commercial modelling to make COVID-19 coverage free was really important as audiences seek accuracy, truth and insight, he said; media organizations and brands must be seen to be going into the breach and not being overly commercial.

Empathy in the face of an invisible force

Altman then turned to Alison Harbert, Head of Client Marketing at Investec
to ask how she was advising clients in the current climate. The silver lining, she said, was that it had made Investec “think about who we are actually trying to help and what are we trying to help them with…what we can do that’s really relevant to them.” She also stressed the importance of moving at the right speed in the ever-changing situation.

Altman asked Janet Balis, Global Advisory Leader for Media and Entertainment at EY, what advice she was giving to CMOs navigating the current crisis. Balis emphasized three points. “Strike the right brand voice and tone. And I think it starts with the word empathy… expressing a vulnerability in the face of an invisible force that’s larger than all of us.”

Secondly, she said while we often talk about storytelling, what’s important now is how that manifests itself with customers: “Your brand is only as good as your experience.” Finally, this is the “moment to really lean into very agile messaging and much better teaming collaboration,” she said, enabling brands to successfully change messaging at any given time.

Balis said she was now starting to see companies moving out of the initial triage moment of enterprise resiliency and looking forward – what she described as “the now, the next and beyond.”

Fake news more of a threat

Harriet Kingaby, Co-founder of the Conscious Advertising Network, highlighted the human impact of fake news: “We talk very much about human safety as opposed to brand safety because we see that the decisions that advertisers make actually have impacts in the real world.” She cited a recent Newsworks report showing how advertisers pulling money from hard news outlets in times of crisis can cause real problems and encourage the rise of fake news.

Altman asked Stevan Randjelovic, Director of Brand Safety and Digital Risk EMEA, Group M, how to combat fake news. Randjelovic recommended: investing in trusted news outlets; the human vetting of regional or local publishers; using third-party verification companies; and, most importantly, constantly monitoring where campaigns are delivering.

Marketing responsibly during a crisis

Altman asked Jack Dyson, Global Head of Content Strategy, SAP Customer Experience, whether brands can continue to market during this time.

Dyson talked about the importance of going back to your brand values and brand purpose. He stressed the importance of tone: ‘It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it’ is absolutely critical now. All advertisers needed to do “a sense check that the right message is coming across to the right people in the right way and to the right audience, but also with the right cadence,” he said.

Time’s Douglas believes we’ll see a permanent change in how brands are looking to engage with audiences. “Pre-COVID, we were talking about a different form of capitalism, which means putting brand values front and centre.” He believes that it is the brands “working with genuine motive,” and guiding people through the current crisis – such as McLaren developing protective wear or Louis Vuitton creating hand sanitizers – that will be remembered when we come out the other side.

Short-term challenges, but long-term good

Altman finished by asking the panel what has surprised them most about the current crisis. Their answers were overwhelmingly positive, with some key messages resonating: It’s physical rather than social distancing and the further we are physically apart from each other, the closer we can actually become. The speed at which we’ve adopted new ways shows how resilient we are. And the world has become much smaller because we’ve become a united force.

Alex Delamain, President of The World Media Group and SVP Head of Sales and Client Services EMEA, The Economist, wrapped up the webinar with her key takes outs:

  1. It all starts with humanity. As publishers, we have a huge responsibility to be helpful and generous in this time of crisis
  2. Brands must strike the right tone – empathy and compassion is key
  3. Brands need to be connected with their customers through partnerships, relationships and ‘companionship’
  4. Brands need to be more agile – traditional digital transformation needs to move much faster
  5. Brand purpose really comes into play now – we have to look at everything through that filter to ensure authenticity.

Closing on a positive note, Delamain reiterated Balis’s point: “We’re in the now, but there’s the next, and beyond. As brands, it’s really important that we start thinking about life after COVID-19 because it will come.”

Belinda Barker, Director, World Media Group

About: The World Media Group is a strategic alliance of leading international media organizations that connects brands with highly engaged, influential audiences in the context of trusted and renowned journalism. Its members include The Atlantic, BBC Global News, Bloomberg Media Group, Business Insider, CNBC, The Economist, Forbes, Fortune, National Geographic, Reuters, The New York Times Company, Time, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and associate members: Moat, Smartology and The Smithsonian.

The full webinar is available to view at: