Brands must be “bridge, anchor and ally” as businesses, consumers navigate tough times

Amid a global cost-of-living crisis that is only expected to deepen in 2023, top ad agency leaders have urged that brands become more, not less, important during recessionary times.

Responding to inflation and turbulence, brands will be tempted to cut marketing spend, but DDB Group Sydney chief executive Sheryl Marjoram and DDB’s national chief creative officer Stephen de Wolf warned against such pullbacks if they came at the expense of keeping your brand strong.

“During a recession, when massive pressure bears down on spend, ROI, and finding better profit models, many brands are forced to reduce marketing spend as a knock-on effect,” Marjoram said. “But this is where the role of a brand really needs to kick in more than ever. Good, trusted brands have the opportunity to be a great bridge, anchor and ally for the business, but also for consumers as they navigate difficult times.”

Marjoram explained that unlike Covid, recessions had happened before, with past intel proving that for brands to succeed, they must maintain, or preferably grow, their share of voice. She said it was also vital brands homed in on a disciplined value proposition, and continued to develop first-party data so they could harness more direct and personalised relationships.

Marjoram, who has been in the chief executive spot for a year after spending two decades in London in top roles across agencies such as McCann, Saatchi & Saatchi, Mother, and Crispin Porter + Bogusky, said while the pandemic-spawned digital transformation helped Aussie brands get on top of their first-party strategies, it was crucial they did not group tough economic times in the same basket. “It’s important to separate out what we’ve been through with Covid, as it’s not what we’ll go through next year,” she said.

“While they’re both distressing and difficult, they’re very different experiences.

“It’s going to be really tough next year. People will be anxious about job security, they’ll be looking for good value for money all the time, they’re going to be particularly pessimistic about their long-term future. They’ll be in constant need of reassurance, affirmation, and uplift.”

This is where, she said, brands must come to the fore and show up for consumers when and where they needed them most.

Twice crowned the world’s top creative director, de Wolf said the economic challenges ahead would not have the one-size-fits-all kind of feeling that people had during Covid. The pandemic made people want to help, whereas during a recession, people worried first and foremost about looking after themselves and their families.

“During the pandemic, Covid became everyone’s strategy, driving how brands communicated and how they showed up,” de Wolf said. “The opportunity now is to pivot back to your brand strategy and prove your worth again.

“It’ll be tough from a media standpoint with less spend, but the exciting part is we’re going to have to do more with our creative response to building brands. And we thrive on making sure that big, organising ideas are strong enough to act as guiding lights across every touchpoint.”

As brands face tougher times, de Wolf – who returned from London late last year after working on major brands such as supermarket Tesco and Barclays bank – contended they should be asking more, not less, of their agency partners.

Marjoram agreed that the best brands treated their agencies as problem-solvers, not ad makers. While ad agencies might be under pressure to do more for clients in 2023, with the same budget, she said she was hearing more “business questions” from clients, versus ad briefs.

“Our role has become far more than saying the answer is advertising, and we are getting more involved more regularly with genuine business problems,” she said.


“That’s because the role of a brand has evolved. There are very few people who don’t get the power of brand as a growth driver and therefore it’s hard to get into a good conversation around brand which does not involve advertising and creativity.”

Marjoram said creativity was a resource that could be used anywhere within a business, not just for advertising output alone. This was what put creative agencies in a great spot to help brands.

“In times when we are all looking for new product growth and new markets to grow from, why would you not access the brains of a place that is designed to use creativity for problem-solving?” she said.

Agency leaders are often asked about the “bravery” and “risk” around selling clients big ideas, especially in the context of economic uncertainty. But de Wolf contended this discussion was potentially overblown.

“Big ideas aren’t brave, they’re right,” he said. “As a client, if you’re feeling scared to buy a piece of work, you may need to challenge whether it’s right. Because feeling confident in the power of an idea, especially during a recession, is extra important. We don’t have the luxury to waste our efforts.”

Both top execs argued that those big ideas should go back to the fundamentals of building enduring brand platforms, because they held brands accountable to how they behaved, how they created products, and were gateways to effectiveness, rather than just efficiency.

A brand platform, de Wolf said, was not just words that sit next to a logo, but a company’s overarching mission that it lived and breathed.

“Brand platforms ensure that everything you do is laddering up to one message, which makes it a Trojan horse for effectiveness,” Marjoram said.

Despite the downturns ahead, the chief executive concluded that Australia would not be a carbon copy of Britain and the US, because of overall good financial buffers, good spending power, employment, and savings. It was a confidence crisis that brands should address in 2023. “As long as you give people the right reason, they will spend,” she said.

First published via The Australian