Is Byron Sharp right to say the best response to Covid-19 was to stop advertising?

Clockwise from top left: Calverley, Sharp, Warren, Mawdsley, Kobayashi
Clockwise from top left: Calverley, Sharp, Warren, Mawdsley, Kobayashi

Sharp made the comments in an interview with Campaign.

Byron Sharp's seminal book How Brands Grow has reshaped marketing departments across the world over the past decade. So when he suggested in a recent interview with Campaign that not advertising was the best response to Covid-19, it certainly raised some eyebrows.

Of course, he wasn’t suggesting that all advertising should come to a halt, but that keeping quiet was the sensible alternative choice to making yet another Covid-related ad campaign.

Sharp, a long-time critic of brand purpose campaigns, was scathing about brands who sent Covid-related messages, arguing it was “embarrassing arrogance” that marketers would think people were interested in what they had to say about the virus.

He criticised Covid-19 ads for lacking imagination, and said that ultimately they were ineffective because they were all the same. “Like so many brand purpose ads, creativity was thrown out of the window. Every ad says exactly the same thing,” he argued.

Sharp praised Coca-Cola, which, instead of trying to compete in a busy media environment, paused all UK marketing spend for three months over lockdown: "I think that's a much better thing to do than rushing down to your agency and saying we've got to have a Covid ad.”

He added: “When you realise there is this tsunami of stuff, maybe you should wait and save your money. When you're a big brand like Coke, going off air for a couple of months isn't going to matter, and when things quieten down a little bit, you can remind them that Coca-Cola is still here."

Indeed Coca-Cola’s chairman and chief executive, James Quincey, said the brand had paused its marketing spend during the early stages of the crisis because “we’ve determined that in this initial phase [of the lockdown], there is limited effectiveness to broad-based brand marketing”.

So were Coca-Cola and Sharp right that the best response to the pandemic was not to create Covid-related ads but to pause marketing spend? Or are they missing the benefits of speaking out “in these unprecedented times"?”

Cheryl Calverley

Chief executive, Eve Sleep

The best response of an advertiser to any economic or cultural situation, good, bad, or indifferent is not to advertise badly. What Byron Sharp is pointing out is poor advertising. Advertising that doesn’t understand the consumer and give them something that makes them feel better – in this case what was sorely needed by the nation was an escape from Covid, not a maudlin reflection of the pain everyone was suffering – no matter how heartfelt and beautifully crafted.

Advertising spends a lot of time tortuously examining its own purpose, tying itself in knots in combining its inherent desire to be creative with the inherent desire of its clients to sell more stuff. But on this one, the role of advertisers was absolutely clear. Spread a little joy, humour, lightness, positivity in the face of very little of that. Some brands got that right, and they (assuming their supply chains were still standing) were absolutely right to keep advertising. Some brands got it painfully wrong, and here I couldn’t agree with Byron Sharp more. If you can’t do something good, don’t do anything at all.

Richard Warren

Director, marketing communications, Lloyds Banking Group

This is "clickbait" from the maestro. The key sentence is "we’re supposed to be the people who understand consumers and their lives". So, clearly, it depends on category – Coke, cars and cruises would have less to say; supermarkets and banks far more. Our communications during Covid for Lloyds, Halifax, Bank of Scotland and Scottish Widows on payment holidays and business loans, educating on fraud and reassuring on customer support have never been better received. With all humility, we would suggest there hasn’t been a more important time to advertise.

Craig Mawdsley

Joint chief strategy officer, Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO

Looking back at the lockdown output of the ad industry, Professor Sharp has a point. Many brands made exactly the same ad. It was hard to remember which was which. However, if you believe that brands are built over the long term, and remember that reach was probably never more efficient to buy than in spring/summer 2020, a different view emerges. Those that used the opportunity to say something distinct, and consistent with who they are as a brand probably prospered. It was the worst of times to advertise, it was the best of times to advertise.

Gen Kobayashi

Chief strategy officer, Engine

I’m not sure Byron Sharp said brands should “stop advertising” as such. But he was saying it was “pretty stupid” for brands to invest money in producing yet more Covid ads as “the media was absolutely saturated by Covid stuff”. And he’s right, if our job is to help create impact and “memory structures” for brands, running another Zoom-inspired Covid ad isn’t going to cut it. But there were examples of brilliantly creative campaigns that came out of lockdown. Our animated work for Born Free with Aardman Animations or Adam & Eve/DDB’s puppet work for the AA proved that there were ways in which brands could create an impact without making “another Covid ad”.

Matt Bushby

UK marketing director, Just Eat

It's key for a brand to be authentic and true to its values. That has been especially true during Covid. For some that means going quiet whereas others have the opportunity to go big. At Just Eat we needed to react quickly at the start of the pandemic to support our restaurants, couriers and customers. As the situation changed we launched our campaign with Snoop which brought some light-hearted entertainment to people at the right moment and delivered against our brand promise of Delivering Joy. Marketers really need to consider what's appropriate and authentic during times of uncertainty but if and when you do decide to go ahead, it's important to do it with confidence.

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