Leaders emerge through crisis

There continue to be more questions that answers as we approach the one-month mark since the horrific events of Sept. 11. What is the fate of travel and tourism? When will the stock market recover? Is this the beginning or the end of the layoffs? How drastically has the world changed? When will the damn media stop talking about a recession?

There continue to be more questions than answers as we approach the one-month mark since the horrific events of Sept. 11. What is the fate of travel and tourism? When will the stock market recover? Is this the beginning or the end of the layoffs? How drastically has the world changed? When will the damn media stop talking about a recession?

One thing is clear: Now is the time for strong leadership. One need only look to New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani who has been tirelessly front and centre trying to inspire his city and the world at large to get back to some level of normalcy.

‘Come here and spend money. Go to a restaurant, a play,’ was his message recently to Americans and the world. Good enough. I’m ready to hop into the car and go. But I won’t fly.

In fact, no one wants to fly. There is real concern, and that doesn’t stop with travel. It extends across the economy. Everyone has seen the layoff reports: 5,000 at Air Canada, 3,800 at Bombardier, Swissair was grounded last week. Then there are the 19,500 to be culled from Nortel’s payrolls, and General Motors has announced that it will close a car assembly plant north of Montreal next year eliminating more than 1,500 jobs.

There is fear in the land and that will have an effect on consumer spending. The problem with fear is that it becomes hard to make decisions. That is why we need strong leaders. We look to them to be decisive.

This need has transformed U.S. president George W. Bush from goat to titan virtually over night. British Prime Minister Tony Blair too has emerged. French President Jacques Chirac being first to New York after the devastation has revived his flagging presidency. In fact all the political leaders who have taken decisive action, particularly Bush and Giuliani, have simultaneously seen their popularity soar.

We’re still waiting for Jean Chretien to step up, but we’re told the war portion of this crisis will be drawn out, so there’s still time.

But the need does not only apply to political leaders.

The marketing community has a role to play and strong leaders will emerge here too. ‘Our job today is to provide confidence to the people that we are representing and hopefully have more solutions,’ says Frank Palmer, chairman and CEO of Vancouver-based Palmer Jarvis DDB.

This means that despite the fact that no one has ever been through anything quite like this, advertising executives need to have answers. If consumer confidence is waning, interest rate cuts can have a positive effect. But so can fundamental branding initiatives.

It is easy to say, ‘just keep spending.’ But when a marketer is looking at dwindling revenues, expenditures have to be cut across the board and that includes ad budgets. Still, the evidence indicates those brands that continue to spend on advertising when competitors cut back are the ones that emerge stronger when the economy begins to grow again.

This is where strong leadership comes in. How do you best allocate tightening budgets to assure that your brand continues to thrive and reluctant consumers keep spending?

One of the immediate impulses to keep customers coming in tight times is to reduce prices through promotions. But that can be a dangerous game and have negative long-term impact by devaluing the brand.

Gerry Frascione, newly appointed president of BBDO Canada in Toronto has the following advice for his clients. The first thing, he says, is to focus on your customer base as opposed to trying to build on new, untapped targets. ‘Protect your core customers because they are the backbone of your business,’ he says.

It is also crucial to focus your communications so that everything is working in tandem. Now more than ever, you must continue to reinforce what the brand is all about. This, Frascione says, assures that marketers are not reacting with promotions that can negatively impact brands.

Finally, focus on great creative. ‘There is always the risk of being overly conservative creatively in tough economic times,’ he says. ‘When dollars are harder to come by, creativity takes even a greater responsibility in making sure that you break through the clutter.’

And whatever you do, keep advertising.

Peter Vamos

News Editor