How Covid-19 Changed the Advertising Industry


Times Square in New York.

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Around this time last year, The Trade Desk CEO Jeff Green saw advertisers begin to pause every campaign they could.

The head of ad technology said that at the start of the pandemic, digital advertising was at a disadvantage. It was easier for advertisers to flip the switch and put spending on hold while they tried to figure out what to do. But over the next few months, as the marketing dollars started rolling in, it became clear that they were circulating online.

“Everyone is becoming more data-driven and more agile in a recovery because every dollar has to count,” Green said. “That’s when it really accelerated for us. So we were disproportionately injured in the first month. And we’ve benefited disproportionately since then.”

The Trade Desk has seen firsthand how elements of the advertising industry have been catapulted years later as consumers stay home during the pandemic. Digital reigned supreme: flexible shopping, the ability to change messaging, and direct-response buying that clearly showed ROI were in high demand with many advertisers who often had no idea what the next month was. or even next week, would look like.

These themes lent themselves to major advances in areas like connected TV and e-commerce marketing, where the elements were already in place for growth, but which the pandemic has pushed forward. And the way the advertising industry may have also changed how it operates in the process.

“These things were already happening,” said Barak Kassar, co-founder of independent creative agency BKW Partners. “And it just, whoosh, just made it happen faster.”

Experts and space executives spoke to CNBC about three areas where the ad industry has made leaps and bounds during the pandemic.

Connected TV

As soon as the pandemic-related lockdowns started in March, the streaming frenzy began. Platforms like NBCUniversal’s Peacock and WarnerMedia’s HBO Max launched as people were forced to stay home. And because different states had different rules about gatherings and business openings, and the rules changed from day to day, advertisers running TV placements also wanted the ability to be flexible in purchases and messaging. in a way that linear TV arrangements haven’t always facilitated. .

Green said in The Trade Desk’s Q1 2020 call in may that he expected a “revolution” in streaming television. His business, which helps brands and agencies reach targeted audiences across all media formats and devices, has a growing presence in the category. But Green expected this revolution to happen within a few years. It ended up taking months.

Since then, it has accelerated further: “If we piled two years into the first six months, well, we piled another three years into the next six months,” he said. “It felt like five years of change in 2020.”

Everyone was at home watching more videos and commute time was in many cases reallocated to media consumption. The films have been released for streaming. Cord-cutting was on the rise: eMarketer forecasts By the end of last year, more than 6 million American households had canceled their pay-TV subscriptions last year, as TV ad spending fell 15% to its lowest level since 2011.

Lauren Hanrahan, CEO of Zenith USA media agency owned by Publicis Groupe, said things have changed forever in the space.

“It’s not like 2020 is the year of connected TV, but now let’s get back to our usual media mix,” she said. “That consumer behavior has changed permanently. And we’re going to have to adjust where and how we reach them.”

Kasha Cacy, global CEO of media and marketing services company Engine, estimates the pandemic has pushed CTV forward by five to seven years.

“I used to work at Sony Pictures, and the idea of ​​launching a movie on a streaming platform was like blasphemy,” she said. “And now that barrier has been broken.”

She said factors such as Google moving away from third-party cookies in its Chrome browser have further positioned CTV well.

“The combination of Google’s announcement about cookies and identity, and the fact that CTV is out of their control, I think you’re going to see the ad dollars start flowing in there as well,” he said. she stated.


Brands and platforms have worked for years to make consumers comfortable with the idea of ​​buying something they haven’t actually seen, touched or tried. But over the past year, many consumers have had no choice and have turned to the internet to order groceries, essentials and other items.

Americans spent $791.7 billion in 2020 on e-commerce, up 32.4% from 2019, according to data released by the US Census Bureau in February. And while shopping in physical stores may resume once restrictions are lifted, the the retail industry has changed forever.

Zenith’s Hanrahan said the growth isn’t just seen in one demographic or audience, but across the board.

“I think there’s a real rigidity there, I think there’s a consumer behavior that’s built in now,” she said. “If you’ve ordered from a platform multiple times from your phone and that app is now on your phone…you’ve now adopted that behavior.”

The bloat of e-commerce – and its favorable effect on the growth of digital advertising – was evident in the performance of companies like Snap, to which advertisers turned to augmented reality for virtual “trials”, as locker rooms many retailers remain closed and there were new precautions around sampling products like makeup. Pinterest was another beneficiary, as shoppers browsed the platform for inspiration and shopped along the way.

eMarketer forecast in the fall, marketers would spend $17.37 billion on advertising on e-commerce sites and apps in 2020, up 38% from 2019. And the trend isn’t expected to die down: Hanrahan added that the growth pattern with e-commerce can be seen when looking at a market like China, which has been much more advanced in this area.

“I think the biggest indicator that we’re not going to go back in time and let go of all of this behavior is that in other countries that are sort of above this tipping point, it’s still accelerating. “, she said.

Brendan Gahan, partner and social director at advertising agency Mekanism, agreed that a new baseline had been set even once things got back to “normal”. He said a big part of e-commerce is about reducing friction and helping people save time, which is a benefit that doesn’t go away even when people can shop safely in stores. they wish.

“Whenever the world returns to normal, that adoption base will be much higher than if the pandemic had never happened,” he said. “It might regress a bit at first. But there’s no turning back.”

Gahan said the pandemic may also have cemented influencer status for some marketers.

“Just from a production standpoint, there weren’t really a lot of options” for some traders at the start of the pandemic, he said. He said some brands that hadn’t worked much with creators took a chance. And the dollars started flowing even more to the creators: A report from influencer marketing platform CreatorIQ said sponsored posts were up 46.6% year-over-year during the post-Thanksgiving sales weekend.


The past year has been a “right place, right time” situation for We Are Rosie, a freelance marketing community founded by Stephanie Nadi Olson in 2018.

Forrester Research predict last year that the US ad agency industry would lay off 52,000 jobs in 2020 and 2021 amid spending cuts. Flexible marketing organizations were one place these workers could turn to.

“Covid accelerated the inevitable,” Olson said. “It was happening. What Covid did was kind of pour gasoline on the situation.”

The company has worked with major companies such as Bumble, WW, Nextdoor and LinkedIn, growing its annual projects by 25 in its first year. Olsen said he’s already on track to make 1,000 in 2021.

We Are Rosie’s talent base runs the gamut. Some do not live in major markets. Some are caregivers for family members. Some have medical problems or are terminally ill. Some are veterans. They represent racial, age, education and geographic diversity. This type of talent has often been excluded or disqualified from moving up the ranks of a predominantly white an industry that often wants its employees to sit in major markets.

“I think in a weird way we needed to be forced into it to really recognize that all the excuses and all the obstacles we would have [give as reasons] that it would never work” works now,” Olson said. She said the industry has traditionally assumed that creative work should be done with everyone in the same room.

“We saw it,” she said. “Creativity is thriving, and in broad strokes, we’re doing it, the work is still in progress.”

Olson believes the past year will mean a lasting change in the way the industry works. She believes that with talent wanting to work flexibly, brands wanting to work on projects, and agility on their side will equal some of those lasting shifts.

“I think the loss of the binary thinking of either in-house with full-time employees or giving it to an agency or a consultancy, I think it’s gone forever,” he said. she stated. “The rise of flexible talent…is here to stay.”

Engine’s Cacy recently stated that the company conducted a national survey this showed that almost 80% of working mothers would like to continue working from home. Cacy said the company is considering flexible models that would allow for this.

“In an industry that’s trying to bring more women into leadership positions, in an industry where we’re trying to bring more diversity into the workforce, the idea of ​​being able to offer that to employees and going to different markets outside of New York to find talent, especially diverse talent, there’s something really appealing about that,” she said.


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