As COVID-19 defines our new normal in unprecedented and excruciating ways, many of us have speculated on the drastic shift in consumer behavior that awaits us.

Maybe, as some have argued, the pandemic’s effect will draw consumers further away from brick and mortar. And maybe future consumer behavior will relegate all non-digital media to irrelevance. While I agree that consumer behavior will change, I’m not ready to predict how. As long as the duration and severity of the pandemic remains unknown, I can’t claim to know its impact as some others are so quick to do.

While no one can completely predict what the future holds, there is good reason to think that the pandemic will substantively accelerate a movement that many of us have lived in before it hit- What I’m calling a ‘new order’ in our work, one that started years ago.

I’m talking of course about the proliferation of digital media and its impact on how we market to our customers. That evolution and the tools and technologies that accompanied it were the whole story up until a few short months ago. A few years from now—or maybe less—we’ll look back on that evolution as the prologue to a new way or working catalyzed by COVID-19.

Some background: The growth of digital options for reaching consumers drove the need to evolve from a marketing driven model - a movement that was well underway prior to the pandemic. Once upon a time, the game being played was a bit like bowling: brands were bowling balls and consumers were the pins. We rolled our brands down the lane with the thrust of powerful ‘big ideas’ behind them and then watched as—BAM!—the impact of our ideas generated awareness among consumers, and eventually conversion and sales.

That time is over.

Now, versus a bowling lane, it’s a pinball machine, and the consumer is the ball. They’re deciding when, where, how and even if they want to engage through the various messaging touch points throughout their journey. The good news is our current digital fluency helps us reach those consumers where they are in their journey, and that’s important now more than ever. This ability to connect with consumers digitally when it is most relevant will become table stakes in a new normal where consumers -existing digital users and new- will be emboldened like never before.

After the change, the rules of the game will shift dramatically to this marketplace driven dynamic. The game will evolve exponentially to put the consumer more and more in control on their home turf. (Pardon my love of sports analogies.)

We’re heading for an environment that will encourage a marketing model that’s highly adaptive, requiring unprecedented collaboration between disciplines, and above all else, focused on the end user. Content will continue to help consumers self-educate at each step along their buying journey, but the trajectory of that education will have changed. Consumers will continue to drive it at an accelerated rate, not us. It will render obsolete the one-way communication that has typified traditional marketing of the past, in part because outside of upfront one-off research, traditional marketing has historically omitted the new most important voice through their complete journey: that of the consumer.

We must remain proficient in knowing how to reach these consumers along their journey, but we must also grow more adept in understanding that it’s a two-way street and how to be reached by them. Data and technology have given us the ability to listen. We need to be masters of measuring and monitoring consumer response to our marketing efforts—in real time—to determine our success in reaching them and empowering their conversion to action.  

This practice requires nimbleness, flexibility and the willingness to adapt our operations based on real-time learning. This practice is more iterative than planned, more flexible than rigid. This model embraces uncertainty.

There has never been a more exciting time to be in our business.  

Every company, no matter its size, has been impacted by the seismic change in behavior that digital has caused over these past several years. The digital evolution fostered the saying that if you have to call yourself “digital first,” then you’re not. That remains true.

And every company, no matter its size, will be impacted by the change in behavior that COVID-19 is catalyzing. The COVID-19 catalysis might foster its own saying: If you have to call yourself “customer first,” you’re not.

Fortunately, as a smaller agency being nimble enough to adapt and to employ new operating models in helping our clients navigate changing marketing paradigms has been always been part of our operating DNA.

Recognition of the need to adapt to the evolution of digital and put consumers in the driver’s seat of everything we do is what led our agency to evolve its operating model, and approach to program development over the past several years, and to make several key investments in the business that help position our clients for success within this environment.

Our approach is called Hacking Human Behavior ™. It places the consumer squarely in the center of everything we do, and guides us to anchor our work with a deep understanding of our audience from a psychological, behavioral, and media consumption perspective. We then use that understanding to drive our ideation and execution. This is what empowers our work to connect so solidly with the feelings, needs, wants and behaviors of the target audiences, to capture relevance, evoke emotion and motivate to action.

Some recommendations for those who may be in the midst of evaluating their own operating model and planning efforts:

  • Make operating models more inclusive, iterative, and data driven. They must shift from a focus on the brand at the center to tools that are created to target and serve people in the center. The brand is something we unearth to provide meaningful value and relevance to our target consumers.
  • Mandate integration. Cross functional, integrated teams that combine critical, creative thinkers with experts in reputation, creative, social, digital, design and media are essential. We’ve accomplished this by establishing “Go-teams” with key players from every discipline that serve as on-going client ‘squads.’ This approach is much faster, leaner, more effective, and more efficient than operating in the silos of the past.

Gatesman’s Hacking Human Behavior™ Model

Gatesman Process
  • Focus on the end goal. We operate via one profit center. While we ‘track’ P&L by our various departments, we have never—from the date of our founding in 2006 through the present—held our discipline leads accountable for sole departmental growth at the expense of others. Doing so would lead to in-fighting, and more importantly, it would also contribute to a silo mentality that would undermine both our mission of being one brand united in the fight for our clients’ success and also our ability to execute that mission. Discipline leads at Gatesman are held accountable for their teams’ efforts toward a simple and common goal: developing the most effective plan that helps our clients win. That win brings the entire team victory. While this approach can generate internal fiscal uncertainties with the ebb and flow of income and talent across various departments, it has always ultimately laddered up to healthy profitably within each function team and across the board.
  • Continually invest in new capabilities and software. This includes significant investments in tools to enhance research, insight and data capabilities. We’re not shy about adding to our collection of tools and software to enhance the brains behind our marketing intelligence and analytics machine.
  • Recruit new and diverse talent to drive the marketing intelligence and analytics that fuel everything. I have always subscribed to the belief “It’s the people stupid. Hire the best and you win. Don’t, and you lose.” It’s that simple—but it’s not easy. We go to great lengths to recruit the best people we can find. We’ve learned the hard way that culture fit is as important as skill fit, perhaps even more so. The people at Gatesman are talented, passionate, and smart. But more than that they fit a culture devoted to adapting to challenges and capitalizing on opportunities—even and especially when doing so requires taking on new roles, attitudes, and mindsets.

In explaining a revision to the pandemic’s estimated impact earlier last week, Dr. Anthony Fauci noted that “What you do with data will always outstrip a model. You redo your models depending upon your data." We’re being compelled to revisit and redo our models. Those of us who embraced the data-driven technologies and tools of the digital evolution may already have the data we necessary to achieve this. Some may need to find new ways of generating it.

Those of us who have the courage to listen to what our data tells us and embrace the change ahead will have the best chance of not just surviving, but thriving, post pandemic and beyond.