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How lockdown shifted an ad agency’s focus to being dr...

Business Maverick

Business 168

How lockdown shifted an ad agency’s focus to being driven by purpose

Photo: Nick Muzik

Much like momentous events alter our world, our perception, our relationships with ourselves and others – and even language itself, idiomatically, making the best of a bad situation is what keeps “hope alive”. And, as any entrepreneur knows, if you don’t respond appropriately to a crisis, you’re in the wrong game.

Pivoting: It’s one of the most vexing of Covid clichés, down a notch from “unprecedented”, “new normal”, “social distancing”, “agility” and the eternal clanger, loved by politicians with no viable solutions, “challenges”. 

Much like momentous events alter our world, our perception, our relationships with ourselves and others – and even language itself, idiomatically, making the best of a bad situation is what keeps “hope alive”. And, as any entrepreneur knows, if you don’t respond appropriately to a crisis, you’re in the wrong game.

Out-of-home (OOH) advertising, or outdoor media, as the name would suggest, is not inside the home. And for an industry built on advertising goods and services on billboards, posters, wallscapes, transit media, street furniture and digital billboards, that means engaging eyes on the messaging.

This all changed in 2020, when target audiences were locked down both physically and socially. With little warning, borders closed, only “essential” goods and services were allowed, and entire sectors were declared off-limits. 

The advertising sector needed a rethink, which required sales teams to knock on some new doors. For one OOH company, that process triggered some big changes. 

Hamstrung by the hard lockdown, Tractor Outdoor used it as an opportunity for introspection and renewal. Working from home forced them to think differently, says CEO Simon Wall: “Our business is centred on selling audiences – when lockdown happened there was none of that.”

Instead, Tractor turned inwards, focussing on its people, ensuring their ecosystems remained secure, by providing mindfulness, leadership and other online training. 

“We went into lockdown with the mantra of sharpening your tools. As a business we also sponsored training across the entire team,” Wall explains.

By mid-April, the sales team started reaching out to more small businesses than before. What they encountered was a devastated market, so Tractor decided to leverage its market strength by launching a R5-million relief fund to give qualifying SMEs free advertising space via its extensive media networks across South Africa. Launched on a Friday, they drowned in applications. With R100,000 digital ad spend on offer, the curtain had to be drawn on the process by the following Tuesday.

Wall says the response to the sales team was incredible: when they called the applicants informing them of their success, some were in tears. 

“The sales team took control of onboarding these small clients; to hear their stories made such a huge impact. It just made them better salespeople. They became much more empathetic.” 

He says the SME fund might have started as a “nice to have” but the company learnt some powerful lessons. 

“It was good for the sales team to understand what businesses were going through. That empathy that we felt for the clients, we put it through to the whole business.”

A few SME partners qualified as “SME Heroes”, with their stories of surviving the pandemic documented in clips loaded on to YouTube. These include Future Champs, a boxing club for at-risk youngsters from Khayelitsha; Okja, an oatmilk product; Foodbox, an online grocery store that grew out of the Red Sofa Café to retain staff and “protect the cash”; Naturals Beauty, an ethical, affordable natural skincare range; and Salushi, a sushi restaurant decimated by business-killing trade restrictions. 

Another lockdown project was participating in the #SendingLove digital and social media campaign, which displayed user-generated messages of love and unity on digital out-of-home screens worldwide. 

Staff and their experiences in the field gave rise to a metamorphosis in the company’s ethos, from being profit-driven to being one balanced by profit for purpose. Tractor is busy attaining B Corporation certification, which is granted only to companies that meet the “highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose”. The B Corp community works interdependently, to use business as a force for good.

Although retaining large clients such as Coca-Cola, Nando’s and Old Mutual is essential for keeping Tractor buoyant, giving SMEs access to digital billboards allows the company to give small companies a leg up.

Wall says they will always make space available, especially on their digital OOH platforms, for small businesses: “We are lucky to have a fairly robust profit; we need to acknowledge our privilege and give others a platform. We have to support our shareholders and staff, naturally, but we will always accommodate small businesses to make advertising more affordable.” 

Affordability is a huge factor, he says, and although classic and static billboards are taking a battering due to the expense, Tractor’s digital OOH portfolio is growing rapidly. 

Wall says what has come out of this crisis is the importance of collaboration.

“The days of large, monolithic businesses going out there and extracting as much budget from agencies are gone. The clients are the winners here. The industry would like to see more people winning – the only way to get out of this is to do it together.” 

Tractor’s journey since 27 March 2020 changed the company, for good.  “We became a business that really works with the community. That has become one of the main pillars underpinning our business. What started as a nice thing to do has become the most important thing to do.” DM168

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