In uncertain times, it is more important than ever to share experience, insights and advice with your peers so we can all learn from one another. With this in mind, we are having conversations with members across various sectors to understand how they, and their teams have been coping with the COVID-19 pandemic, what they have learned from it and how they continue helping their customers.

For this week’s instalment in the series we’ve chatted to Pat Mannion, Commercial Director, JCDecaux

MII: Hi Pat, how have you been adapting your marketing activities during the COVID-19 outbreak?

Our business has been very negatively impacted by Covid lockdown, JCDecaux are the largest media owner in the out of home sector in Ireland, and across the world. And so, as the normal everyday routines we all enjoy were replaced by a period of severe restriction, the flow of business in our direction halted almost immediately, and the impact was severe.

Early on, we decided to use our premium displays as a force for good. People were afraid, there was a great sense of unknown and we were all very appreciative of the role being played by frontline workers. Out of home builds trust for brands, it is a very powerful way to communicate with your audience, people believe what they see on outdoor displays. And so, across billboards and bus shelters, on roadside and retail digital and on Luas we carried a message of thanks to many different sectors.

We began by saying thank you to the health workers, and followed up with messages of support to the emergency services, delivery and retail workers, and we even said thank you to the Easter bunny not long after all of this began. These messages were picked up and highlighted on mainstream media and across social media, giving the campaign a level of amplification that we had not anticipated. It was clear that messages of goodwill and appreciation were in demand.

Interestingly, when we carried out research with B&A post campaign, the levels of recall were incredible, some of the highest numbers we have ever achieved. The anomaly here is that many clients had determined out of home advertising would not have an impact during lockdown and had switched us off. For sure, people were out far less, they were working from home and there was no socialising. But we still had to go out, to shop and to exercise, and our interactions with out of home became more local. It also became more personal, as these messages were on display in and amongst our community. Many in the commercial world missed this opportunity to engage with their audience during this most surreal of times, but there were others who saw the potential and I will highlight the performance of McDonalds in this regard a little later.

How have you been engaging with your team?

Our office based teams have worked from home since March 2020, and we have made the most of Microsoft Teams and Zoom during this period. Nothing will ever replace real life interaction with colleagues and clients but this period has changed how we will view our working structures in the future.

On a broader scale, I hope that when we return to normality, knowing that work can be balanced between the office and home, it will bring a fresh approach to where we live and how we work. Often, we hear about towns and villages that are struggling to survive because there is no work to be found there, but perhaps this new balanced way of working will let us spread out across the country, breathing life into rural Ireland and giving a bit more space in the big cities.

What have you learned from a marketing perspective from COVID 19?

It’s not so much about learning, but more a reinforcement of what we have all been told in the past; when there is a crisis, keep advertising. The brands that do, will come out fitter and stronger in the end. If we go back to the example of the ‘thank you’ campaign appearing on streets which were supposedly empty, and yet it was the most highly recalled campaign in years, what does this mean for brands? It means that brands who were brave, had a whole medium to themselves, their share of voice went through the roof and customers really responded.

McDonalds is a great example of this. Throughout lockdown, they have continued to use outdoor, choosing to advertise in proximity to their stores, promoting home delivery and drive-thrus but most of all just keeping the brand top of mind. They were flexible in how they adapted their business to this crisis and anecdotally, we have been told their numbers are terrific; new customers, higher levels of repeat customers, and increased spend per visit.

How have your work practices changed? What will you do differently going forward?

Our work practices reflect the current situation. Where possible, our staff work from home, essential workers within our teams continue to fulfil their roles while adhering to the strictest of safety measures. Will we remain this way from here on in? I doubt it, but there is a balance to be found in all of this, a flexible approach where both the company and the employee work towards what is best for everyone.

Has your brand purpose been challenged by Covid 19? How?

Along with cinema, out of home has been the most severely affected medium during lockdown. This has brought huge pressure for our business and has given us plenty of pause for thought. That said, in 2014, as the effects of the global financial crisis began to lift (seems like a long time ago now), JCDecaux was ready.

We began a major programme of investment across our portfolio that saw Première lightboxes, Digipoles, Digipanels and Digishelters reinvent our medium as Ireland’s first roadside digital network took shape. During the crisis, despite all the setbacks, we continued to grow this network, most recently with a network of premium Digishelters along O’Connell Street and Westmoreland Street, a first for advertising of this nature on these wonderful streets. This is who we are, our brand stands for quality and excellence, pillars we are recognised for in marketing communities across the globe. And so, when we come out of this Covid period of uncertainty, JCDecaux will be ready once again.

What brands or businesses have you admired through this crisis?

Having already highlighted McDonalds for their bravery, a lot closer to home for us was NOW, becoming the commercial partner to dublinbikes. The team in NOW had identified this partnership some years back and when it became available, they fully committed to coming on board, despite the timing coinciding with the worst of the pandemic lockdown. There are great brand affinities between NOW and dublinbikes and Dublin city is a valuable market for the streaming service provider.

Since the restrictions have started to ease, NOW dublinbikes activity is growing steadily as the city comes back to life. Together we have launched a new app which allows users to unlock the bikes from their phones, and more recently we introduced 800 electric bikes to the fleet, which is the biggest innovation to the service since it came into being back in 2010. NOW have been brave to make this commitment at this time and as with McDonalds, I believe them investing in their brand now will pay dividends for the service for years to come.