The song remains the same

This post is sponsored by Sambal Lab.

Last year, pre-pandemic, I caught the H.E.R. and Missy Elliott cover of Paint It Black. As with most great songs, the Stones’ 1966 rock ballad has been covered countless times. But it has also crossed genres - from funk rock to country to R&B to an orchestral piece on Westworld.

In its re-births through very different times and tastes, the hooks and hi-hats remain the same - and have proven commercially successful. And it got me thinking - what if the pandemic is really a lesson in consistency, not change?

Of course, the pandemic wasn’t just a different time. It caught the market with its pants down; there was no easing into it. But what we learn from past disasters is that times like this favour a calm stance over a scramble for quick answers.

Sure enough, as soon as the pandemic hit, new marketing jargons began to be lobbed around. "Pivot marketing" was one that caught on, perhaps because "taking a different angle" sounded like new hope in a new norm. But I was sceptical. It seemed as if this given approach to any client brief required a fresh way of saying it.

I asked myself - were agencies not “pivot marketing” before 2020? Even to a relatively young agency such as ours, marketing itself had always meant "pivoting" - whether it’s introducing a cognac brand into the mixology scene where Millennials are, or repositioning beer as high-culture, to get the luxury market talking.

Jargon has always been a way to "market" the marketer no doubt, but these "ground truthings" and "groundswells" often overshadow the truth.

Both these “recent methods” are nothing that wouldn’t be employed at the get-go by any seasoned PR person since the 1990s ... or the Medicis and the Borgias centuries ago.

"Influencer marketing"? That was Steve McQueen flashing his Submariner at interviews and social occasions for Rolex in the 1960s and ’70s; Claudia Muzio was literally seduced by Aristotle Onassis into smoking the first lady cigarette brand in public an entire era before (making Onassis a millionaire before age 25). Most times, new jargon doesn’t mean new methods.

Clients tend to reach out to agencies with proven fundamentals in times of survival

The fact is, we needn’t approach briefs differently during the pandemic. The never-ending social isolation merely provided one client the backdrop to expand its eSports base across Southeast Asia to anyone and everyone with a smartphone. And another to communicate the true value of public health data and technology.

What has changed? Fundamentally, nothing. Brands in the most dire of industries - travel - continue the tradition of meaningful offerings. Recently, with vaccines scoring huge real-world efficacy numbers and potentially speeding up pan-immunity, nearly all Japanese airlines have started to include COVID tests at very low to zero costs to help consumers close the doubt gap and fly again.

Evidently, tangible solutions were achieved through the same core practices of critical thinking, holistic strategising, business acumen, and adaptability - pandemic or otherwise.

Consistency may sound like an old norm, but it could well be the new lesson. It’s also reassuring, for in times of survival, clients tend to reach out to agencies with proven fundamentals, and less likely to those only now discovering "pivoting" in marketing.

Marketing, a profession as old as gambling and prostitution, has its own colourful history. But behind the glitz and glory of public accolades, political influence and industry awards lie the same fundamental processes - employing research and data analysis methods appropriate to each era.

Let’s not forget that brands such as Guinness and Hennessy were born in the time of quill and parchment. And yet they built global empires that stand to this day. Clearly it isn’t the tools or terminology, but the fundamentals that make the marketer.

Yes, 2020 did stop a number of jobs in its tracks. But it also provided some quiet for both clients and agencies to reflect, realign resources and regenerate. In retrospect, the lull turned out to be pretty useful. It afforded us the luxury of watching the scramble from the sidelines, while saving ourselves from a couple of clients hell-bent on diving into it. It also allowed for long conversations with past clients who reached out to us - much real-world insights there - and the space to explore brands outside our usual territory.

While many a client and agency lived in "fear of missing out", we thought differently. Sambal Lab chose to roll with clients who trust marketing fundamentals. Missing out on some job prospects just meant more focus on others. The results were surprisingly rewarding. We experienced the "joy of missing out" - a new-age jargon we finally agree with.

A year on in the pandemic, we are managing the few new clients outside our usual territory, without having to let any of our staff go. This confirms my belief that to stay strong, an agency must have the fundamentals.

What about the so-called new norm in marketing? It sounds more like a cover version of what had always worked. Let's just say even if Paint It Black ever comes back as a K-pop number, the song remains the same – and just as impossible to ignore.

The writer is Jodh Dheensay, partner at Sambal Lab.