Planning in a Crisis

We live in a time when the next crisis is just a news alert away. It doesn’t even surprise us much anymore. Instead, we’ve adapted a “what now?” mindset.

The first time I experienced account planning during a time of crisis was with The Mother of all crises and a client that couldn’t be more affected if it tried.

Before 9/11, the “Where were you when Kennedy was shot” catastrophe of my generation was “Where were you when the Challenger blew up?”

And then there was 9/11.

I was working at Carat at the time and remember walking into the office to find everyone huddled up to the small TV in the kitchen. It was so odd that I didn’t even go to my desk to put my bags down first. It was, as everyone who watched it live could attest, confusing. Baffling. Unsettling, eerie, and disconcerting. At first everyone thought it was a horrible mistake by the pilot. But how? That day had a perfectly pale blue sky; one that I don’t even remember had clouds.

Terrorism wasn’t as pervasive back in 2001.

Once I could pick my jaw up off the floor, I picked up my bags and headed to my desk. Before I made it there (and we’re talking 10 feet max), there was gasping and shocked yelling. I dropped my bags mid-stride and ran back to the kitchen. For about a full minute I was convinced that the second plane hitting the Towers was a replay of the first plane.

Phones began ringing off the hook. Every client wanted all media pulled. Immediately. Ironically, however, many of our clients and the majority of our vendors were in NY. And no one was picking up.

When I had finally pulled myself away from the TV and grabbed my bags, now strewn in the middle of the aisle (sometime after the Pentagon but before Flight 93 crashed in Pennsylvania), I reached out to the client that I knew would be the most afflicted, distressed, and damaged – Club Med.

One thing that I learned that day, and that I still take with me each day, is that you need to be a rock for your clients. Or as I tell my team, “We are the first people our clients will often call when their business is in a state of emergency. We need to be there for them, assure them, walk them through whatever they’re going through, and listen to their concerns with intense and active interest. It is our job to respond with knowledge and leadership, becoming the calm in their storm. We panic after we hang up the phone.”

When I was finally able to connect with Club Med they were at Level 10 on the panic meter. They wanted all media pulled as soon as humanly possible and they wanted to cancel media through 2002. This wasn’t a knee-jerk reaction (entirely); they truly believed that their entire company, no, their entire industry went down with the Towers that day (and I say that with complete respect and sincerity).

As we spoke I told them that I completely agreed with pulling the media for now, but recommended that we keep it on hold in the system for Q4. My intention was to watch the pulse of our country closely and respond accordingly. If our spots still needed to be canceled we could do so without incurring penalties, but if we decided to stay on-air we still had our ad placements secured.

That was a very very long day.

The team was in constant communication not just with Club Med, but also with all of our brands in the agency’s portfolio. I, myself, also managed Van Melle USA (Airheads, Mentos, & Mentos Cool Chews), Storck of the Americas (Werther’s Original, Riesen Chocolate Chews, & Toffifay), and Guylian (a delicious chocolate company that I featured in a blog on my site titled “How Do You Get One Year’s Worth Of Advertising With A One-Month Budget? Here’s How.”

The difference between Club Med and my candy accounts was that my CPG brands never questioned their future. Club Med did.

Regardless of what I was personally going through (I was six months pregnant with my first child and in shock of not what had just happened, but what was still happening), I had to be there for my clients. I needed them to feel safe and secure and know that no matter what happened, we were going to get through this together.

I explained to them that, yes, people weren’t going to be in vacation-mode for awhile and that flights in the US – or even planes headed abroad where there would be more fuel in the tanks (something I for one never thought of prior) – would be hit. And hard. But it would never go away completely. It couldn’t, it’s not our human nature to quit. It’s in our DNA to band together and “not let them win.”

As time inevitably went by, and it took about five years, “normalcy” did return. Though never to pre-9/11 standards. Long gone were the days when someone could take you to the airport and wait with you at the gate until you boarded your flight.

But the relationship I had with the client was forever changed. The trust deepened. They knew that no matter what I was in it with them. They knew that I lived and breathed their brand and that even in a crisis, they were forefront in my mind.

Making that distinction from a person panicked by the situation to an unshakeable leader for my brands was a very valuable lesson to learn so early in my career. I am that rock for my client. And I would like to be that rock for your brand.

And what better time than now, as winter approaches and the weather has already become unseasonably cold, to book a trip to Club Med.

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