How can marketers defend budgets from imminent cuts

Why it matters

Marketers the world over are being asked to look at budget cuts and how they can support the business through this financial crunch. But evidence strongly suggests that abandoning investment in brand communications and advertising only helps the short term. Marketers need to plan for this tough conversation and prepare to show exactly what value can be added.


    • Fiercely defending spend of any kind in a downturn is unlikely to go well, it’s more effective to have a mindset of “doing your part” to protect the overall results of the business.
    • The first step in pivoting your marketing spend is to re-understand your digital consumer for today.
  • Many sales teams are scrambling to learn about social selling now that they have been forced to go online, support this and add value to the delivery of sales.

    Don't abandon your investment in branding or communications - history proves it hurts you in the long run.

Whilst the COVID-19 pandemic continues to devastate communities, the flow-on effect to businesses has also been rapid. Billions of dollars have been shaved off stock markets globally in the past few weeks, and entire industries are laying-off staff and expecting dramatically reduced revenue for the foreseeable future.

As marketers, if you haven’t already been asked to look at your marketing budgets to support your business through this financial crunch, you should be expecting the request to come, and planning for it.

On a positive note, now’s the time for marketers to shine; demonstrating our ability to driving revenue has never been more important and taking a front-and-centre role in adapting to the digitally-connected consumer can get marketers a seat at the big table.

Here’s why, and how, you can prepare to protect your budgets and demonstrate your value to the C-suite during this unprecedented time.

~8 minute read:

Frame budget conversations to protect your team’s interests whilst supporting your overall business

Protecting marketing budgets starts with an open dialogue with your finance team. Get a better understanding of the financial health of your business – the cashflow, the markets that are struggling, and what the trajectory of this downturn looks like from a finance perspective; it’ll help you plan where to justify your budget requests.

“Having a frank, and proactive conversation with your CFO / head of Finance will not only give you an understanding of where your budgets need to shift, but it’ll also make negotiations on budget more collaborative as this crisis continues,” explained director of Corporate Affairs for BMW Group Asia, Preeti Gupta.

Fiercely defending spend of any kind in a downturn is unlikely to go well for any marketer – these are tough times and having a mindset of “doing your bit” to protect the overall results of your company will serve you well.

Sisca Margaretta, CMO, Experian Asia Pacific suggests going into budget discussions with a people-first mindset, because saving money on budgets may save a person’s job whether in your team or in another team; and to do so with a staggered approach.

“Build three scenarios - mild, moderate and severe – to dial up or down as the business environment changes and look to periodically review this as the crisis continues. But position your value by having clear principles on your budget choices – be clear in what you’re willing to give away, and what benefits you will lose as a result,” she adds.

Most marketers can dial-up or dial-down activities (and associated costs) more easily – assuming you’re not 100% locked into contracts with creative, media buying or events agencies. Use this to your advantage.

If you are locked into retainers and media buying allocations, here’s when having a proactive and relationship driven conversation with your agency partners begins. Your agency is facing the similar fate as your business in trying to keep their business operating, and their people in jobs, but they should also be taking a long term approach – if you don’t have a “I’ll stick by you now, so that we both survive in the future” approach, then perhaps it’s not a relationship worth having.

This brings us then to finding creative ways, collaboratively, to shift or pause spending. Just remember, your agency inevitably will be accountable to the next rung on the ladder – for example, media buyers will have contracts with publishers and platforms to uphold, so remember that they may not be able to give you everything you ask for – meet them in the middle for ongoing, long-term, success.

Shift, don’t cut, your marketing budgets to where you can add value

Here’s a few things we all know: running physical events are no longer possible in the short term, your consumers (and their eyeballs, and propensity to spend) are now online more than ever before, and your sales team is struggling to do what they do in person, online.

Nokia's network analytics company Deepfield has reported traffic peaks 20 to 40% higher than usual over the past four weeks in areas highly impacted by Covid-19, with Netflix traffic increasing by 54 to 75% in some places. Teleconferencing saw a 300% increase in the company’s analysis and online gaming saw 400% growth.

Serving the digital customer
Adapt your plan:
  • Consider how you're utilising applications such as Messenger, Whatsapp or WeChat for customer service.
  • And use functionality such as polling ads to understand consumer preferences.

Focus on three message pillars in creative messaging:

  • Assurance - Build positive sentiment and confidence with customers
  • Assistance - Provide timely support and alternatives
  • Action - Focus on experience

Meanwhile, Facebook Italy has seen messaging increase over 50% and time in group calling (calls with three or more participants) increase by over 1,000% during the last month.

Our job as marketers right now is to support this turn to the digital consumer, now more than ever – and support end-to-end lead nurturing.

The first step in pivoting your marketing spend is to re-understand your digital consumer for today. Completely revaluate your customer journey mapping and look at each segment and persona’s new journey (even if for the short term). Measure your buyer journey from awareness, to demand-gen to lead-gen and conversion.

There is no single right way to map the journey unique to your target audience, so leverage your consultants or agencies skilled in this task, or look online for resources. At a high level, a good start may look like this example:

The second step should focus on driving revenue. Focus your attention on demand-gen and lead-gen activities.

Get closer to your sales teams and support their communication needs. This may just be the time to implement a customer service function within Messenger, WeChat or Whatsapp for example.

Silence is not golden during this time. You need to be communicating with sales teams transparently – and whilst this may be more closely aligned to a communications / public relations function in your business – support the overall objective with campaigns, messaging and digital sales tools. Many sales teams are scrambling to learn about social selling now that they have been forced to go online, support this and add value to the delivery of sales.

Also look to supporting your marketing team by upskilling them and by bringing external expertise in-house, such as analytics dashboarding, CRM integration and website optimisation. Now’s the time, and there are consultants and suppliers that can help train your team – or reach out to your agency to help you through this. Equip your team with the knowledge and Martech tools to be self-sufficient. Not only will it save you money in the short term, but you’ll have a more efficient marketing function in the long run.

Think of it as investing in marketing assets and justify your spend to your finance team, accordingly. 

Don't abandon your brand building activities, history proves it hurts you in the long run

Many of us will have been affected by crisis and downturns in the past. There are many, well-researched, online resources on how to market through a recession, but all point to the same conclusion: abandoning investment in brand communications and advertising may help you in the short term, but will put your brand in decline in the long term.

If we take the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) of 2007-2008 as an example, WARC research shows that brands that, the first two years of recovery, cut marketing spend during the downturn lost market share, whereas those that increased spend actually gained market share. But what makes the case for increasing marketing spend most compelling is that the magnitude of the gain in market share (+2.0%) was almost three times greater than the size of the loss (-0.8%).

And whilst a leading brand like Coca-Cola has put a pause on all advertising spend, instead choosing to divert funds to help the communities which they serve, most brands are not in a position to do this.

Arguably, Coca-Cola is only able to do this thanks to their position as the sixth strongest brand in the world, according to Brand Finance.

Your (digital, at-home) brand activity must continue to stay top-of-mind for the digital consumer but must be altered to remain relevant during this time. If you still have brand ads that are insensitive to the current environment, cancel them immediately and work with your media and creative agencies to adjust your message and strategy.

You want to avoid #adtechfails that are blatantly incorrect or insensitive to the current environment, such as this:

The brands that will survive and succeed in a post-COVID-19 world will be the ones who adapt to support their customers today

In 2019, Edelman’s Trust Barometer uncovered what the new consumer was concerned with: 81% of respondents said “I must be able to trust the brand to do what is right” – considering it as a deal breaker or deciding factor in their brand buying decision.

Be agile. Change your content today.

In a bold move by travel aggregator, this ad epitomises the approach to “doing what’s right”. In this ad, they’re telling customers to do the opposite of what they need for their business – to stay at home.

A recent WARC article on brand lessons from China stated that Gartner recommends brands to “follow the lead of the consumer and adjust your content strategy accordingly. China has a much higher tolerance for sales messaging than the West, and a business-as-usual strategy approach is not advisable for Western markets. Brand-building should be prioritized in this period.”

And better still, if your product itself can makes lives better, work with your product development and distribution teams etc to see how your company can contribute, in a way that aligns to your brand values, such as this example from graphic design platform Canva:

Sisca Margaretta, CMO, Experian Asia Pacific sums it up by saying:

“This is the time to be a leader. Don’t think of yourself as “marketing” but position yourself for the greater good – of your business and the communities you serve.”

A WARC Case Study on John Lewis’ strategy post-GFC is a good learning on how we can be more emotionally connected to today’s consumer – focus on family values and their basic needs to support them, and connect with them as a brand.

When going into to budget discussions and defending the need for marketing budget during this time, lead with your intention to support your customers in this time of need, to in turn support your business through this crisis.

Not only is it the right thing to do, but it will also serve, in the long run, to be the brand of choice – the one that did the right thing - when the world does emerge to a new normal.

This article is part of a special WARC Snapshot focused on enabling brand marketers to re-strategise amid the unprecedented disruption caused by the novel coronavirus outbreak.

ICON would like to thank the author, Priyanka Nadkarni:

Priyanka Nadkarni is a strategic marketer who believes that being curious is the first step to driving change and staying ahead of the curve.

After a corporate career in financial services marketing, Priyanka started Window Seat Consulting to help B2B clients transform their marketing functions, implement the right marketing automation tools, and start to think differently about how and where to engage with the more digital B2B consumer.

Connect with her at

Recognise: This article was originally published on WARC as part of its Marketing in the COVID-19 crisis series.

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