Making the Advertising Business Model Work in the Year of the Pandemic By Onat Roldan

To say that 2020 was a challenging year would be a huge understatement. The past year proved to be one of the most unforgettable years in history, mostly due to the COVID-19 pandemic that not only paused the world but also took hundreds of thousands of lives in its wake.


The seriousness of the situation forced many companies and industries to take a long, hard look in the mirror, so to speak, and reassess if they could indeed push on in its wake. One of the most affected industries was the field of advertising as brands and companies reassessed if they should continue to spend on advertising in the wake of the lockdowns imposed. 


As Filipinos limited their discretionary spending, shopping habits shifted from physical stores to online, fueling a change in how brands advertised or spent their advertising budgets. The shutdown of media conglomerate ABS-CBN in mid-2020 also limited the means for brands to get their messages out even as the company itself placed a bigger premium on streaming their shows on Facebook and YouTube while broadcasting on alternative channels. 


AdSpark, a 917Ventures Portfolio company, was no different as in our fifth year of existence, we too had to determine several things. We had to make our business work during this difficult year. As improbable as it may be, we strove to hit the goals we had projected before the pandemic struck, yet as the dust settled, we realized that 2020 was the best performing year of the company to date.


As a new year dawns upon us, I would like to impart some lessons we’ve learned as we achieved success in a most unusual year.



Lesson 1: It matters to keep your culture in check. Make WFH work. 

Regular Zoom town halls were a priority even on the first few days of the lockdown. It was followed by engagement activities online that kept us connected despite restrictions. We had a full calendar of “quaranthings” as we moved several office activities online like our usual Thursday E-numans, brainstorm sessions, quiz nights, and even our game breaks, down to our year-end party.  



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Rather than attempting to go beyond what is our core business, AdSpark used the challenge that was 2020 to focus on what we do best, and that is digital marketing. It is what we do best that bonded the agency together. The webinars and ThoughtSparkers that we produced were not entered into for revenue generating purposes. Instead, we saw the need to strengthen our community, our very industry, that might have found itself rudderless at times, especially in the early days of lockdown.


In a sense, the crisis brought out a spark in us that we wanted to share with not just the people within our company, but also within our thriving creative and media circle. We recognized that by humanizing consumer data, we could spark ideas and ideals for brands that help people make choices and better their lives. And in times like we live in today, that is a responsibility that we do not take lightly.


Even as the specter of a vaccine against the coronavirus begins to emerge as the proverbial light at the end of a very dark tunnel, we aim to keep doing what we do best on behalf of our partners and clients who have joined us. Pandemic or not, our core values and our beliefs remain steadfast and we will continue to offer them to brands that share those with us.


Lesson 2: Even from your home offices, keep creating impactful, cutting-edge work.

Rather than shut ourselves down and tuck our collective tails between our legs, we buckled down and moved forward to produce arguably some of the best work in AdSpark’s history in 2020. We launched over 2,350 campaigns and made a significant impact in the ever-growing medium that is digital. We placed #1 on the Twitter leaderboards for several campaigns. One of which is the #SecretNaFunSayo campaign for TM. Despite the difficulties that the pandemic wrought, we were able to push telemedicine, specifically KonsultaMD, so much so that app installation was 488% more than initially projected. As the year ended, we also made waves in terms of media amplification with an unforgettable campaign on behalf of RC Cola that brought many new eyeballs to the brand.


Amidst the pandemic, we have successfully pivoted AdSpark to become a digital media+ agency -- from thought leadership to creative ideation and performance media execution – that helps enterprises keep connected to their customers in a hyper-digital world.


Lesson 3: Offering relevant advice as goodwill helps in building relationships.

As digital leaders in our field, we knew that the crisis impacted our partners and consumers significantly. So, as part of gearing up, we utilized our core capabilities in order to not just understand the landscape. We also gave sound recommendations to clients for free in this most critical time.


Powered by #AdSparkIntelligence, we released four ThoughtSparkers that offered an insightful look and an in-depth understanding of the rapidly changing Filipino consumer as a result of the situation we have found ourselves in. These ThoughtSparkers were “The Great Reset,” “Digital: The Flag of Freedom in 2020,” “A Portrait of the COVID-19 Crisis as Filipino,” and “The New Romantics.”


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Even as we determined that the simple act of attending seminars was taken away by the pandemic, we made sure that we would not be prevented from sharing our knowledge or continuing to engage with our partners through other means. We put the spotlight on these Thoughtsparkers by turning them into roundtable discussions and exclusive webinars. 


Among the 21 webinars, we co-created was the previously mentioned “The Great Reset: A Roundtable on the Filipino Psyche,” which explored the unexpected trends and insights as people emerged from the quarantine. Together with Globe Business, Spark Series, sought to give a blueprint into how brands can restart their strategies into the new normal.


Growth means empathizing with clients and strengthening relationships, creating new partnerships


As the year 2020 wore on, we attempted to bring back some sense of normalcy into our lives, thus it was critical that we opened ourselves once more to our established clients while at the same time, forging new partnerships with those who shared our ideals. To that end, AdSpark was able to secure 88 new businesses for 2020, among them were Metrobank, Del Monte, Diageo, Netflix, foodpanda, Asia Brewery Incorporated, and Cebuana Lhuillier.


At the same time, 150 existing partnerships with AdSpark were strengthened, a testament to the strong bonds we have established as well as proof that our clients saw the value of our previous work on their behalf. 


Earning the trust of our clients by following through on commitments as well as holding our partners to higher standards of excellence has enabled us to remain relevant despite the turbulent economic landscape. “AdSpark is able to keep up with fast-paced demands without compromising quality,” says one of our clients. It was a very rough and exhausting ride but thanks to our healthy collaborations we were able to stay afloat and keep sight of our true north.


The challenges that 2020 brought on were unprecedented and global in scale, and it would have been easy to just take a raincheck on the year to refocus on 2021 instead. Yes, that would have been easier but we instead chose a path that was previously uncharted. The positives that came out of that choice proved that in spite of the uncertainty that the global pandemic left all of us in, good things can still be found if one works hard enough at making it happen. No matter how big or small, no matter what phase you are in, never let your spark fade.


For more insights into how AdSpark keeps the fire lit, visit www.adspark.ph or email to [email protected]



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Onat has over 25 years in the field of Marketing Communications. Today he is the President and CEO of AdSpark Inc, a Digital Media Company owned by Globe Telecom.


After graduating from the Ateneo de Manila University, Onat started as a copywriter for Great Wall Advertising, handling a diverse range of brands. He remained in the creative field, climbing the ranks and gaining experience with respected multinational agencies AMA-DDB Needham, PAC/BBDO, and McCann-Erickson. He then became an entrepreneur and set up his own Design and Activation firm where he learned the other aspects of the business like Account Management and Financials.


BBDO then called him up at the time when they wanted to launch Proximity, their digital agency. Afterward, he joined JWT Phils. and then Ace Saatchi & Saatchi to help grow their businesses by setting up their non-traditional business units that handled Activation, Digital, and PR. His next endeavor was to establish Cheil Philippines which handled the marketing services needs of Samsung, then moved to Y&R Philippines where he was tasked to lead the agency’s digital transformation.


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