This is our great interregnum


Agency News

Published by

Charles Vallance



And so the return to a much-trailed new normality begins

Non-essential shops have reopened. Premier League football has kicked off, albeit behind closed doors. Pubs are dusting down their glasses. Hairdressers sharpening their scissors. Office doors warily reopening.

We are miles from how things used to be and, of course, we’ll never quite go back there again. But some of the old patterns are beginning to re-emerge and it’s natural to find reassurance in them.

Except we all know that this isn't it. This isn't really the beginning of a new normal, but the beginning of an immunology waiting game. A game that ends only when a vaccine is found. Only then will new patterns of normality be able to truly establish themselves. Until then, we are improvising in a waiting room off the main event.

Pandemics come in many forms. Of the 40 biggest contagions in the past 2,000 years, Coronavirus the Third (after Sars and Mers) is unlikely to get far into the top 20. It’s probably a few places above the Asian flu pandemic of 1957-58 that reportedly caused about 33,000 excess deaths in the UK and a global death toll of 1.1 million. The toll might have been far greater in the UK, but a vaccine was found relatively quickly and was speedily administered by our brilliant NHS.

So, although the damage caused by Covid-19 is colossal, its fatality rate is not on the same scale as the Antonine Plague, the Plague of Justinian, the Black Death, the American plagues, Spanish flu or HIV/Aids. It is closer in scale to the outbreak of 1957-58.

To say we've seen worse is hardly any consolation, but it does mean that we can find coping mechanisms and workarounds in order to get the economy moving again. And this is how it will be during the waiting game, during the hiatus, during what historians once termed the Great Interregnum (describing the gap between the death of one holy Roman emperor and the accession of the next).

Only this time around, instead of describing a gap between two reigns, today's interregnum will measure the gap between Covid-19 being brought largely under control and it being eliminated altogether – allowing us to shop, fly, socialise, congregate and celebrate in the ways we did before, if we so choose.

So what are the implications for brands during this great interregnum?

First, for the indefinite future, (probably into early 2021), we must continue doing what we've been doing for the past 100 days; improvising, responding and adapting to events as best we can. We have to accept that it is business as unusual and that we will need to be agile, proactive and responsive as a result. 

There is, however, a limit to how long such tactical agility can sustain a brand. This is where the great paradox of the great interregnum comes in. Because, alongside the many ad-hoc, fast-turnaround projects occupying us right now, it is vital that we are even more preoccupied by the fundamentals, that we have an even steadier eye on the future. Put simply, we musn't let long-term brand strength become the hostage of highly necessary, but inevitably short-term, crisis management.

One way to avoid this trap is to imagine we're developing our strategies in an ideal world, devoid of crisis. In such a world, although our systems may vary at the margins, they're all likely to share a three- to five-year horizon and they will all address, in one way or another, the three Fs of fame, fluency and feeling. 

It is, perhaps, the first F that can be the earliest casualty of short-termism. It’s easy to become risk-averse in times of adversity; it’s even sometimes tempting to take refuge within the status quo rather than try to shatter it.

It is easy, also, to forget the true enemy for our end product; an enemy that will only get more ferocious with time. That enemy is indifference. The world does not owe our advertising its attention and it is getting better at editing us out. We must fight harder and harder to get noticed, to drive word of mouth, to gain social currency. And our chief weapon in this fight is famous work. Work that cuts through, that sings out, that people love. 

When we look back on the great interregnum, the hallmark of the really smart brands won't be found in the way they handled the crisis (although they will have done this impeccably). It will be found in the way they were already looking far beyond it.