COVID Crisis: Has digital been the biggest gainer or least-hit sector?

Experts say a 3-month lockdown can take away 20-30% of the estimated Digital ad revenues for 2020, raising questions on whether the medium will be the biggest beneficiary or just the least affected

e4m by Neeta Nair
Published: May 13, 2020 8:10 AM  | 12 min read
Digital marketing

During the lockdown, brands sold on traditional advertising have been veering towards Digital advertising. Take ITC, for example - consistently among the top 10 advertisers on TV, it is now trying to engage with its audience equally using the Digital medium, be it launching a digital video film for ITC’s B Natural beverage range or sharing recipes on Aashirvaad aata’s social media handles to engage with its consumers.

The story is similar for many other big brands that have promptly found their way to Digital channels. This behaviour has started many debates on whether the Digital medium is, in fact, the biggest beneficiary of the COVID-19 crisis.

Here, we attempt to understand whether Digital is indeed the biggest gainer or just the least hit sector in the time of lockdown.

Vishal Chinchankar, Chief Digital Officer, Madison Media, says: “I wouldn't use the term ‘biggest’ but Digital is definitely a beneficiary. Earlier, brands had the luxury of spending a good amount of their annual revenues on advertising, but the priority for marketers now is to make sure that the reserves are not eroded and thus they have to look sharply at their spends. Even now, there are some brands in the FMCG category that just can’t stop advertising because it is a drip for their business. They have to thus focus on performance advertising campaigns over just general branding campaigns. TV still gives a far better Cost Per Thousand (CPT) over Digital from an ROI point of view, but the kind of volumes that you require, and investments to sustain them are massive. With the shrinking of budgets, you can probably put that same amount of money on Digital and maybe work on your reach and frequency.”

There is another reason why it doesn’t make all that much sense for most brands to spend on TV and other mainstream mediums right now. Anand Chakravarthy, MD, Essence India, explains, “The most important factor here is that due to the lockdown, the supply chain has been affected. Local administrations took a different call on restrictions in different markets, affecting availability of products and services differently in different geographies. Mass Television in such a situation will give you a huge amount of spillover into markets where your product is not even available on the shelves, so there is no point of reaching out to audiences in those markets. So, a brand needs to reach out to markets where the supply is least affected, something that Digital enables. That is why you saw that brands, which typically would have spent on Television, focused more on Digital in April and possibly will continue to do so until the supply chains get sorted out.”

Traditionally, advertisers in the e-commerce sector, automobiles, travel, etc., used to advertise very aggressively in the month of May, now most of them have taken a backseat, while categories like Edu-tech, Fin-tech, FMCG and Pharma have become more visible. Similarly, phone brands, electronics manufacturers, ride-sharing platforms, retail advertisers who have had to shut down physical stores, etc., have largely cut down on advertising on mainstream platforms. Some of them have, however, launched Digital video ads. Clearly, acceptance of the Digital medium is increasing.

Most Digital platforms in the country today have gained new consumers, the time people spend on these platforms has shot up and owing to that, to some extent, new advertisers have come on board too. Also, organisations which operated for years on legacy systems are speeding up their Digital journeys. In short, COVID-19 has managed to advance the digital transformation that experts in the field, perhaps, were waiting for a few years.

However, it has not been all hunky dory for Digital agencies and platforms either. Sanjay Mehta, Joint CEO, Mirum, tells us why. “Soon after the lockdown was announced, about 40-50% of our clients cut back on ad spends very sharply, some of them even by as much as 100%. Some of our clients were sending out care-giving or awareness messages, but didn’t want to spend a lot of money on advertising them. Then, there were some new launch campaigns which were about to happen. They were put on hold. The clients were waiting for clarity on the situation but I am confident that when they do decide to come out and spend, Digital will get a big chunk of that, at least that is the sense I am getting from most of our clients right now.”

There is another way of looking at it, says Heeru Dingra, CEO, WATConsult. “Historically, March has always been a great month for us. So even this year, the month was unaffected by COVID-19 as the lockdown was executed only towards the end of it. Business has surely seen a slight dip in April, and in terms of media spends, which have been halted by some clients. But we, at WATConsult, derive a large part of our revenues through retainers and projects which continue to go on without any significant dip. My sense is that from May onwards, brands will start adapting to COVID-19 times and will start innovating their marketing and content strategies accordingly, as this is expected to continue for the next few months too.”

A Digital expert who didn’t wish to be named said that the big three Digital companies - Google, Facebook and Twitter - are seeing a 30-40% drop in their revenues for the month of April, even though their global first quarterly earnings for 2020 didn’t exactly show dismal results. For Facebook, the year-over-year advertising revenues were up 17% with $17.44 billion in Q1 ad revenues. YouTube pulled in $4.03 billion this quarter compared to $3.03 in Q1 2019, up 33%, while Twitter saw $682 million in ad revenue for the quarter, just a little above the $679 million it pulled in for Q1 2020. Most of these companies’ Q1 revenues were only impacted deeply in March. It is an understood fact, of course, that these numbers are not exactly the most representative of the slowdown; the real test would be the Q2 earnings.

Sandeep Sreekumar, MD, Media Moments, says: “Actually, in the first week post the lockdown, there was not too much of a dip in advertising because at that point of time, nobody had expected that it would go on for so long. The big dip started when the announcement came on it being extended. That's when the advertising spends on big platforms like Google reduced, launches were called off. So, on an average you could see there was at least 20% to 30% dip on Digital platforms but May is getting increased enquiries, the year ahead will be better.”

Vishal Chinchankar says on similar lines, “There was a knee jerk reaction by most of the advertisers as nobody knew what to do when the lockdown was announced; the impact on Digital at that point was roughly in the range of 40-45% as the back-end got impacted. But over a period of time - that is getting back to normal - all assets are working fine. So April was bad, May would be better. But if I look at even a Google or a Facebook, they would have been impacted by roughly 40-45% in the past two months.”

Asked what would be the expected impact on Digital advertising revenues in 2020, if we are looking at a three-month lockdown period, most digital experts we spoke to pegged the approximate blow at 20-30% of the estimated digital ad revenues for 2020, which the DAN e4m Digital Report 2020, released at the beginning of the year, pegged at Rs 17,377 crore. That means we are looking at an estimated loss of anything between Rs 3474-Rs 5211 crore for 2020 in the event of a three-month lockdown.

But digital is clearly the lesser hit amongst the mediums because it is logical that advertisers want to be on platforms where the consumers are spending the maximum amount of time, which, in this case, is the Digital medium - be it OTT players where ad revenues have actually shot up or Instagram and TikTok where consumers are actively generating their own content with everyone turning chef or sharing workout tips, which has resulted in an increase in the viewership of these platforms. Other brands prefer to advertise on e-commerce platforms because they want to put their ads in places closer to where consumers can buy the products.

However, Sanjay Mehta of Mirum says he doesn’t think that ad volumes have gone up on the Digital medium as such. He explains, “I don’t think the volumes have gone up. If you are seeing more ads, it’s probably because there are a lot of pro bono ads running - charity ads, or those by an NGO. A lot of publishers tend to give space to them and for COVID-19-related communication from the Health Ministry, because inventory is available. So, those kinds of announcements are there, but they come at a very low rate. Another aspect is that there are categories of advertisers who have entirely dropped out of the game, like Travel players. With those advertisers gone, the rest of the inventory is probably available at a little cheaper rate because the bidders are less (on platforms like Facebook, Google, etc) and there is less competition for that space.”

If April saw several marketing budgets being slashed by 60%, FMCG, the biggest category of advertisers operating at 40% of their strength, others completely halting advertising to take stock of the situation, then May has seen the sunshine return as far as the Digital medium is concerned at a slow but steady pace. What has happened today in the world of marketing has never been witnessed earlier in the history of mankind, where manufacturing, supply, retail - everything has been hit. So experts are saying it will be premature to suggest that there will be a dramatic shift from TV (the only other medium where viewership has increased) to Digital in the year ahead because it is a question of when production will resume. It is certain that brands that were not selling online will rethink their strategies on e-commerce and accelerate their presence there as in the current situation they are at a disadvantage. With social distancing norms to be in place well after the lockdown is over, consumer behaviour is about to change and media consumption patterns too, which give a big advantage to the Digital medium, not just as a platform, but also for advertising.

Vishal Chinchankar says, “Pharma, CPG and the banking industry are coming back in a big way. So, there was a bit of a jerk, but around two weeks ago, they all came back to low saliency sort of an investment. But that doesn’t mean TV is going away, Digital may, however, become the second most important medium after TV. Online video consumption during lockdown has gone up by 70% of its previous high and will continue to be important for advertisers because it offers a wide platter of audiences, incremental reach, and data science of sharp targeting.” TV plus OTT and the performance product are slated to thus become important post COVID-19.

Gurjot Shah Singh, Senior VP, Dentsu Webchutney, on the other hand, is confident that Digital will attract a bigger chunk of the ad pie. He says, “It’s simple. All the camera, mobile, automobile brands, etc, will have units to sell in their factories and they will have to advertise to sell them. And for that, the media mix is certainly going to change to become a lot more inclined towards performance and it will be ROI heavy. What I see getting affected the most is the large formats. The roadblock on a Times of India website or a YouTube masthead will suffer. But at the same time, performance mediums Google, Facebook, e-commerce and native ads will pull in a lot of advertising money. You will see a spike in advertising the minute the lockdown ends for at least three months.”

According to Heeru Dingra, “Though COVID-19 has indeed advanced Digital three years ahead of its time in India, it is being speculated that Digital may not do as well in 2020 as compared to the last year. This is just because there has been a transformational change and as we all know, transformation is a slow process. So, there is a high possibility that this transformation would help reap the benefits in the coming year. Considering the acceptance and advantages of Digital, I also feel that we are likely to suffer less, compared to other mediums.”

Meanwhile, the OOH industry is fighting tooth and nail for survival. The Association of Radio Operators for India representing the Private FM Radio broadcasters have appealed to the government for financial aid, calling themselves one of the worst-hit sectors, many a Print publication has been plunged into paralysis during the lockdown, advertising volumes on TV have witnessed a drop as per BARC, and TV channels are under severe strain. In such a situation, Digital definitely seems like the better placed medium to weather the storm.

Unlike other mediums, experts say Digital is definitely not going to see a de-growth and if things pick up pace June onwards, we could even see a high single-digit growth in 2020. As per the recent Kantar ICUBE 2019 report, Rural India has registered growth of Internet users at 45%, while Urban India is maturing at 11% growth, bringing the Monthly Active Internet usage to over 574 million in India. The projected figure for 2020 is 639 million Monthly Active Internet Users, which means there is enough and more scope for Digital to shine in the year ahead.

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