Advertising in a Crisis: Lessons from Sri Lankan Media Planners

Roar Global
September 8, 2022

In advertising, navigating any type of crisis is a challenge, but what about three successive different crises? This is the question we posed to six advertising agencies in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka is currently facing its worst economic crisis in 70 years, which has led to some serious challenges for both brands and agencies alike. But prior to this, the country struggled in the aftermath of the devastating Easter Sunday attacks in 2019, as well over many months of strict lockdowns that were imposed to curb COVID-19 in 2020 and 2021. Currently, the nation is faced with daily power outages, a dire shortage of fuel, the depreciation of the Sri Lankan Rupee and hyperinflation, which has meant advertisers have been compelled to come up with new strategies for their marketing campaigns. 

We spoke to six media planners to find out how they are providing their clients with expert guidance and insights, and how the support they receive from our Roar Digital team, Sri Lanka’s ASP for Meta, are gearing them to help their clients stay ahead of the curve and produce and promote effective, meaningful campaigns during this difficult time. 

Reliance on Research and Data

At the start of the pandemic, Sri Lankans, like the rest of the world, experienced a series of long lockdowns, which led to a change in people’s spending behaviour and activity. More people were spending a lot more time online and consuming more digital content than ever before. But, because this was an unprecedented situation, there was no reference point and agencies did not have any “go-to” methods and strategies that were already in place. Therefore, there was a need to collect information and study these new patterns and learn how consumers have changed. 

“The pandemic was a time where we had to change our style of thinking and the way we approached businesses. One of these key changes was a rise in the importance of collating research. We had to relay the fact that even though viewership of ads had increased because everyone was at home, this didn't necessarily translate into sales. To overcome this, we had to strategise, focus on data-driven practices, such as modelling, and on certain types of media and creatives as well as optimise budgets and concentrate on journey-centric advertising.”
- Seninda Bandara, Founder, Boutique Agency Network
“The power of data-driven marketing has proved effective for us, especially in times where there are regular power cuts, which leads to people not being able to access the internet for several hours a day. So, one approach that we took was doing research to identify proper and effective times for digital ads and marketing and we became very vigilant and dynamic to ensure that content was published at the right time. During these crises, we have realised the importance of studying and researching their campaigns so that we can learn and improve. In the data, you can find solutions.”
- Samila Imbulana, Paid Media Lead, Ikon Marketing 

Conscious Content and Campaigns

Agencies also needed to find new ways to communicate with audiences, as people began to become more sensitive to the content they see online. These days, it’s important that advertisers produce campaigns with the intention of not only selling but also driving a positive impact on society. Consumers, especially Millennials and Gen Z, are no longer solely focused on just a product; they want to know about the brand behind the product that they are buying. What a brand stands for is now more important than ever.

"The importance of sensitivity and awareness for brands became apparent during these crises, and when brands were willing to touch on important issues, it built a sense of solidarity and respect for the brand, and as a result, traction. You have to be sensitive to the current time but still be of service to the consumer. We recently did a campaign for UNFPA on reproductive health by communicating to the public the importance of contraception during a crisis, as it affects the family, and the ability to provide. Even though it can be difficult, it is especially important to talk about during times like this.”
- Ravini Jinadasa, Co-Founder/ Director, Thinking Dots 
“During the pandemic, a balance had to be struck between casual content and message-based content. So, we advised our client to do lots of giveaways and came up with campaigns that were mindful of what the audience needed. We also advised our clients to be mindful of what is posted and we went out of our way to be sure that there was no ad hoc content, as we have to be sensitive to what people are going through. ”
- Danushki Perera, Head of Digital Marketing, Three Sixty Digital
“With the current economic crisis, we had to find ways to fine-tune our clients’ audience and find new ways to communicate with campaigns where the focus was not on selling the product but on building brand awareness. One of our clients, Saraketha, sells organic produce, which is now a luxury. We decided to refresh their digital strategy and take a completely new approach. The campaign was positioned to educate their audience on the value of organic products, explaining why they are priced at a higher amount. The success of the campaign was evident in the growth of their audience, and in the comments on social media, where the most frequently asked question changed from, ‘Why is this so expensive?’ to, ‘Can I know more about this product?’”
- Anjana Gajanayake, Manager Performance Marketing, Litmus 

Continuous Support from Sales Partners

The economic crisis has affected every kind of business in Sri Lanka, and for agencies, campaign budgets were the first thing to take a massive hit. Large corporations as well as SMEs all cut their budgets on advertising, which made it even more challenging for agencies. But, with the correct support from partners, such as the team at Roar Digital, agencies were able to get some much-needed help.

“Due to the fluctuations of the exchange rate during this economic crisis, our budgets were directly affected and our plans and strategies had to be amended accordingly. Roar Digital was able to provide us with the support we needed to navigate this and we were able to adapt and restrategize effectively.”
- Ashwin Umasudhan, Digital Content & Paid Media Manager, NGage Strategic Alliance

In the face of immense challenges, it is encouraging to see the tenacity of Sri Lankan agencies as they work diligently to come up with effective strategies, solutions and ideas in order to overcome them. It is a reminder of the resilience of all Sri Lankans, who have been through numerous difficult periods but have continued to persevere and move forward. Together with help from partners like Roar Digital, Sri Lankan agencies are well equipped to survive and thrive.

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