How An Ad Agency Thrives During The Pandemic

    Oberlander (left) with cofounder and president Drew Train. CRAIG CUTLER

    Oberland is a small New York-based ad agency. While the pandemic has hurt the advertising world in general (Forrester predicts that ad spending will drop 25 percent this year and won’t recover until 2023), cofounders Bill Oberlander and Drew Train say Oberland is doing pretty well.

    Some of that is due to economics. “When the world turns sideways, people need purpose and people need cheaper,” said Train. “When you compare us to the agency world, we’re cheaper and experts on purpose.”

    But some may also be attributed to the agency’s unique take on the current state of life. Train sees most people living in three parallel worlds—that of being a consumer, a worker and a citizen.

    Merging Worlds

    For many years, those three worlds were kept distinct, but now each has bled into the other. Think of videoconferencing from home to the office: Your coworkers may have never seen the inside of your dwelling before, but now it’s all out there—the messiness, your kids, your pets—what used to be your private space is now accessible to everyone at the office.

    Likewise, at this current moment, Train believes brands are facing a test: To act like real people during a challenging situation. “Brands can no longer just be Tony the Tiger, that are great all the time. They have to acknowledge the world we’re in,” he said. “They need somebody who knows how to do that.”

    Oberlander places a high value on research. During the pandemic, the agency has studied shopper behavior and found that consumers are suddenly open to new brands. “We’ve seen exploration in the grocery store like never before,” Oberlander said.

    Surprisingly, men are shopping much more than before and about a third of consumers have stopped buying from a brand because they didn’t say anything about the murder of George Floyd in May.

    That’s a switch from the old days. For years, the conventional wisdom was that brands shouldn’t weigh in on national news because it was too divisive. “In the old world, you’d lose a customer for saying the wrong thing or coming out on the wrong side of an issue,” said Oberlander. “Now, a third of the market is going to stop buying your product just for saying nothing.”

    Oberlander and Train believe that this is because the current environment is forcing brands to gain a conscience.

    On Working in an Office

    Oberlander opened his eponymous shop in 2014. He had previously been a managing partner and executive creative director at Kirshenbaum Bond and Partners and held similar titles at JWT, Ogilvy & Mather and McCann-Erickson.

    As a veteran, Oberlander sees ad agencies mirroring production company models where employees come to the office two or three days a week. He’s looking forward to getting back to the office, but doesn’t foresee a reversion to the old days.

    “But I think it’s going to be much more of a production department model,” he said. “Not going to office, open your laptop with your coffee and start answering emails.

    Oberlander said above all, what he most misses is working in an office. “I miss being around other people and just having that kind of camaraderie,” he said. “It’s tough on Zoom. It’s tough to stare into that camera all day long.”



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