When times are bad, smart companies prioritize customers' bottom lines over their top ones.

That strategy is working for four-time Inc. 5000 honoree Media Bridge Advertising, a Minneapolis-based ad and media-buying agency with $24.4 million in 2019 revenue. In March the business had just put to bed the last of 100 marketing plans it had been working on for clients since the previous summer. The pandemic knocked the knees out from almost all of them.

For the next few weeks employees logged long hours changing nearly every client's plan to mimic the shift in media consumption during lockdown, founder and CEO Tracy Call says. Not waiting for customers to reach out, Media Bridge instead approached them. This no longer makes sense, she told them. We are going to redo it.

Ad buys during sports programming were jettisoned in favor of news and talk shows. With fewer people driving to work, billboard and radio advertising shifted to TV or online. Broadcast and cable ceded to less-expensive Connected TV ads.

The company also invested in high-quality B-roll to remake ads that now seemed tone-deaf--couples holding hands across a restaurant table, for example--without having to fly around the country shooting video. In a new commercial for the dating service It's Just Lunch, young lonely hearts sought connection through their screens. An ad for Renters Warehouse touted "predictable cash flow in unpredictable times" and promised to handle contactless showings and electronic rent collection.

Call decided from the start to charge no additional fees for the pivot plans. "Now more than ever our clients needed 100 percent of their working dollars going into their marketing plans and schedules," she says. "We are with them for the long haul."

Putting it in writing

Not everyone shared Call's opinion. Some of Media Bridge's work is outsourced from other agencies, which rely on the company's expertise in media buying. Call found that many of those agencies were charging for the work Media Bridge performed. Looking further, she discovered some ad agencies demanding what she considered exorbitant rates for pivot plans.

"We wanted to challenge our agency partners and other agencies to give clients a break," she says.

So Call drew up The Covid Advertising Pledge, based on Media Bridge's new practices. The pledge asks that agencies emulate her decision to charge nothing for pivot plans. It also calls for the elimination of onboarding and marketing audit fees for new clients, both services that Call charges for in normal times but now offers gratis. And it entails providing to clients free consultation with agency leaders or team members with special expertise. Media Bridge normally doesn't charge for that access. But it also doesn't advertise it, which the agency now is doing.

Client savings are substantial. For one customer Media Bridge crafted a new strategy, conducted audits, and placed media in six markets for free. In normal times those services would have cost $34,200. 

The Pledge has received coverage in industry publications and marketing blogs, as well as local Minneapolis media. Call has brought it up with a number of her peers but doesn't know whether anyone else has made the same commitment. "We can only go so far telling other agencies how to adjust their business models," she says. "We hope we are leading by example."

As for Media Bridge's clients, most chose to pivot; some reallocated their budgets to a few months down the road; and only a few paused or canceled advertising altogether. The agency's sales are down less than 10 percent over this time last year. And it recently picked up several new customers, which Call attributes to the practices cited in the Pledge.

Among those new customers is Your Home Improvement Company, a Saint Cloud, Minnesota business with annual revenues of $25 million. In its 16-year history the company had never used an advertising agency, instead generating leads through events, as well as showrooms and kiosks in malls. When Covid took down those avenues, sales plummeted. Media Bridge provided a free audit and pivot plan, emphasizing television.

"They knew that all these startup costs and fees are scary for a company when their numbers are down, and they took that concern out of the equation," says Your Home President Steve Little. Little was so impressed by Media Bridge's strategy that he adopted a version for his company, offering customers for the first time ever no money down, no interest, and no payments for two years. That promotion, coupled with the switch to TV, produced a dramatic upturn in sales.

"I am a huge loyalty guy," Little says. "The fact that they were willing to concede their fees to make me trust that they have my best interest at heart--that goes a long way with me."