First Change, Then Innovation – Marketplace Pulse Insights: April 23

Header image of April 23, 2020 IX Marketplace Pulse Newsletter with photo of Will Doherty

First Change, Then Innovation

The capacity for people and industry to change is as remarkable as much for its scope as its predictability. When challenges, constraints, and structural changes are introduced, people and society adapt quickly. We will first experience change, then innovation will follow.  In just over one month, an entire global economy has voluntarily paused. Despite some intermittent ill-advised protests, people have mostly cooperated within the imposed limitations. A few hundred folks simply doesn’t compare to the millions currently staying at home. By and large – we have stayed indoors and limited activity to essentials. Everyone has made tremendous adjustments to their lives in order to protect the greater good. It’s easy to focus on the negative stories, but these are often outliers. People are generally good.

Financial Times - Opinion undercover Economist article: In a crisis we mainly keep calm and are kinder than ever.
Source: Financial Times, Tim Harford (Undercover Economist)

These constraints will continue for the foreseeable future, and as a result, we will start to move from adaptation to innovation. There will be some ingenious changes on the horizon (there will also be some stupefying ones as well …profundity and idiocy often ride together). Human ingenuity is not a triviality. The first wave of innovations we are seeing, are out of necessity, but the second wave will be out of genius.

Image of a quote: "constraints are often advantages in disguise. Forget about venture capital, long release cycles, and quick hires. Instead, work with what you have:" Source Buffer.
Source: Buffer, Belle Beth Cooper (Content Crafter)

Our industry tends to fetishize disruption, but true disruption is pretty rare. Conventional wisdom is conventional because it works. It doesn’t require disruption. Disruption doesn’t happen simply because we desire it. Blue skies and open terrain often are not the right environment for it either.

However, slack resources, constraints, and even desperation are much more potent ingredients. They create focus because options are in such short supply. I suspect we will start to see a wave of necessary and crucial disruptions that are born of these circumstances. The dot-com bust was followed by the dawn of digital advertising as we know it today. The banking crisis gave rise to efficiency, and thus the modern programmatic era was born. What’s in store this time around? The pressing need to transcend the cookie with new alternatives like authentication feels like a strong possibility. We shall see.

Stay safe, happy and healthy.

Will Doherty
EVP, Global Marketplace Development
Index Exchange

The Data

Image of a graph: Buyer ad spend categories trends from March 1 - April 18, 2020.
*Tom Hanks is when this got real. Wilson is when things went flat. SNL aligns with hope starting to return, albeit slowly.
  • For consistency, I want to keep showing trend lines on the Tom Hanks COVID-19 scale. See above.
  • However, to better illustrate how trends are developing now, the chart below is indexed to April 1st (instead of March 1st) to provide better recency.

Image of a graph: Ad spend buyer category (Industries) trends in April 2020.

Image of graph: Ad spend in sub-categories of Entertainment industry in April 2020.

CPG & Retail

Flatness is still the dominant theme behind many of the largest buyer categories like CPG and Retail. But there are some brands on the up. Target continues to stand out and seems to be using this opportunity to gain share from Amazon. Home Depot is another retailer showing strong week over week growth. Best Buy has also started to pick up in the last week or so. All of these brands have a strong online presence with in-store operations still running in many communities. They are helping keep this category viable in the short term.


Entertainment still continues to rise in terms of buyer investment, but you need to study the subcategories within Entertainment to understand the full story. The war for attention has never been higher. Streaming platforms are hoping to cement behaviors and preference that will persist well beyond our current stay at home situation. However, a lot of the recent increases we are seeing are coming from the major gaming platforms (both hardware and software). Since COVID-19 started, I have seen gaming content rise to the point of infiltrating my Twitter feed. Gaming is not a category I follow, so this was eye opening. Fictional, in-game coaches are being covered and written about as if their season was real – like, physically real. It’s wild. I can also attest that obtaining a Nintendo Switch is basically impossible. If you don’t have one – you aren’t getting one anytime soon. That big ol’ spike on sports – that’s the NFL. Football is back, baby (it’s actually too early to say but one can hope)!


Normally, at this time of year, we would see tax services all but stop advertising on the 15th. With the government extending filing deadlines, we are seeing these services pick up spend beyond the Mid-April cutoff date. I am not sure if this will continue until the summer, but it’s worth watching.

Industries to Watch

Image of graph - Signs of Recovery in Education and Pet care in ad spend trends for April 2020.


The Education category is coming back – quickly. This is another industry that will be forever changed by COVID-19. How much does a physical location matter when educating at scale? Social sciences, and other non-lab oriented disciplines, will probably not operate in the future as they have in the past. With skyrocketing costs and ballooning student debt, this massive shift in behavior may burst a bubble that desperately needed to be popped. Right now, we are seeing education services start to rise, but eventually I think we will see a number of accredited institutions become ad buyers as the fundamentals of their sector change dramatically.

Pet Care

Image of two dogs.
*These are my dogs. They are usually not this calm. They are usually doing something they shouldn’t. Some of you are saying: “Hey, Pet Care is a pretty middle of the road advertiser category. This feels like an excuse to post a picture of your dogs.” And some of you wouldn’t be wrong.

Pet Care has been on a nice trajectory. Shelters are reporting massive vacancy rates – some are completely empty for the first time in their history. A lot of new pet owners out there are about to make choices about their pet care brands. As an owner of two rescue dogs (i.e. I am a good person), this makes me incredibly happy but also nervous. We will get back to normal, and my sincere hope is that people have factored this into their decision. Pets are more than a situational commitment.

It’s Already Tomorrow in Australia.

I wanted to continue analyzing markets outside of North America. Australia, in addition to being one of my favorite places to visit (home to the world’s greatest coffee), is an extremely interesting market for study. It’s easy (if you aren’t Australian) to overlook that they have been going through a particularly prolonged rough patch. While COVID-19 has quickly become our primary and sole focus, Aussies have had to contend not only with the pandemic but also the recovery from devastating wildfires. The past year has not been kind to AU. More than anything, I am sure the fine folks in the southern hemisphere would just like a break. On the positive, recent headlines out of Australia suggest the COVID-19 situation is under control, and with any luck, they may be one of the first regions to exit lockdown.

Image of graph - Australia Ad Spend by category (industries) for March to mid-April 2020.

Ad spend in Australia has taken a slightly more modest decline than we have observed in other markets.

Retail and CPG have taken smaller hits, but this is mostly attributed to subcategories that are experiencing supply chain issues (the toilet paper problem seemed particularly pronounced down under). Government campaigns are helping to bolster a softer market. Much like the rest of the world, we have seen Auto and Travel plummet in Australia.

However, I am hearing that while travel outside of AU is not happening, there is a concerted effort to keep things moving within the country. We haven’t seen that reflected in ad spend quite yet, but this is something to watch.

The government has made it clear that Aussies won’t be going overseas this year. Let that sink in – this year. However, they have encouraged the population to start planning their next domestic adventures. Australia is a BIG country, with many city folk never even visiting their sister states. Our bet is that we will see a strong and potentially rapid recovery in LOCAL tourism investment first. Cross-state investment encouraging Australians to go and taste their OWN local wine from Adelaide Hills (South Australia) or their own incredible Chardonnay from Margaret River (Western Australia) will go far. They need planes and cars to get there, so marketing budgets will likely retool around this. I am also curious to see if this ends up being part of a larger, global effort to reset the travel business. First, encourage domestic travel. Build the muscle back up before going global or transcontinental. This may end up being “the model.”

All things considered, Australia is faring better relative to other markets that we have covered thus far. It makes me incredibly hopeful things will be up and running again soon. Sending my regards to everyone out there. I hope to see you all soon. (Is George Street finished yet?)


Mary Meeker arguably has the single best field of vision when it comes to digital and consumer trends. She has compiled a report on COVID-19 and its impacts that are nicely summed up in the following article.

Article - Exclusive: Mary Meeker's coronovairus trends report. April 17, 2020.  Source: Axios
Source: Axios, Dan Primack (Business Editor)

The entire report is available, and if you have the time, I do recommend reading it. I share Mary’s optimism. For my purposes, I want to point to one quote in particular:

“We are optimists and believe there is hope on the other side of despair…. We need government, business and entrepreneurial intervention at scale (deployed logically and effectively) to get to the other side.”

Much like I referenced in my opening remarks, this next chapter will need to be written by the innovations that will no doubt be coming.