Lessons learned in lockdown

Alice Buttling, MD, reflects on the learnings of the last four months:  

1) Survival of the fittest is certainly true – not just in terms of Covid19 (ironic), but in terms of business.  We have seen how our clients have reacted, some have been able to flourish and adapt and who some have not.  Each, however, will emerge from this a different business moving forwards.

2) Relationships are what makes us strong – we already knew this, but our close work with our clients and media partners has enabled us to have the trust in our clients to try things, despite the situation.  Our relationships with the media have meant that in return for continued investment they have reduced rates and improved positions.

3) Team works better as a team – whilst working from home is currently a necessity and everybody has adapted well, in order for our business to thrive we need everybody functioning at maximum capacity and able to work at our usual (speedy) pace and communicate quickly and easily.

4) Adapting has been key – important to our clients but also to us.  Zoom meetings, online software, new ideas and making the most of quieter time to get things done that might have fallen onto the backburner have all helped us to keep our business running.

5) Positioning in the market for AJ has never been better – we have gained credibility and a bit of a voice (this can be built on further) and we look forward to discussing new opportunities with businesses who start to feel it is time for change.  We are proud to have taken on four new clients during lockdown and are delighted that they have all put their faith in AJ to drive their businesses forward during this time, and beyond.

We all know there are still tough times ahead, but we are now returning gradually (and safely) to our office environment and a return to some kind of normal. I know we have a strong team whose collective priority it to continue to do what we have been doing for many years – helping clients grow their businesses in the most cost-effective ways – and to do it even better than ever before.

Alice Buttling, Managing Director & Co-Owner

So how well are we really doing?

At the end of May we posted about how we are looking after our clients during lockdown. We thought we were doing a good job but acknowledged that the proof would be in the pudding – i.e. we would only know just how well we were doing if we asked them. So we sent our client surveys out….

We’ve received the majority of surveys back and – phew – with an overall score of 97%, our clients tell us that they feel very well looked after indeed.

“There hasn’t been a break in your services which is much appreciated.”

From the beginning of lockdown, our priority was to maintain the level of services we provide without interruption so to hear that our clients have experienced this is a huge relief. Not only that, but wherever possible, we have also helped our clients make the most of a changing market and given advice and guidance of real value; we’ve received great comments in return:

“You’ve definitely made a difference to the business during this time. The OBC ads in the Tel mag & Stella have helped drive some excellent weeks of lead and appointment generation. Getting back in the The Times Mag has also been successful.”

“Delighted with how the relationship has developed”

“Impressed by how you’ve been able to scale the business. Onwards and upwards!”

“Our OTP has ensured we are still recruiting new customers during this difficult time.”

Sending out regular surveys to clients is important. It makes it easy for clients to tell us what they really think about the services they are paying for and helps us to improve or make changes as and when we need to. And it’s extremely satisfying – and reassuring –  to be told that we’re actually doing a good job too. Onwards and upwards indeed!













AJ’s lockdown client survey

What’s your best position?

First of all, let’s look at Display vs Classified. The rule of thumb is that only 40% of the readership read Classified however you pay a heavy price for Display, competing with big brands who don’t worry about ROI (it’s a bidding war). There are, however, ways of buying strategically in Display which we do, such as buying smaller sizes and premium Classified slots and, as in the current climate, where we are getting particularly good rates.

Cover sites are great because we don’t need to rely on environment or editorial, you aren’t fighting to be seen – it’s a numbers game and covers deliver the most exposure; they are seen by every reader. Front covers are the best, followed by Outside Back (OBC) then inside front then inside back. In addition to this it helps if you can keep the reader on the page for as long as possible. For example, the OBC of the Telegraph is a particularly good space because it contains weather and puzzles which increases the dwell time and we see some really strong results here. As we said, these come at a price; in national press and some magazines we are able to get on the covers of supplements which have a similar impact to the main book yet are much cheaper – ultimately everyone sees them regardless of wanting to open the supplement and read what’s inside.

David Salisbury, Outside Back Cover,  Daily Telegraph

Inside positions adjacent to relevant copy / similar environment are particularly valuable too. This helps to target an engaged reader who is hopefully already interested in the subject/product and the relevant article keeps them on the page and stops them flicking by and missing the ad. This is where having a knowledgeable media buyer who is in regular contact with the publishers is a real bonus, as he or she will be aware of upcoming features, know what’s running where / when and can advise clients accordingly.

Editorial input – We work closely with particular titles to gain editorial for specific products and then we run an advert underneath or alongside this and we have done this for a range of clients – again, associated editorial increases response. Strong past examples include  clients in the health and wellbeing sector, Nature’s Best and Wellbeing.  We are currently running a DPS in The Garden for ladder specialist Henchman that includes strong editorial content supported by an impressive call to action.

Henchman, RHS The Garden July 2020

This is a great example of creative and media working closely together to generate the best value from spend. Henchman were keen to gain editorial content in their favourite titles and we suggested an advertorial to do this. We worked closely with our client and The Garden to create a piece that matches the magazine’s style while still incorporating the style and content required by Henchman.  Both parties are very happy with the finished piece with the title moving the piece further forward at no extra cost.

Working with new clients

When working with a new client, for the most part we tend to build the schedules / budgets as we go, once we have the learnings to work from. It’s all about keeping the risk as low as possible while we work out creative, sizes and audience. We focus on buying the space as cost effectively as possible and building on the results from there (walking before we can run). Likewise, for clients with smaller budgets, the focus is on cost and value so there is less opportunity to test positions until we are happy that the results are robust. STRATEGY IS EVERYTHING!

If you would like any advice or guidance on the best positions for your own products or services, please contact me: jack@aja.co.uk

Jack Gillett, Media Manager




From Zero to Hero – a case study

We were approached by Velo and Co with regards to selling their face covers off the page.

Previously a product used for sport, they had seen an article in the Wall Street Journal about a runner who had started using her tube bandana as a face cover when out running as she was finding it was getting more and more frowned upon to be running in the park and she did not feel comfortable (both in terms of look and feel) running in a disposable mask.A quick bit of research showed us that places like Amazon and Ebay sold them but only with a delivery time of 5-6 weeks We agreed there was clearly a market, especially if we moved fast.

So Velo Face Covers were born. A website was developed, stock ordered, photos taken, ads created and within 2 weeks of the concept the stock was in and the first ads ran with a small test in Daily Mail Scotland.  This uncovered a few issues with Google and PPC, but these we quickly ironed out and within days people were receiving their products – unlike if they ordered them elsewhere.  A ‘buy one get one free’ offer with a unique code for each ad meant that we could track the ROI.  The demand for the product grew as the Government announced firstly that they advise wearing a face cover when out of home, and secondly that it will be mandatory from the 15th June to wear one on public transport.

One thing we quickly discovered was that if you rely on PPC to drive traffic to your site you can’t compete with Amazon and Ebay – search terms ‘face cover’and  ‘face masks’ cost approx 60p a click and the conversions were poor at 3%.  When you run an ad in press you can drop these terms and just support your brand: ‘Velo and co’ clicks cost 3p and covert at 25% – making it impossible to make money if online is the only source of promotion.  Stick an ad in a newspaper and the whole thing changes.

So many new companies think that digital is the only way, that press has had its day – but if you want to drive traffic to your site, from people who have already decided they are interested in buying your product then you really can’t beat press.  Without running these ads, Velo would not have had business and in the 4 weeks since it began they have sold over 5000 face covers from a media spend of less that £10k.

The key was spotting the opportunity, acting fast, taking a low risk and being able to scale up with the supplier quickly and speaking to an agency with experience of selling off the page.

So if you have an idea or existing small business and you hadn’t considered press being the main driver of sales, then give us a call and see if we can take you from zero to hero too.

You can have your cake and eat it

Thinkbox Lockdown Stats

As you would expect, TV viewing figures have increased and this provides an opportunity for advertisers to either gain some brand awareness or, more importantly right now for most advertisers, to drive business.

As we are easing out of lockdown and businesses are able to trade slightly more freely than they have been for the last 2 months, there is a great opportunity to either test TV or go back onto to TV if you have tried it before and it has not given the returns you hoped for.  Here are some of the reasons why from a recent Thinkbox study.

Linear TV viewing (live rather than on demand) has increased by 21%, the most significant category has been previous ‘light’ viewers where this has increased by 51%.  Daytime viewing has surged as has the ABC1 and 16  – 34 audience. This group is essentially those who work full time, have busy lives and have less time in ‘normal life’ for watching  – so they have been previously hard to talk to through TV advertising, making them more valuable.

Shared viewing has increased by 30% and big screen viewing makes up 71% overall – so families are sitting down together rather than watching in isolation – this is a better environment for advertising as it provokes discussion.

Karcher started on TV at the beginning of lockdown when they were restricted by their retailers closing and they saw an increase in their search volume of 300%

Out & Out have spent at a steady £25k a month and have seen more than 5 times the return on spend on their outdoor furniture so are due to start with indoor in June.

So TV has never been better value, there is a high supply of inventory, lower pricing (30% down on this time last year), more flexibility in booking deadlines, higher engagement in TV viewing and if you are targeting ABC1’s then you would typically get a high wastage during daytime (which is offset by pricing but you still can’t reach the younger working population) and now you can literally have your cake and eat it. And here’s one to tempt you:

Gratuitous pic demonstrating homebaking prowess under lockdown

If you are a brand looking to emerge strong from a very low spend to build back some momentum and gain share of voice; a TV advertiser who has tested TV in the past and not seen the returns or you are new to TV altogether – we can help you to take advantage of TV.  It could just help you gain a valuable advantage from the current situation.


Still pretty much ‘business as usual’

As a business we’ve adapted well to working remotely and the team continues to be incredibly busy – so much so that our media partners tell us we are booking more space than any other DR agency out there.

It’s not all been plain sailing of course; IT can be frustrating and communicating remotely is never as easy as firing a quick question across the office.  We’ve had to come up with solutions to the raft of problems that lockdown has created to ensure we maintain and deliver the range – and high standard –  of services our clients are used to.

Regular phone contact, Zoom meetings and the continued swift turnaround from our creative head and studio team have ensured no time has been lost. And the media team has been quick to create schedules that make the most of the reduced rates and deals they have negotiated.

Helping our clients deal with lockdown.                                                                     We know that clients rely on us for a vast range of services and support and we’ve been very quick to help them make the most of this new situation. We’ve looked carefully at the changes in how media is consumed at home to help clients maximise the new opportunities available. Considering each client individually, we’ve identified how their messages – and their preferred channels –  could be adapted to suit this changing climate. Examples of this include focusing on leisure wear for one client, gift/treat ideas to cheer you or a loved one for another and a budget- friendly radio campaign for one of our gardening clients.  For those clients unable to physically sell their products or services currently, we have suggested cost-effective ways that will maintain customer interest so they are front of mind once selling can resume.

Continuing communications                                                                                           We see a lot of success sending printed pieces by post to help generate new business which in the current climate, with everyone working from home, is no longer viable. So, rather than lose this contact stream we have re-created our printed pieces into digital books.  Although not as tangible, they are easy for people to access and to read in their own time and a particularly useful tool as digital engagement is currently higher than ever.  And where we would usually supply clients with hard copies of their newspaper and magazine adverts, we have been supplying them with detailed digital presentations with the visuals and information so that everything they need, and would usually receive, is clear and concise and to hand.

Working with new clients                                                                                                  We are delighted that, despite the lockdown, we have been approached by two new clients looking for immediate help with their direct response advertising. In both cases, we have been able to respond immediately and have produced ads for both, agreed budgets and created media schedules in the usual way, without any delays. We are very excited to be working with them both.

Even a ‘visit’ from the auditors hasn’t held us back                                     Usually taking over the boardroom for a week, with all files and information close to hand, an audit from external accountants is a relatively straightforward process so we wondered how the remote experience might pan out. Whilst not the easiest of tasks undertaken remotely, we have managed to provide all the information required without too much difficulty and our financial controller – and the auditors – seem to have coped with the situation remarkably well and are still speaking to each other.

We hope our clients, old and new,  and our partners would agree that we are continuing to offer and deliver the level of work and range of services they have become accustomed to and expect. In fact, we are in the process of sending out our client surveys to ask them precisely this so watch this space for further news to see how we are really doing..

It remains to be seen, of course, how long we will continue to work under lockdown but we are glad to report that here at AJ at least, it continues to be pretty much business as usual.

Working from home, love or loathe it?

Ralph (trainee artworker) doesn’t like to be disturbed

At AJ we are endeavouring to maintain ‘business as usual’ wherever possible, which means the team working remotely from home. Clearly a very adaptable and capable bunch, we’ve just got on with it. Like many out there, we continue to keep in touch with each other, our clients and media partners via regular phone calls, Zoom catch ups and of course, many, many emails. Having asked the team for their feedback, it’s been interesting to find out the impact this has had and for those of you also working from home, you might find some common themes…

So, what do we miss? – Each other, apparently. We are social beings and miss the chance to chat and tease – along with getting each other’s opinions and advice, whether that’s thoughts on Boris/Trump/Killing Eve or what goes best with smoked garlic/Manchego/roasted aubergine.

Eva’s impressively tidy spot

And what do we absolutely not miss? The commute. For those spending time travelling between home and office sitting in traffic or battling with public transport, the lack of commute is a real bonus; whether it’s another half hour in bed or just extra time at home, it’s bliss!

Are lunches at home any different? Always interested in others’ food choices I was curious to find out whether people are eating differently at home or whether we are all creatures of habit? It seems there are two camps here: those who have embraced the opportunity to eat more healthily, taking time to prepare more interesting meals, with healthier, fresher food and perhaps following this with a swift lunchtime walk or run…and then there’s those (of us) who relish the opportunity to have a second breakfast or a ‘dinner sized meal’  for lunch and breakfast and embrace the close proximity of the fridge for endless daytime snacking.

Ann’s home study

What difference does WFH make to your job? On a positive note (rather impressively, I think) most of us are getting much more done – without the distractions of the chat that we all miss. But for some, and I count myself in this camp, the lack of camaraderie and visible ‘team spirit’ can be difficult from a motivational point of view. Sitting at a desk at home alone can make it harder to get on with the more tedious jobs or tackle something you are unsure how best to approach and would welcome a little ‘committee advice’.

So, is it harder to do our job at home alone? Overwhelmingly yes – and if not actually harder ‘definitely less enjoyable’. And although we are finding ourselves in many ways more efficient and productive, technology can let us down; slower download speeds at home and working from smaller screens can be frustrating.

So, do we actually prefer to work from home?

It seems the ideal mix is probably a bit of both – flexible working that reduces a commute; provision of some quiet time or a calmer space to concentrate on work with less distractions but also allowing plenty of time to enjoy being part of a great team who work well together and get along too.

Roll on July!



Media Update from Alice Buttling

In a week where we thought things might be getting clearer with the promise of a ‘road map’ to exit lockdown, it seems the opposite has happened and there is more confusion than ever (and frustration I am sure). Not a huge amount has changed on the media landscape, but there is certainly talk of pricing returning to ‘normal’ from June with the ‘lockdown’ deals coming to an end, but this will obviously be dependent on demand, results and circulations from a direct response perspective. Below is a quick snapshot by sector.

Newspapers – the circulations have settled, with winners and losers, but even the ones that decreased have not seen significant drops.  Sunday papers are seeing increases in double figures in the case of Sunday Times and Sun on Sunday.  Circulations were up 6% on average in the week running up to VE day – it was welcome to see news on something other than COVID19.  For the rest of the month at least there will still be some great deals, which will make the CPT lower than pre-lockdown – we have seen many clients getting some of their best ever results and ‘out of season’ spikes thanks to a combination of pricing, engagement and product suitability; in fact for some the biggest issue has been not being able to get enough stock.  For those who have been most impacted by the lockdown in terms of accessing their customers, it could be a good time to take advantage of the prices as we emerge at the end of the month.

TV – still going strong with linear viewing up 21% and VOD viewing up 45%.  The largest increases from 16 – 34 and ABC1 audiences.  72% of viewing is now on the ‘big screen’ taking 10% share from mobiles and the largest increases are from group viewing over individuals.  There is still a large appetite for news with a 45% increase, but also family viewing such as films seeing a 34% rise.  With pricing set to remain low on Channel 4 and ITV (Sky are currently putting their prices back in for June) there has still never been a better time to be on TV.  As recent study by Thinkbox showed their direct sellers web traffic increased by over 300% when they started on TV during lockdown enabling them to sell direct whilst the retailers were closed.

Inserts – third party inserts have struggled to despatch the volumes they forecast as these would have been planned way before any of this happened so there is a bit of catch up in this area, however subs for mags are getting great results and there are many deals to be done as the availability is high due to many advertisers who typically run large insert campaigns pulling out – mainly travel.

Magazines – still a very strong sector with subs high – the real winners being home interest and hobby titles magazines and news/current affairs.  The prices are set to revert for the August issues, out in July, but this will be gradual and there will still be some good deals in these issues I think.  I would expect September to be back on track for them.

Postcard mailing– Now is certainly the time to make contact with your database, whether this is a customer base to cross/upsell to or an enquiry base to start easing into making appointments from existing leads, this will undoubtedly be the most cost effective exercise and it could not be any more flexible or low risk with a printed postcard at 60p, regardless of volume you can dip your toe in and test the water then ramp it up quickly if the results look good.

Mail newspapers carried out some research with their readers and found that 1 in 3 of those surveyed have bought from e commerce sites they have not used before, 50% of those who have not ordered online groceries before have done so for the first time and intent to continue.  They have seen a 56% increase in use of their voucher code site in April and people are saying that they will choose to come out of lockdown very slowly – with mail order purchasing being favoured over high street retail.  Now is the time to make a good impression and reap the benefits of changed consumer behaviour – more virtual meetings, online shopping and less face to face contact.  Top of the list for when lockdown ends though is getting a haircut and having a beauty treatment so that we can emerge back into society without the Zoom filters.

Alice Buttling, MD, 15th May 2020

The ‘no plan’ media plan

As we came out of April we would usually be thinking about media plans for June; as a short term agency we don’t tend to plan too much ahead so are used to working short term. This year however, we are looking at May and forecasting for Q3 has gone completely out of the window. This is the ‘no plan media plan’: no commitment, no budgets, no pressure and I quite like it.

Every client is in a unique situation right now, all have challenges (some greater than others) but there are opportunities too.  We have found that by taking each week (and sometimes each day) one at time, we can maintain a steady flow of spend, look at results as they come in and make a decision about what to do tomorrow based on these.

So how did April shape up? Some clients have had to fully exercise the furlough scheme as it makes no sense for them to try to operate in the current market, so they are ‘on hold’ but actually still receiving a steady flow of interest for when they can function again.  Others have remained fully functioning as a business, despite not being able to sell, and used the time to ‘tidy the classroom at the end of term’ poised in a very strong position to hit the ground running as soon as they can.  We are still running ads in their key titles at much reduced rates to maintain momentum.

Finally, we have the ‘operators’ –  those who have been able to function (albeit with some adaptions and restrictions) with staff working from home, factories running with half capacity, deliveries no longer being signed for and people’s acceptance that delivery does not have to happen the next day.  For some the main issue has been stock: things selling too well and reduced ability to re-stock; but for a number of our clients we have seen our best ever results from individual ads.  With buying rates at rock bottom, circulations still strong and engagement still high it is very much possible to get amazing results from advertising.

So what about May?

With some lifting of lockdown what will be the impact?  I don’t know – but I do believe that the majority of people will still favour mail order over standing in a queue outside a shop, 2m apart, 1 person at a time. Socially distanced shopping will remain only for those shopping for necessities or for those who have a really strong desire to obtain something particular – there is no real  pleasure to be gained from retail shopping for the foreseeable future.  Beyond that we will continue to monitor daily as the responses and the deals come in – the beauty of direct response is you get to see exactly what your £1 spent has generated so you can justify (or not) the next ad.

So no predictions for the future just yet – except perhaps a baby boom in the New Year – as among the busiest websites currently (gardening, home learning and DIY) are Love Honey, whose sales are doing particularly well during the enforced ‘stay at home’!

Alice Buttling, MD & Media Director


It’s all in the timing

We have worked with Out & Out  for 3 years and we have steadily built their media schedule.  Starting with advertorials in home interest mags and newspapers, the success from these led to increasing the range of titles, and also the sizes, so our portfolio of ads now ranges from a composite ad (image and 75 words of text set by the publishers) to a DPS.  The titles range from home interest and gardening mags (we are in almost every one) to national newspapers and supplements to membership magazines – with the focus being a good coverage of their ABC1 45+ typical customer and a low CPT.

We individually code and track every ad – the code gives a discount at checkout so you have to use it to get it, which means we know exactly what each ad is generating.  The results this year have been unbelievable, for obvious reasons, so our job was to maximise the potential of the current lockdown.  As a result our spend in press has increased by 150% while response rates have increased by 250%.

From press we launched on TV last year – a low level of spend saw a very high return in terms of uplift in sales on their website, which started when we turned TV on and reduced when we turned it off, but it was hard to track exactly what was generated in the way we do in press.   So we edited the commercial and included an offer: £100 off with a TV code and can now see exactly what TV is generating. We can see a strong profit from the orders on the code but in addition we see surges in traffic whilst we are on air so there are plenty more sales from TV that are not being attributed.  As a result, we have this week made another commercial for their indoor product range.

Inserts were next – we tested these in February – and every single placement that ran has made a profit and in the case of the home interest titles we are seeing ROI’s of 10:1 – the next plan has been booked and is starting in May.

We are also working on maximising the Out & Out customer base and have created postcards to upsell relevant product to customers (e.g. a protective cover for their lounge set, a parasol for their dining set) and we have seen up to 30% response rates!

All in all, this is the perfect account for us.  The client gives us access to all the results, and he allows us to run the marketing for him. We report the figures back and put forward new ideas, which he is always open minded about trying.  Our client is hard working, ambitious, driven and we work brilliantly together to make the most of every opportunity we can find.