These Are Not Ordinary Times

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With nylon gloves secure around my hands, a few precious Clorox wipes handy in my jacket pocket, a scarf covering my face in case I encounter an irresponsible #spreader, I was ready to walk a few blocks to the nearest grocery store.

People moved quickly and quietly last night, scavenging for a few extra items before the shelves were fully picked over. I tried to avoid aisles with other people and was shocked (every single time) when someone casually walked by me as if this were normal life with normal rules. One man even had the gall to touch a corner of my cart as he reached for the two remaining boxes of pasta. We’ve all seen the viral videos of customers fighting (and even one stabbing) over bottles of water and hand sanitizer, a bizarro version of Black Friday, where instead of pummeling fellow citizens over the head for a cheap TVs, it’s a fight to hoard an obscene amount of toilet paper. Are some of us (including me) overreacting? Maybe. Maybe not.

Again, these are not ordinary times.

But now, here I am, working from home for the third week, trying to act like things are normal when they are anything but. I’ve done a lot of reflecting and reconnecting. Reaching out to family, friends, coworkers, and clients, making sure everyone is healthy and safe. We should have been doing things differently, but now we need to.

At one of the recent White House update press conferences, CEOs of several major businesses, including Target, Wal-Mart, and Walgreens, were brought forward to share their role. Together, these competitors presented a unified front in their plans to remain open, stocked, and clean.

“These are extraordinary times that call for extraordinary measures,” said Richard Ashworth, Walgreens president. “Collaboration with health officials, the government, and across our industry and other sectors is critical at this time.”

While social distancing might be the term of the season, “We’re all in this together” is coming in a quick second. To successfully social distance, we need a collective effort. We’ve learned how one person can quickly spread the virus. Collaboration is the name of the game. We’re doing this on an individual level: we walk farther away from each other and don’t shake hands anymore. We wipe down surfaces and hopefully behave in the most hygienic way possible to contain the spread. And we’re collaborating at the national level: we’ve seen a public-private partnership of unlikely collaborators coming together around a single goal.

During those moments, when I’m not washing my hands or staring at the Dow ticker, I actually have become hopeful. We started our business, Collaborata, nearly four years ago. We bring together organizations, oftentimes competitors, around a common research goal. Companies share hypotheses with each other en route to sharing the resulting insights (and the costs). It’s a unique way for clients to benefit from ambitious large-scale insights projects without spending a large portion of their entire annual budget on a single piece of work. We asked our clients four years ago to think differently. To behave differently. We warned them that it might feel a bit awkward at first, but that in the long run, this change will make your research-buying more cost-effective, while ensuring that the results are richer, more actionable and powerful than they would be if they went at it alone. We’re stronger together.

An example of what this looks like: We’re in the midst of working with a few clients from different categories (CPG, media, financial services) to launch a new project that will uncover how different consumer cohorts use video content in discovering products and brands. (This project is now even more timely, given that brands will likely have more content-based interaction opportunities with consumers, who are engaging with online video in increasing numbers along their discovery path.) Clients collaborate with us in shaping the work (and eventually in sharing the insights, data, and cost). We’ve proven that collaboration leads to better outcomes — a rich diversity of perspectives in building a project leads to research that is more ambitious and powerful than by going at it alone.

As the dust begins to settle on this new normal, things will be quite different; and we really have no idea what that might look like. Following the 2008 recession, businesses were asked to do more with less. I’m guessing there will be a similar mindset this time around. It will mean that businesses will have to find a way to stretch their budgets farther while finding ways to better serve their customers and connect with them on an empathetic level. We’re all in this together.

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