It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that our economic state is dire and as a result, marketing budgets are tight. The situation is exacerbated by ongoing lockdown periods, and Covid-19 lacks a sell-by date. How are media agencies adapting to challenges and opportunities during a time of unprecedented upheaval? Sandra Gordon and Adelaide McKelvey spoke to a group of media agency leaders for their views.
Leadership and the battle to sustain productivity and company culture
Global reports indicate that business leaders are grappling with the management and motivation of staff. Underlying fears created by business closures and staff retrenchments are compounded by very limited human interaction due to ongoing lockdown policies adopted by government and company leaders.
In South Africa the position is worsened due to a flagging economy, political uncertainty and citizens facing a bleak future.
Ironically employees are working longer hours from home and are suffering from a lack of human contact with clients, media owners and their agency colleagues.
Chris Botha Group CEO of Park Advertising is encouraging staff to say no to lengthy Zoom meetings and manage their time and availability more effectively. He expects employees to ‘get the job done’ and reports their client relationship scores are up by 15 to 20% in 2020. He and Byron John, MD of Vizeum Johannesburg, are not in favour of measuring productivity by the amount of times PC keys are clicked by staff working remotely. John has a number of GenZ staff who value the flexibility of working from home or coming into the office and he prefers measuring productivity through the delivery of projects on time.
Richard Lord, media and ops director at Meta Media, reports that thanks to excellent IT systems, staff have adapted well to working remotely. “We have daily team huddles via video to ensure no balls are dropped.” These sessions have helped them stave off “the inevitable loneliness that comes from being confined to a home office for eight hours a day, every day”. He finds himself in back-to-back Zoom meetings doesn’t give him the time to digest the discussion before moving onto the next one.
Alphabet Soup founder and MD, Nikki Lewin, has been “up and running since July”. Staff work flexi-time, adhere to protocols and are happy to be back with colleagues. Sean Clarke, COO at Park Advertising, reports differently. “People are our business; our office in Johnnesburg was built to accommodate interaction internally and with media owners and clients. Over the past months we are lucky to have 10 staff in the office on any one day.”
Online conversations are vertical not lateral across client teams, so sharing of ideas does not take place. He highlights that nearly all virtual meeting requests are for one hour and the day is filled moving from one to the next. The increase in time pressure and uncertainty of operating remotely has resulted in The MediaShop employing the services of psychologists to assist employees who are suffering from work and personal stress.
Ebony + Ivory have done the same, introducing anger management, life and business skills training. Managing director Paul Middleton comments on the need for experienced and skilled client-facing and back room support staff. “They must be active at getting stuff done and I need to trust them to deliver, I only read client emails and my 18-hour days are full.” He concedes that while delivering growth of 20% this year, the model is not sustainable and building client trust has to be shared among the top team.
On the job mentoring may have suffered during lockdown but is widely considered a crucial element in staff skills development. Both Middleton and John measure hours spent and recognise staff members who achieve high rates of success.
Botha cites his most critical challenge as “how do we build a virtual culture when the office becomes a desk at home and the employee is tempted to go for the highest job offer?” Many agencies use culture as a differentiation tactic; in the case of The MediaShop, this has played a major role in their business success, with communication a key component.
Media owners encouraged to deliver to briefs while maintaining relationships remotely
There is deterioration in relationships attributable to the unforeseen difficulty in keeping regular contact over the past eight months. Although virtual meetings have provided a useful link in communicating, they are not ideal and should not be seen as a replacement for human interaction.
Celia Collins, director of Amplifi – part of the Dentsu Group – says staff keen on meeting are making it happen and media owner interaction is happening albeit intermittently. However, she has seen an increase in ‘bullying’ of agency staff and clients. “We understand these are difficult times and our challenge is to manage the level of desperation we see in some sales people.” She is fearful of media owners resorting to working in silos and not delivering “what is right for the client”.
“We need to have the skills to analyse media owner proposals up front and if not happy, to kick back.” In other words be the agency person who says no if the sales pitch isn’t right and be clear on what is lacking. Avoid the awful to and fro nagging that ensues and often includes clients who are irritated by the interjection.
Botha highlights the issue of sales staff who in the past “strolled around the agency and didn’t engage in any meaningful way” with his staff. It is hoped that during lockdown, what agencies experienced will become obvious employers who are encouraged to take appropriate action. Lewin says sales people have witnessed multiple retrenchment programmes and their colleagues losing jobs; the turnaround of sales staff directly impacts on her team’s ability to deliver client proposals. To her, good relationships are a factor in securing face-time with her and her team, but she warns it should not be wasted as the pace is frenetic and client demands have increased.
Lord agrees that his staff miss the day to day interaction which has “resulted in media owners not always fully understanding our clients’ needs and objectives”. This has led to frustration on both sides with “proposals not always being relevant”. The agency is working on an engagement plan “which includes sharing of information and knowledge from both sides, to ensure solutions presented are relevant and media owners feel like a valuable part of our eco-system”.
Lwandile Qokweni, CEO of Wavemaker is blunt in his assessment of staff at both agencies and owners. “Those who weren’t working in the past aren’t now and we know who they are. Media owners must be flexible and contact should be constant as clients are moving quickly.” During lockdown, the level of red tape experienced by agencies has risen alarmingly and potential deals are being shifted to competitors who are nimble. “Creative and well packaged proposals will get attention but don’t waste time selling me the same thing every week.”
All participants in the session agreed different skills sets are required (such as the ability to sell across platforms and add value to proposals not merely discounts). Overall client and agency expectations of media owner staff have risen and survival of the fittest will see only the smartest rise to the top.
Both Qokweni and Middleton suggest no time for sympathy exists and call for media owner bosses to pay special attention to the lack of professionalism both among sales people and admin staff. Red tape is a no-no and often prevents deals from happening. Mohamed Paruk, trading operations manager at GroupM, is frustrated by the lack of flexibility, red tape and internal processes delaying sign off and processing of deals. John agrees “Sales service is not being taken as seriously as it could be. There should be continuous measurement of service and efficacy.”
Media owners who have organised informative and engaging webinars are recognised as thinking differently and remaining in contact. However excluding certain agency staff from registering (by choice or through using outdated data bases) has soured perceptions.
Sune Beyers MD of Mindshare SA, recommends owners use dry runs to check content, presentation and tech issues to enhance impact. Both she and Collins are not surprised at the success of online platforms such as Google and Facebook in attracting ad spend as it is “an easier currency to sell to clients” and their sales teams “are collaborators who have worked very well remotely”.
The MOST Awards currently use six broad categories to measure media owner efficacy: knowledge of client brands, service delivery (sales and admin), innovation, knowledge of their own brands and involvement. Those that tick these boxes are likely to rise to the top despite the current environment, those that don’t may falter.
Sandra Gordon and Adelaide McKelvey, veterans of the media business, work with Geo Councellors, a business providing mentoring and bespoke training for businesses and individuals. Geo Counsellors, a formalised online mentoring platform, addresses the need to support specialised skills in a workplace specifically, but not limited to, young professionals (predominantly Millennials and Gen Zs), and or new entrepreneurs.
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