What adland bosses are thinking about after a year of front-room leadership
A view from Julie McKeen

What adland bosses are thinking about after a year of front-room leadership

Now is the time to lay the foundations for a post-Covid future.

In 2019 there was much boardroom chat in the creative industries about the rapid pace of technological and societal trends, and how to adapt to them. Then 2020 came along and said “hold my beer”. Technology has fuelled flexibility, pivots, changes in group dynamics, routes to market and community like never before. Striving for more diversity and inclusion in our industry has rightly become imperative. These macro shifts we know.

But how do leaders emerge into 2021, filling their lungs and stretching with optimism in the sunshiney morning, rather than stumbling bleary-eyed, baggy-sweatpanted and confused into the newly vaccinated dawn? It is, ultimately, discombobulating to spend a year working out how to lead from the front when you’re leading from your front room.

Our creative industries thrive on connections: the tiny, incidental collisions of two everyday thoughts – perhaps delivered over a chat in the office kitchen – which, applied in a new way, become an innovation. An idea. A novel approach to grow your business or that of your client’s. And we recognise that. Boardrooms have striven since March to recreate this semi-social, semi-commercial interaction online as best they possibly can. And there is much to be celebrated in the adaptability and commitment of our industry and its people in the face of adversity.

But academic theses and pats on the back aside, this is where the hard work starts. In my role I speak to a variety of chief executives, HR directors and chairs across the industry every day. Whether it’s a production company, a streaming pioneer, an agency or a bastion of broadcasting, some key themes have started to preoccupy leaders in our industry as they prepare for a very different physical rentree at some point in the next quarter or so.

First, what do leaders keep or chuck out of the new working models we’ve adapted to? Which behaviours have been borne of necessity and are poor facsimiles of working life (I’m looking at you, Zoom party)? Which, in contrast, have benefited their teams? For those of us who’ve long banged the drum for flexible and remote working to fit with life commitments, this year has been a chance to positively reinforce the ability to do so successfully.

The gains we’ve made proving our hybrid working patterns and less international travel work, ought not to be allowed to slowly erode back to the pre-Covid, presenteeism norms. Some have seen improved international and cross-office collaboration, without the biased but utterly human preference to involve those in your physical vicinity every day in a project, as opposed to those who might bring better skills to the table but are in Shanghai or Berlin. But guardrails will need to be put in place to make that continue to work in practice.

Second, now that we have got to know our colleagues in their own homes, and often measured and discussed their wellbeing more often than ever before, what has that taught leaders about their workforce, and how do they act on what they’ve learned? For example, some say the quieter, more introverted members of their teams have been able to work with focus and clarity, less overshadowed by those who are assertive and extroverted. This gain must surely be preserved. Others talk of their optimism around remote working’s ability to improve social mobility in their hiring – often hamstrung by the need to be able to afford to live in big cities.

Finally, how do leaders balance the needs of the individual with the commercial imperatives of the business? With Campaign reporting back in September that almost 40,000 UK media jobs have been lost so far this year, no well-considered social day at the office is going to make up for such commercial decline.

So never has there been a more important time for boards to consider, shape, consult, listen, implement and genuinely measure new working patterns in order to get the best from their people, with a clear commercial goal at the heart. There can be no compromise on long-term success. And with many businesses pivoting rapidly into new revenue streams or products, leaders must ask themselves tough questions around whether they have the right senior talent at the table to press home their advantage or, indeed, to catch up with the market.

So for leaders the hard work starts with implementation. But those who get it right now could be a positive influence on society for generations to come, and will emerge commercially better off than their competitors.

Julie McKeen is the head of media at Odgers Berndtson