How Rugby World Cup lessons provided Covid resilience for Pablo
A view from Ben Kay

How Rugby World Cup lessons provided Covid resilience for Pablo

Much like in professional sport, agencies need to always be able to adapt to the unexpected

As someone who has spent their whole life involved in a team of some description, I’ve come to realise that the true power of exceptional teams lies in their resilience to keep pushing on and winning in the most testing times.

When I was part of the England rugby team, we lived by the coach Sir Clive Woodward’s mantra "Think correctly under pressure", or TCUP.  This centred on ensuring the whole team knew how each of us would react in any situation, removing hesitation and improving performance by learning from mistakes quickly. The key to this involved breaking everything down into actions.

The buzzword in team performance at the moment is "culture". I’m a firm believer that culture is a by-product of the right actions. The same is true for the team at Pablo and I’m convinced that it is these actions that have helped us through these testing times.  

Adapt your game

Adaptability is the attribute that separates consistently successful sides from the rest. In a pre-World Cup training camp, we spent time with the Royal Marines’ Special Boat Service, which had the saying: “The best battle plan never survives the first contact with the enemy.” If your solution isn’t working, given new information or new circumstances (often outside of your control), the faster you face the problem and start to solve it, the better. Change the plan, not the goal.

At Pablo we had a battle plan that was working really well. Then came a bigger, different opponent – Covid-19 – and that plan wasn’t fit to defeat it. To keep winning, we had to neutralise this threat. Like all business leaders at the time, [Pablo founder] Gareth Mercer was probably shitting himself but he didn’t show it. His mindset of attack, rather than retreat, shifted momentum. We changed the whole shape of the company; the way we structured the week; each project and every workflow system. Finding a new space and rhythm for creativity and investing further in creative talent made us instantly stronger.

Create the right pulse of conversation 

The return of sport to our TV screens, played in empty stadiums, has given the viewer new insight to on-field communication. You can’t help but notice how much more vocal the winning teams are. They are always communicating, sharing information and encouraging each other. It’s the same for agencies. Openly sharing information, worries, excitements and direction makes for team success. In these Zoom times we need to help each other along and not get isolated. Creating systems for conversation to pulse correctly leads to creativity. Overloading a conversation with too many people and opinions leads to confusion. We’ve created practices that ensure communication is open and fluid, driving positivity and high-quality output.

Be world class at the things that require zero talent 

Talent is not the key factor in elite performance, it’s the cherry on the cake – a complete waste if you haven’t got a decent cake. So, do your best for the team – simple, practical things like never being late for anything or always bringing positive energy. My England team mate Jonny Wilkinson was the master at this. The biggest name in the sport at the time, he was the first on the training field and last off it. If we turned up at a foreign gym (that the oppostion had booked for us) to find it missed the required equipment, rather than moan, Jonny would quickly adapt his session to get the best out of the situation. At Pablo, we talk about not wasting a second, to make time for great work and we surround every project with people who create opportunity without pressure so the magic, silliness or passion of creativity can flourish.

Celebrate the successes

Momentum is everything. When the landscape is tough, it can cloud every thought, and even the positives don’t seem like you are getting anywhere. So we focus on creating wins. They are signals that you are on track. They show what’s possible and eventually become the building blocks to overall success. Breaking things down into landmarks has helped us do that. Sharing and celebrating these small victories is something that I know makes my two worlds – rugby and advertising – truly world class.

Have leaders throughout the team 

The most successful rugby team I played in had individual leaders throughout the team. With England, Woodward, his coaches and captain, Martin Johnson, would let the leaders – Phil Vickery at the scrum, Will Greenwood in attack and defence and me at the line out – get on with things until they felt we needed help. A successful organisation should have leadership everywhere.

As we have been apart, we’ve made a point of ensuring that everyone at Pablo has a role in leading something. It has kept all of us on-point and fully engaged in what we are trying to achieve.

It’s also interesting to see the impact of this. Having an immense planning brain like that of [Pablo's head of planning] Mark Sng helping to steer the ship, rather than just a department and client briefs, certainly helps us get ahead of market trends. Seeing proactivity driven from all angles, including our creative team Amy and Jacob working with creative director Nat Gordon for our stay at home and "Run right" campaign, provided everyone with inspiration to focus on what’s possible rather than what’s been taken away.

Ben Kay is a former England international rugby union player and founder of Pablo