UM CEO Rachel Forde on media buying as a force for good

With businesses buying into advertising as a growth driver, the CEO of UM says purposeful media choices could be the key to winning hearts and minds.

UM CEO Rachel Forde on media buying as a force for good

For most industries, the two years of the pandemic have felt like an unprecedented shock. Rachel Forde, who’s spent half of her four-year tenure as CEO of UM helping the agency and its clients to navigate the pandemic, sees things slightly differently. For media agencies, the impact of COVID-19 has been less damaging than it might have been – because of the experience of another crisis just over a decade ago.

“I think marketers have always known that we need to look beyond short-term metrics to the future,” she says. “The crucial difference this time is that everyone understands it – and that’s because of the impact of the global financial crisis. CEOs and CFOs can see that brands that continued advertising in that recession went on to build long-term brand growth. They understand that media is a long-term driver of business growth, and so marketers didn’t panic as much about pulling spend this time around.”

Consensus on the enduring value of advertising means that great advertising ideas have enduring value too. The priority for an agency like UM is finding ways to keep generating those ideas amid new ways of working. 

“We’re not an industry that sells widgets – we’re an industry that sells people and ideas,” says Forde. “We thrive on collaboration and serendipity. That’s why a big theme for leaders is how do we get our people together for those moments of inspiration, while still giving them the flexibility to work in the best way for them. For me, it’s about having a purposeful role for time in the office. As part of that, we’re creating space by automating lower-value tasks, so people can focus on what they love doing. We need to create the environments to get to those great ideas.”

Engaging hearts, minds and communities
For Forde, some of the most exciting ideas involve reimagining how marketing drives growth. She argues that focusing on the balance of brand and performance marketing misses a crucial aspect of the buyer’s emotional journey.

“It’s about the audience – how do you win those audiences, by winning over minds and communities? That's where the conversations are happening. That's where people are talking about your brands. It’s the interplay between branding, performance marketing and the audience that matters.”

The need to engage audiences gives an increasingly important role to social media and highlights the value of ensuring that advertising is representative and diverse, something that Forde and UM have helped to illuminate over the past five years through the agency’s ‘UK by UM’ research project. Its purpose is to guide advertisers and agencies on how to address and challenge harmful caricatures and be much more representative – whether that’s for the older generation, women, new mums and dads, disabled people, Gen-Z or the LGBT+ community.

“Advertising does have this huge cultural influence, and we do see it as part of our job to make sure we’re pushing the dialogue,” says Forde. “UK by UM is an insights series that shines a light on underrepresented and stereotyped portions of our society. It shows that people often feel more represented by user-generated content channels – and pushed away when traditional media channels carry a high proportion of stereotyped ads. At the same time, they make positive choices when ads do reflect who they are. There’s a huge gap and also a huge opportunity that many advertisers are missing out on.”

The power of diverse advertising and media
Forde argues that there isn’t just an imperative for marketers to create more diverse advertising to engage the minds of audiences and communities. There’s also real value in a diverse approach to media buying.

“We have a whole directory of media owners that are run by diverse groups and speak to more diverse groups,” she says. “It’s about making sure they get the advertising dollars they need to survive. Through media choices you can make a really positive impact by keeping those channels open – and when brands go into those environments, it’s very strong from a representation point of view. It says, ‘we’re here for you’.”

More brands will have more opportunities to make such statements, thanks to the digital transformation of marketing that’s been driven by the pandemic. “We know more than ever about how to speak to our consumers in the right way – in an authentic way,” says Forde. “We’ve come through these last two years with an even greater respect for our communities and as marketers and media agencies there’s an opportunity to emerge and think about how we can be a force for good. There’s a whole lot to be excited about.”

For more insights from visionary Marketing Leaders check out LinkedIn’s CMO Corner.