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Changemakers: Q&A with Sue Unerman, MediaCom’s Chief Transformation Officer

June 11, 2020

12 min read

What does the future of marketing hold? For the second instalment of our Changemakers series, we interviewed Sue Unerman, MediaCom’s Chief Transformation Officer to find out. 

Sue has been with Mediacom for 30 years. She helps the agency and its clients to deal with business challenges from VUCA, which stands for Volatility; Uncertainty; Complexity and Ambiguity – factors we’re all experiencing more than ever before thanks to coronavirus. 

(This interview was originally hosted as a live webinar Marketing & Managing Change with Sue Unerman. If you missed it, you can watch the recording here). 

Sue, your job is to help clients future-proof in a world of constant change – have you ever witnessed more change during your career than there is now? 

“Clearly, the agency I joined 30 years ago was completely different to the agency we now run but the amount of change that’s been crammed into the last 10 weeks, and we’re going to see for the rest of this year, is completely different to anything else we’ve ever experienced. Some of it is really exciting and quite a lot of it is difficult and sad and hard to navigate. 

“The paradoxes that are going on at the moment are more extreme than we’ve ever seen; in these times there are people who are  doing really well from the change, and then there are a lot of businesses that are experiencing really difficult times and a lot of careers are stalling as a result.” 

MediaCom works with some big-name brands like Mars, DFS, Tesco and Sky. How have the clients you work with been affected by COVID-19? 

“There’s just a huge range. To take one extreme, we work with TUI, the holiday company. Clearly, people aren’t going on holiday at the moment and we don’t know exactly when that’s going to kick off again. On the other hand, we work with Tesco, who have been trading throughout the period and have benefitted from being able to open their stores. Tesco shop staff and employees are now frontline workers.” 

And how has MediaCom as an agency been affected by the changes?

“We’ve seen lots of budget cuts or campaigns that have been moved and we’ve actually been quite busy executing all of those things. We’re also doing an awful lot of mid-term planning for our clients. Marketing famously works around the long and the short of it – that’s the Les Binet and Peter Field Bible that the IPA published. You’ve got to consider the short term and the long term, and actually the short term was relatively easy to navigate because we all did what we had to do. So, if there was a cinema campaign, it got postponed because the cinemas are closed. 

“The long term, when we’re back to normal, is also relatively simple to navigate but the mid term; the third and fourth quarter this year and first quarter next year, what’s going to happen, what will have changed? What kinds of habits and behaviours that people are adopting, which are new to them during lockdown, how long are they going to last? We’re very busy with all of those areas.

“As an agency, we all started working from home the Friday before the lockdown. We’ve got five regional offices up and down the UK and, ordinarily, my colleagues who lead the Edinburgh office and the Northern office come in for a Monday morning meeting. They’ve been getting up at the crack of dawn to come down on the train or plane for a two-hour meeting and I feel like we need to apologise to them because it now just seems like such a waste of time. As a business, we want to learn what we can from this and actually come out stronger.”

Has your role changed personally?

“I would say that transformation is now on everybody’s agenda. There are three ways in which we’re thinking about it; we’re thinking about it in terms of the physical structure – where we are and what we do. We’re thinking about it in terms of the products and services that we provide, but we’re also thinking about it in terms of talent.

“MediaCom’s long-established reason for being is people first, better results. I think it’s really crucial at the moment for leadership to think hard about how to be inclusive for everybody in the workforce, both now and going forward and to start to reimagine what work/life balance and blend is going to be like.”

Some brands took the decision to suspend marketing activity during the pandemic. But research shows that consumers think brands should continue to advertise. What do you think is the right approach?

“Research shows that consumers are very happy about advertising and it doesn’t have to be COVID-related advertising. Actually, people like familiar brands. What we know about advertising and planning for marketing is we do need to think about brand building and being front of mind at the same time as immediate actions. So our recommendation to our clients is – where they can – continue spending through the crisis. 

“In some situations that means developing specific copy. For example, in an amazingly short space of time, Tesco has turned around an ad where they used their colleagues to explain really clearly what it’s going to be like when you go shopping and what measures are in place for everybody’s safety. That’s been one of the highest-scoring ads in terms of impact during this period. So I think there’s a real role to ask what have you got to say at the moment that is useful and important about your sector?” 

And what about the companies that have decided to suspend advertising?

“Every business has got to consider their own particular journey with things like supply chain, availability, tone of voice, global policies. What I do know is that every client decision is very well considered. I think at the moment marketing is even more high profile than it ever has been in the boardrooms of businesses both globally and in the UK. 

“How you speak to your public is critical and advertising at the moment isn’t being seen as colouring in, which is sometimes how it’s dismissed. During this crucial medium-term where there is so much uncertainty about what’s going to happen, marketing’s role and strategic thinking about marketing is more important than it’s ever been.”   

You learned about Agile working as part of the UK Government Digital Advisory Board. How are you using that experience to help your clients adjust their marketing strategy?

“At this time where we are re-thinking how we work, Agile ways of working are crucial. I experienced it when I was on the Government Digital Advisory Board and they’re the people who set up gov.co.uk. They’ve made applying for a driving license online super easy as opposed to being the complex process that it was before. They used Agile for software development, what we’re using it for at MediaCom is to transform all of our ways of working. 

“What Agile does is it gives you an ongoing process of continual improvement. It borrows techniques from lean thinking and you end up measuring on an ongoing basis the morale of your colleagues, the amount of time it takes for tasks to get completed, the amount of time that’s wasted on tasks that aren’t necessary, and general efficiency, which allows you to identify what things have been blocking progress. And it also stops you getting people working on too many things at once. 

“I’ve just gone through full Agile training in the last two weeks and we will now be rolling that out across MediaCom but we’ll also be giving advice to our clients about how to work in Agile ways with us. It’s especially relevant now because Agile can bring remote teams together with a set of daily rituals that mean that you crack problems rather than just sit on them. I think Agile can increase the productivity of our industry massively.”  

Which brands do you think have adapted well to the situation and what can we learn from them?

“There’s been interesting work across our clients, whether that’s eBay helping out small businesses with some of their activity, or it’s Tesco in the way they put their colleagues front and centre (but also came back to their Food Love Stories campaign in a really moving way). It brought a tear to my eye, because I too have been missing people that I’d usually be cooking for. And then there’s Sport England, which has just brought out some immensely useful and involving work about exercising from home. So I think there are a number of brands that have absolutely hit the right mark. 

“What can we learn from them? Empathy. This is a time for empathy more than ever. Britain went into this year with a big split down the middle and a lot of people not really listening to each other because of Brexit. But I think communities have come together during this crisis – my street has got a WhatsApp group for the first time and people are helping each other out with things like picking things up from the pharmacy or getting a pint of milk. Throughout the nation, there’s a sense of people coming together, and brands that are doing well are really listening and empathising with their customers.” 

Marketing Week’s Mark Ritson believes that the brands that have upped their marketing budgets will be the ones that come out of this stronger. Do you agree?

“I think there are going to be winners and losers throughout this period and there are competitive advantages to be had if you deploy your resources in the right way.” 

Marketing Week research showed 50% of UK marketers are making budget cuts, is that reflective of what you’re seeing with your clients?

“That’s what the marketplace is looking like. The media marketplace has seen reductions in spend that nobody has ever seen before and it’s completely understandable. On the other hand as someone who started out as a media buyer, there are some very good deals to be had out there. So it is a good time – if there is budget – to go and ask your media agency to negotiate the most amazing deal that you’ll ever get.”

Do you think the crisis will have a long term impact on marketing – will things return to the way they were before?

“I don’t think anything much will return to the way things were before. I think there’s going to be a reimagining. The McKinsey framework for this is five Rs:

Resolve – sort out the short-term crisis
Resilience – how do we get through this period? What do we cut? Where can we make savings?
Returning – starting to think about returning 
Reimagine – this is the fourth phase, which MediaCom is doing now and I think is the most crucial. How could things look? How do we create more resilience in our marketing practices going forward and what can we learn from this time? 
Reform – how do you recreate?

“Thinking about how things could be different and thinking about what we’ve learned and what we can build on, that’s the most crucial thing that businesses need to find time to do.” 

If remote working becomes the norm, what impact could this have on marketing teams?

“Remote working is interesting because it suits some people but not everybody is having a good lockdown experience. Statistically, we now know that it is gendered. UCL and the Institute for Fiscal Studies brought out a report that shows women are 47% more likely either to have lost their job or quit their job during the lockdown so far. And for every three hours of uninterrupted work that men do, a woman gets an hour of uninterrupted work, so the ratio is one to three. Women are looking after kids for two hours more a day and they’re also doing two hours more housework. That’s an awful lot of mental load and distractions.

“I think any team manager needs to think about those gender differences and also other differences. My book The Glass Wall is about women in the workplace, and my new book coming out this autumn is about diversity and inclusion. What we’ve found time and time again is that there are groups of people who don’t feel like they belong in the current office environment and the current culture. I worry that if you’re already an outlier to your office culture, how, at a time like this, you’ll be able to find a way to generate enough corporate social currency to get noticed and get promoted? I worry about that falling off agendas.”  

Got more questions for Sue? You can connect with her on our LinkedIn group, In The Know. You can also follow Sue’s blog www.sueunerman.com and tune into the MediaCom Connected Podcast, which she co-hosts.

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