Roundtable Pt. 2: Leading amid uncertainty

Our panel of industry experts talk communication and testing testing testing!


Clockwise from top left: Susan Irving, CMO at Kruger Products; Grace Ahlberg, SVP, head of business insights & analytics at MediaCom; Brent Nelsen, CSO, Leo Burnett; Eva Salem, VP marketing at Canadian Tire; Christine Saunders, president at Starcom.

This story originally appeared in the Nov/Dec 2020 issue of strategy. Revisit part one of the conversation here

After talking about the challenges of planning for an uncertain future, this second and final part of our industry roundtable looks at leadership and trying to read Canadians’ mindset during the pandemic.

Several of you mentioned scenario planning and how it’s become important again. What impact has that had on your resources, particularly on the agency side?

Christine Saunders, president at Starcom: The media business as a whole has really grown in terms of tools and automation. And thank goodness for that, because I think it would have crushed us if we didn’t have the automation.

Yeah, it’s been tough, but no more than on our clients. If we’re working hard, so are the clients. I would also say we made some good bets earlier this year and late last year where we really invested in platform specialists.

Brent Nelsen, CSO, Leo Burnett: Our clients are involving us in every single call. Where I can see a change in the agency structure in my discipline of planning is a bit of a hollowing out of the bottom rung.

The questions that clients are facing are usually really big. Look at our airline clients: are they even going to have a business at the end of this? Each industry is going to have its different scenarios based on economic return, or structural changes that will happen regardless of the economy. And those questions require more senior talent with maybe a little grey in their beards. The questions are complex and the ramifications are significant. It’s not a place where junior talent, through no fault of their own, can play a part on their own.

Eva Salem, VP marketing at Canadian Tire: The distribution of work within organizations right now has been a massive implication. What level people are working at, because of the stakes of the situation, has been a big thing.

The other thing you mentioned is the amount of testing that we’re doing. It is crazy. The reality is that it’s very difficult to get a real sense of where people’s heads are at. We’re testing like we’ve never tested before because it feels like things are so fluid.

Grace Ahlberg, SVP, head of business  insights & analytics at MediaCom: There’s a need for more research because everything is so unpredictable. However, there’s also this crazy frenzy around the need to test and research everything. I think there’s a bit of an obsession and a bubble in terms of how much we think human beings change. It took us a billion years of evolution to go from here to there. I don’t think COVID is going to change the way we do everything.

People will still behave in an expected way. Of course there will be nuances depending on the industry. Hotels will need to retool. Travel will need to retool. If you’re a pet care brand, you do not need to question everything. We do not have to have 500 scenario plans a day. Sometimes we overdo things. As marketers we all agree, there’s a lot of uncertainty that’s part of our jobs. There’s a lot of gut-feel that needs to play a role. We shouldn’t always be obsessed with the numbers to justify our actions.

Saunders: That’s fair, but I think there are some things that will stick, and we’ve seen one of the most drastic changes in media consumption of our lifetimes. The commerce channels have changed, and that affects every single client that we have. Even pet food, you don’t only go to your local store now, you buy on Amazon or you even go to a big box store.

Ahlberg: Yeah, I’m with you.

Saunders: Then there’s media consumption. I can’t watch any more news. I’m done. But the first few months of the pandemic was insane, we were begging clients to go on the air because they’d reach every Canadian!

The need for higher-level hands on the business puts a lot of pressure on leaders in a time when it’s difficult to manage virtual teams. So how sustainable is it to have a million Plan As?

Susan Irving, CMO, Kruger Products: For the past six months, we’ve just been in survival mode. It’s been go, go, go. I look at my team, everyone’s tired, everyone’s working 24/7. As much as we thought working from home would be great because the commute is gone, we thought we’d have all this extra time, and we don’t. We need more people, but I don’t think finance will be happy when I ask for 20 more heads.
If I look at how we’re planning mild, medium and severe, we’ve picked a lane. We’re not planning A, B or C. We’ve picked a lane of what we’re planning toward so we can pivot one way or the other.

Salem: The outcome of prioritization is you can start distributing the workload down the chain of command. When you’re always on the fly, it sits at a very high level, to Brent’s earlier point. The more we’re able to pick a lane and prioritize a plan, the more you can start passing it along to other people. Early on, the lower- and mid-level [staff] weren’t getting the work they normally get because a lot of it was still living really high. Prioritizing will help on that side for sure.

What does the relationship between brand and agency look like today compared to pre-COVID?

Saunders: The collaboration between media and creative will continue to be very important. That’s going to be the next frontier that we need to really focus on. Media vendors have also stepped up tremendously.

Ahlberg: We’ve always talked about siloes being the number one enemy of how we work together. This has forced us to collaborate more closely and become one ecosystem of different things coming together, with the business at the heart. I think it’s fast-forwarded that constant dream we’ve been chasing for a while now.

Salem: A lot of people were initially looking at efficiency and bringing media in-house and being all about performance. What this has really brought to the surface is the real role from a media agency partnership perspective in terms of strategic thinking. It’s so much more than bottom-funnel performance metrics. My hope is that in the future, the expectation isn’t that you’re turning around back-half-of-the-year plans in 14 days, because that’s not sustainable.

Saunders: And it can’t excuse bad behaviour. Just because we can do something in two days or two weeks, doesn’t mean we should.

The first half of this roundtable discussion can be found here.