Abbott Mead Vickers CEO Sarah Douglas on bouncing back
No one yet knows how the post-pandemic economy will look, but one thing is certain – it will require a creativity that puts ‘we’ before ‘me’, says Sarah Douglas, CEO at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO.
In his 2014 book War! What Is It Good For?, Stanford historian and archaeologist Professor Ian Morris argues that armed conflict, while gruesome, has, over centuries, made organised societies more peaceful. Parallels between war and the current crisis may be unhelpful (although some, from columnists to politicians, clearly never got that memo), but it’s certainly constructive to focus on the many ways in which businesses can emerge from this extraordinarily disruptive chapter in modern history more effectively.
“I think leaders will have failed if we go back to what we used to call normal,” explains Sarah Douglas, Chief Executive Officer at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, a £62m-turnover agency which develops powerful brand platforms for more than 70 organisations, from Snickers to BT, from Fair Trade to Whiskas, and has 289 offices across 81 countries.
“Hard though it is for us all, there’s a spirit of optimism to grasp and fertilise. It’s an opportunity to seize the day and get on with things we’ve been kicking into the long grass for quite a long time.”
Creativity is a multiplier, as long as it’s backed by proper strategic rigour – without that, creativity is art, not commerce
In some ways, Douglas says, the pandemic has forced compromise, only for us to realise it wasn’t actually compromise at all. “As a creative industry we’ve been very reluctant to properly embrace flexible working for a long time after technology gave us the science – we’ve been worried it would compromise the ‘magic’,” she says. “We all thought that you couldn’t achieve chemistry and community across a Webex, and that you had to be breathing the same oxygen.
“But it’s actually made us a bit more humble, more appreciative of each other having to jugg le personal and professional lives. I call it ‘the soft art of Webex’. There’s no hard start to a meeting, because you see someone across Webex and you’re in their space, their home. You know that they may have had to deal with [their child’s] algebra equation 10 minutes before they turned the camera on. I think it means that we don’t leave our manners at the door – we follow the etiquette of being in people’s personal space. It means that we warm up, and ask a few more caring questions and that’s what creates chemistry.”
Technology makes us all focus on one thing at a time.
Douglas even suggests that communications across cyberspace involve a little more consideration for the speaker. “People are also focusing, more respectfully, on a single speaker instead of interrupting, which is refreshing. And you’re all focusing on the same thing at the same time – in our case, creative work: a deck on a computer, or work we’ve put up on walls, or stuff on tables.
Technology makes us all focus on one thing at a time. So the tools we’re using to navigate this chapter have, I hope, made us a little more patient and humble and less self-regarding.”
Douglas also pinpoints a broader cultural and societal trade wind that organisations should harness. “Something this chapter has done is, it’s made us go back to some of the core principles of living well,” she says. “We’ve had to get better at being around our families. We’ve had to get better at taking care of our neighbours and our communities and think less about ourselves and more about our society. Those are fundamental human needs. So I think we’ll emerge more humane, more empathetic, better able to put others’ needs before our own – and that, translated into the workspace, will mean that we are better team players, better at sharing, at celebration, at sensitivity, and there will be less of a ‘me’ culture.”
Finding the spark
So much for erosion of company camaraderie. But what of creativity? Again, for Douglas, a decline is not simply unthinkable – she believes a new approach to innovation will pay dividends. “What will be evermore important in the forthcoming recession is a creativity that is crystal clear on human needs and crystal clear on mind states, and adapting brand tonalities that better reflect what I think will be a more fluent and deeper cultural nuance,” she says. “Creativity is a multiplier, as long as it’s backed by proper strategic rigour – without that, creativity is art, not commerce.”
Of course, the positive attitude Douglas promotes is not without some gruelling obstacles to overcome. “There’s going to be pressure on budgets, and brands will need to make sure what we call non-working spend is working as hard is it possibly can for them,” she says. “I also see an enormous amount of trepidation because we’ll have a declining job market, and it’s hard to lead fearful organisations into a positive agenda.
this is not like a demand-side or supply-side recession – it’s like nothing we’ve ever seen before. So we’re going to have to look at what we’ve got, progress with that and then perhaps tack in a slightly different direction
The brief for leaders is, in many respects, going to be no different to great leadership at all times – clarity, conviction, communication and calm. People are going to be jumpy. Leaders have to set the narrative, and enrol everyone in having a part to play in that narrative. That’s going to be hugely important as we face the headwinds of change that will hit.”
Talking of headwinds, before now Douglas has, in discussing businesses’ approach to the post-pandemic world, used the analogy of a novice swimmer beholding a pool: a scary prospect when seen from poolside, but much less intimidating once in. Today, though, she draws comparisons to another watersport.
“I learned to sail with my brother as a child, and I could never understand why you couldn’t just go from A to B along the shortest route,” she says. “Now I know that you’ve got to harness the energy and direction of the wind and the water. And business leaders are going to be tacking for a while, because no one knows how exactly we’re going to come out of this.
“This is not like a demand-side or supply-side recession – it’s like nothing we’ve ever seen before. So we’re going to have to look at what we’ve got, progress with that and then perhaps tack in a slightly different direction. But we’ll ultimately get to where we want to on the horizon. It’s going to require us living by our wits a little. But it will be life-enhancing.”
This article first appeared in the June 2020 issue of CA magazine.