NABS describes its role as “here to improve the well-being of everyone in the advertising and media industry.” That’s a big job. Advertising is an exciting profession, but it can be challenging and NABS’ existence is built on the admission that sometimes it can take its toll.
The UK-based organisation was founded as far back as 1913, when one can only imagine the concept of well-being was much narrower. These days it’s broad, meaning NABS offers a range of services that help people in advertising and media to thrive, from masterclasses and talks, to speed mentoring sessions, one-to-one career coaching and its confidential advice line. It also also offers means-tested grants subject to availability.
With well-being under more strain than usual due to this pandemic, NABS is even more vital to the industry than ever, with the added difficulty that many of the businesses that now support it financially are struggling themselves.
LBB’s Alex Reeves caught up with CEO Diana Tickell to hear more about the woman at the helm at this vital moment.
LBB> First off, how is NABS coping with all the upheaval of Covid-19?
Diana> We’re OK. We’d organised ourselves quite a long way ahead for getting people to do more flexible working. Being NABS, we want to be able to practice what we preach a bit. So we introduced all sorts of different flexible working options a couple of years ago. That meant most people had some experience of working from home and different hours. We have quite a few working parents.
When it looked like lockdown was coming we made sure everyone could work from home. One or two people realised their computers were rather slow and all those things, so we got through some of those teething things in the first week.
So we’re getting on with it, doing lots of team meetings over video. Little fun things as well, trying to keep the culture going as best we can.
But having to be uber flexible for all the working parents is probably the most challenging thing for them. Also those who are organising things around them having to really appreciate their new balance so you don’t try and force them into boxes that they just can’t work in.
The advice line was running quickly and getting busier by the week. All our masterclasses went online using Zoom, which has a workshop breakout so you can still run a proper workshop. The crisis management piece was done quickly, then it was about the plan for the long way out. It sounds very organised but it didn’t feel like that.
LBB> With its focus on the well-being of people in the advertising industry, NABS seems more important than ever now. Does it feel that way?
Diana> It does. I think people were in a bit of shock so it took time to build. And people were just coping. We had lots of new callers, people who hadn’t phoned us before. We had a spike of freelancers, which later calmed after new government initiatives. People are worrying about being furloughed and if that means when they come back they might not have a job.
There are all those anxieties coming through. But the pattern is sort of the same. It’s still emotional support. It’s still redundancy problems and financial support. So the things that we were there for before have just been extenuated, I think.
LBB> There’s the reaction to the crisis, but how do you anticipate this will change the way you work in the long run?
Diana> At the moment we’re thinking about how this is going to affect the next 18 months to two years. We’re looking at activities we have planned in the autumn. We might be able to start it in the ‘old world’, if we’re back, but social distancing could come in waves. So everything we do in the summer, autumn and potentially into the winter, needs to be rethought. Once you start using these different tools and you’ve made the resource investment in making them work, it’s going to stay forever.
I think we’ll probably clamour back to each other for a little while. We’re social animals. We need that contact. But I think quite a lot of this is going to stay. So how you can flex what you do between the old model and what is forced upon us is key. Because I think we’re going to get waves of this.
LBB> Let’s not make this interview all about coronavirus though! I’d love to talk about your background, having worked at children’s charity Barnardo’s for a long time. That’s interesting, being client side in the charity sector.
Diana> Yeah, but I started out in the agency world. I did business studies which had marketing in it. And I ended up working as a sales manager for a travel company. After a few years I joined Brann, before it was Havas, in Cirencester. I was an account manager working on charity accounts. So that’s how I started my marketing career - on direct marketing for charities.
Then I worked my way up the agency piece on the client services side, moved to London and did some advertising accounts, then went back to working on charities again before moving to Barnardo’s.
Barnardo’s was quite a high profile advertiser. Even though we didn’t spend much money we had a lot of big campaigns, working with BBH on fantastic creative work. So I’ve been a lifelong fan of BBH in terms of creativity and high impact for your budget.
LBB> When you were at Barnardo’s, was there one campaign that tied all of that together for you?
Diana> We had a really good run. So there was Heroin Baby, [https://www.thirdsector.co.uk/change-makers-barnardos/communications/article/1188136] which was before me, the really famous one. But after that we moved it on, to try and look at the impact on young people more. We did the one which was about young girls and boys being sexually exploited. That campaign really seemed to cut through. Quite high impact adverts, really powerful. The climax of that was winning at the IPA Effectiveness Awards. https://www.theguardian.com/media/2002/dec/03/advertising.society
From an agency and client perspective it was fantastic. But also from an impact perspective, in terms of what it achieved for the charity, it was fantastic. If you talk about sexual exploitation of children and young people now, it’s something that we all understand and are aware of now. Back then, it wasn’t talked about. So it brought it very much to the fore.
And it’s been something that the charity has continued to do. It helps them raise money to help more people. So that’s the one that has the most positive memories of the difference it made and being fabulous creative work that changes lives for good.
LBB> That must have been fulfilling but also frustrating with the stakes being so high.
Diana> Yes. And challenging because you’re trying to manage an issue which is highly sensitive, to represent it in the right way. It’s a massive organisational challenge as well as a creative challenge. People think charity advertising is easy to work on because you can be creative and impactful, but actually getting that line right in terms of the messaging and what you’re saying is really hard.
LBB> Then what was it that drew you to NABS? There’s a thread there of helping people but also remaining in the marketing space.
Diana> I think it was the opportunity to put those two things together. It’s a charity. When I left Barnardo’s I was deputy chief executive, so I was at a senior level and had worked across so many different things. This was an opportunity to run an organisation that I had a lot of respect for, but also one that was in need of someone with a different background. The previous CEOs had been brilliant at getting it to the forefront and now it was ready for somebody with a broader charity experience to push its service expansion as much as its impact.
For me it was a really good opportunity to be in the heart of the industry which I love and be able to lead an organisation.
We’ve been able to continue to grow and grow the numbers of people that we’re helping and give NABS a stronger, more confident voice. Having worked in a big charity, having the confidence to be able to put some of the advertising out that we did at Barnardo’s has given me the confidence to say “come on NABS, you can do this!”
LBB> Over the years what have your big priorities been at NABS? How’s it changed?
Diana> I’ve been here five years now. We really wanted to be better known for what we do today, for being able to help the industry today and continue to move on from some of the historical understanding of what NABS was.
We’ve been very much focused on the well-being agenda, helping people’s whole lives. We’re there for the emergency support but also the preventative, developmental piece as well, which builds resilience and confidence and all those things that you need to cope with our industry, which is fantastic but also hugely challenging and competitive. We’re about building the whole picture of well-being across our industry. We’ve put that at the forefront and driven it forward.
There was a real need for focus. And that’s helped us in our fundraising and in clarity for people - when they need support they know to come to us now. We still need more awareness and better understanding of what we do, but we’re working on that.
We’re still trying to drive greater impact. Last year we were looking at how we can reach more people without increasing our costs. We were already looking at how we could upgrade our telephone infrastructure so that we could be better at call management and triage, so we get the right people to the right people on the phones, using technology better. On redundancy for example we get a lot of standard set questions. We could handle some of that differently and free up the advisors to take more calls on emotional help and well-being. We were already doing that, thank goodness, otherwise we’d have struggled with what’s happening now.
We’d been looking at evolving how we do our masterclasses anyway.
We’ve done more regional activity. Scotland and Manchester, so we’re trying to get a bigger geographical spread. But also we’re trying to do that through digital tools rather than in person.
Alongside that is NABS’ point of view. We’re trying over the next few years to pull together more data, research, alongside our own experience and expertise, so that we can help the industry more. We normally focus on being here to help the individual, completely separate from your organisation. Nobody knows about it, you’re with us, we’ll help you completely confidentially. But organisations are asking NABS to come and help them with their culture.
TimeTo is a good example of that, where we’ve come together with other industry bodies, WACL and the Advertising Association, put guidance together and we’re now setting up training. We want to do more of that sort of thing, so we’re helping the industry move forward really practically. As well as continuing to be there for all the individuals. So that’s the next pivot.
LBB> Since you’ve been at NABS, I feel like the conversation around a lot of the issues that NABS deals with - like sexual harassment, mental health issues - have moved on generally. Do you feel like NABS has been able to work more effectively because of that cultural shift?
Diana> Yeah. I think so. Five years ago, when we were looking at our core services and trying to define what we did and put that into our core purpose, we put well-being in the industry into our purpose. I was going around talking to senior leaders about how important that was. And for many people it was too nebulous. It was seen as quite fluffy. We put well-being at the heart of what we do. We defined it quite broadly, including mental health and financial well-being and all those elements. In that time, well-being has become one of the top topics of conversation, whereas five years ago it was there but it was a bit light and considered a nice-to-have. Now it’s core. And this experience of Covid-19 is making it even more important because we’re all really focused on our overall well-being. So I think we were on the edge of a wave and chose that as our focus before it landed.
The other thing that I think has helped is the high-profile campaigns around mental health. It just means the awareness of the importance of mental health is out there. I think that’s helped because I don’t think people would have seen us for that before.
LBB> And how about on the subject of sexual harassment?
Diana> TimeTo is absolutely a response to the situation. It was a group of people coming together to say “we have this problem too. What can we do as a group of senior leaders with our organisations behind it to do something as positive as we can?” Rather than following the MeToo agenda, which is about naming and shaming, we wanted to look at what practices we could put in place, educational processes. How can we stop this, going forward? I think the fact that we’ve gone on that positive agenda has helped people engage with it. And the training that we’ve now piloted and established online is ready to run. It’s a real insightful understanding of what sexual harassment is. It’s not finger waving.
LBB> Is there anything else that NABS has done recently that you’ve been particularly proud of?
Diana> I think WellFest in November. There was so much learning that came out of that that we need to work out how we’ll use. We were planning on re-running it this autumn but we’re not likely to run it again until 2021. Instead we’ll be working out how we use the lessons from that and continue those conversations in different ways.
It was so good because it started with such an honest and open space that people felt it was an environment that they trusted. Therefore we got a lot of open sharing. The thing I got out of it particularly was there’s so much we’re doing on mental health, but actually people still need a place to talk. I was wondering if we still needed to be doing that. Have we not got that now? Actually, no we haven’t. People need to be able to talk and people need to listen and not think that they have to solve the problem. That’s the shift for me. If you hear something that you need to respond to because there’s a risk and someone’s asking you for help then yes. But quite often someone just needs to share, some trust and someone to validate them. At the end what Will Young said was “get rid of the kidney punchers - the people who don’t validate who you are”. So making sure people have trusted circles around them, building those and managing that is going to be really important going forward.
LBB> Personally, how are you dealing with life under lockdown?
Diana> The biggest risk I get from talking to senior people running around trying to look after their staff and save some of their business, is that we’re going to burn ourselves out in weeks if we’re not careful. It’s got so intense. We’re not stopping working on our screens. They’re not good for our eyes. They’re not good for our posture. They’re not good for our mental agility. I think that’s a challenge. So I’m trying to stay sane by sticking to a schedule, making sure I’m taking breaks and getting out.
I haven’t found anything new, but I’m making sure I’m enjoying the space. We had a kitchen extension finished just before we got locked in, so we’re in homemaking mode. So I’m trying to get it back to normal and making the most of the new kitchen. I’ve got a bit of energy there from a project that would normally take weeks to think about, but we’ve actually got time to do that.
Some of the first lessons are to look after yourself and your family first. Because if you don’t do that you can’t help your team. It’s so easy to do this always-on thing. If we get into a new rhythm that says it is OK to take breaks, we’ll come back with a better schedule when we get back to our offices, we’ll take all that forward. And remember the things we got from this.
If I was on my own in a small flat without any space, or even house sharing, I think this is the most difficult time. The anxiety and pressure, for a lot of people, probably outweighs having a bit of extra time to do things.