Trends and Insight in association withSynapse Virtual Production

Community and a Catch-22: Peter Mears on Meaningful Media in the Time of Covid-19

Advertising Agency
New York, USA
Havas Media’s Global CEO reflects on how the pandemic put a more human lens on leadership, writes Laura Swinton
“So… what have you been… watching?”

Two months ago, it would have been unthinkable that nearly every work meeting and industry panel would kick off with an almost ritualised exchange of TV and streaming suggestions. But here we are. With a third of the world’s population having been under some form of lockdown, we’ve been seeking out news and entertainment like never before. Streaming platforms, news sites and the good old trusty live TV are surging as we comfort ourselves with distracting content and background noise throughout the day, and seek out the information we need to make sense of a confusing, difficult to predict global crisis.

As engagement with – even dependency on – media soars, and the strange new context influences what media we’re seeking out, it’s a fascinating time to dig a little deeper into what media really matters to us – and why. Since 2018, Havas Media has been talking about ‘meaningful media’, and for the agency’s global CEO, that positioning has taken on a strange new relevance and the Covid-19 pandemic.

“There’s never been a time in history when media has been so meaningful – how many conversations have you had where the anchor of the conversation has been ‘what are you watching’? it’s been great for us in a way because it’s really brought the concept of meaningful media top of mind,” says Peter. “In the absence of being able to do anything else all we’ve been able to do really is spend time with media.

The network has been continually researching and sharing insights from its various markets, to uncover what exactly meaningful means like at a time of crisis. What’s been a common factor, for example, is a surge in news consumption. In the UK, there’s been a small but significant shift in young people seeking out news brands that they might not have engaged with before, which suggests that trust is a real factor for anxious youngsters seeking information about serious issues. And TV is having a moment as respondents cite it as the most trusted medium. In the US, media brands have found themselves shouldering a real responsibility as the public is more likely to say they trust media (86%) than trust the government (82%) or friends and family (56%). 

However, despite the surge in engagement and the (quite literally) captive audiences, many brands have pulled back spend – in the UK, recent surveys by the Advertising Association and the IPA have signalled a major drop in ad spend. “There’s a lot of eyeballs right now, for sure, but not a lot of demand for them. Paradox is right, it’s a very unique situation. It’s never happened before. There’s no playbook for this so our role is to help clients to help the power of media and media as a driver of growth but also to be respectful about what’s going on right now – and that has and will continue to have an impact on our business.”

The search for meaning has driven the agency to look beyond data and volume and to take a more holistic and human approach to understanding media. 

“Of course data has been very important for us and will continue to be important for us but we need to make sure that we are listening, there are humans behind those data points. Understanding what they’re doing and why they’re doing it is sort of more important than how many of them there are. That has been bubbling through our work,” says Peter. “We as an industry have been obsessed with getting audiences because there’s a lot of them. We’ve been obsessed with the number of data points and not obsessed enough about the motivations behind them and this has brought that more top of mind for us. Understanding which media you trust and which media you engage with is way more important to us building a relationship with our clients’ brands and you and how many of you there are.”
It’s not just media planning that Peter has been considering from a more human perspective. The whole, rippling crisis has stripped everything from client relations to leadership back to a less guarded, more empathetic state.

“Making sure everyone is safe and well is the first thing we’ve done, and we’ve been able to shift our modes of engagement with our client relationships and I think everyone has been able to adapt quite well. This feels quite normal now and again it’s brought us closer to some clients. I think that we are as an industry great at understanding what our clients' industries are, but when you’re in this situation together you get a whole other level of exposure and depth of understanding and I think that’s very helpful and it will be helpful back to clients.”

Peter recalls some of the surprisingly raw and emotional experiences working with and learning from the leadership around the network in his weekly ‘Super 8’ calls with Havas’ biggest markets. As the crisis has unfolded at different rates in different countries, local leaders have shared not only work-related insights but personal advice too. Indeed, the word ‘community’ crops up many times in our conversation – with regard to the 9,000 people of Havas Media, with regard to his own family split between the US and UK, with regard to the way neighbours are looking out for one another, and with regard to the way that technology has brought us closer together. “Now as a media guy, I think I’m at a seven on the frequency of the word community, but I think we needed a bit of community!” says Peter, with a chuckle. 

His thoughts about community are reflected in the Havas Media research – platforms like Zoom, Teams and Facebook are bringing groups of friends and family together as households find new ways to hang out. The Havas Media team even posits that these changes in how communities come together online will ripple through the rest of the year – for example the much-discussed age disparities between social platforms may soften as younger people spend more time on Facebook in order to connect with parents and grandparents, and TikTok may see older people rush to join in the fun that they see being shared by younger loved ones.

As the agency and its clients cast an eye to the future, though, while many factors remain uncertain, there’s no doubt in Peter’s mind that media is going to be a key driver as economies attempt to reignite activity and businesses ramp up demand. But there are challenges ahead for media that go beyond clients’ tightening purse strings. With the 2020 calendar in the shredder – farewell the 2020 Summer of sport – brands will have to navigate an uncertain time without familiar touchstones. The Havas Media research even proposes a potential ‘content drought’ in the offing, as locked down audiences burn through streaming platform series. 

“It’ll be interesting to see what happens in US TV in the fall – this is pilot shooting time right now, so the pipelines of content is going to go through significant upheaval and it’s an opportunity for the other players who can work faster and cheaper,” ponders Peter.

The next big challenge will be the return to the office – Peter says the agency has got teams planning measures at a global, regional and local level. There are no certainties on timing and each local government will have its own regulations to comply with. Even within the US, it’s likely that the situation with the Havas Village in New York could be quite different from, say, the Boston office. Staggered commute times, socially-distanced offices, potential temperature checks, potential flare ups and secondary lockdowns all on a timetable that zigzags round the world. As Peter puts it, ‘it’s a lot’.

“Making the decision to put everyone in a home working situation was relatively straightforward. It happened quickly and we were concerned with technology and infrastructure,” he says. “Bringing people back to the office is way more complicated.”

However it pans out and whatever unexpected twists and challenges crop up on the road towards the other side, Peter is convinced that the experience will leave the business with a deeper understanding of people and the media. And, though he’s embarrassed to gush (in a very British way), he’s also gained a deeper appreciation of his team around the world and how they’ve risen to the unprecedented challenge. “The year has taken a bit of a turn and financially it’s going to be tough, but from a community perspective we feel very strong. It’s been very rewarding actually to spend this weird time with the different groups around the world. You literally get a window into everyone’s world,” says Peter.

“I feel strangely privileged to be in this role at this particular moment. There have been moments where it’s been incredibly stressful and exhausting... and I’ve felt levels of pride in the team members and the way that we are working through this that have been unparalleled.”

Photo by Rod Long on Unsplash

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