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Getting Back to the Future: Five Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World


Brand marketing directors tell 2050 London’s Ben Tan about what they’ve learned from the Covid crisis, and how it will transform their businesses long into the future

Getting Back to the Future: Five Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World

A new year stretches out before us and long, dark evenings invite us to ponder what it may bring. Usually this calls for a bottle of wine and a crystal-ball, but this time it feels different. Last year was so crazy we’re still catching our breath and digesting what it all means. So rather than pluck new themes out of the ether, I spoke to marketing directors about how their experience of 2020 will shape their plans for 2021.

Stories of ingenuity in the crisis were as diverse as they were remarkable. However, one universal theme did come through: good things come out of chaos when it throws people together in unexpected ways to spark creative energy. As I found out, business was inspired to liberate initiative, foster greater empathy, build deeper trust, kindle closer team spirit and open up to a more international outlook. While we wouldn’t wish the cause, we can celebrate some of the effects. So, here are a few positive learnings that came out of the global pandemic.


Lesson One: People need permission to use initiative.

“It shouldn’t take a crisis to get us to get us to work like that…” The first stages of the crisis were initial shock, a coming together to respond, and then justifiable pride. Many of us are now reflecting on the incredible achievements and asking, “Why can’t we be a bit more like that all of the time?”

For Dan Sherwood, marketing director at Santander, the ‘gift’ the crisis bestowed was permission. “We felt permission to go beyond the rule book, beyond the norms and expectations….  It released people’s ability and confidence and empowered them.” He paints a picture of the crisis liberating a huge amount of creative energy. “We were doing the right thing. We were making decisions that were meaningful and consequential. There was a strong feeling of camaraderie. There was a real crisis spirit.”

The big question is how to maintain this energy when business gets back to normality. ‘Permission to go beyond’ always fights the unspoken ‘authority of the norm’. A crisis changes that equation. Just like Viking invaders burning their boats on arrival, a crisis makes it clear that the old is no longer an option and you have full permission to go forth into the unknown. For Santander this meant creating a working-from-home call centre, building new emergency loan products to support customers and supporting key worker staff who were still in branches. And all in record time.

Moving forward Dan is looking to sustain the strong collective focus that fostered that feeling of permission. “In the crisis we restricted our priorities to absolute ‘must dos’. Everyone had absolute clarity about what they were doing, there was no nuance or ambiguity. And you know what? The world didn’t fall apart when cut back, in fact we achieved so much more.” It means new structures to bring teams together. “We smashed silos. Not just with our divisions but with regulators too. We can’t do this on our own.” And it means reducing bureaucracy. “If we want people to retain that feeling of empowerment, we need to actually empower them by reducing the chain of command.”

Ultimately though Dan comes back to how the crisis felt. “There was a different tone, mentality and spirit.” So perhaps the key lesson should be seen less in terms of management structures and more in terms of personal growth. This was a time when individuals found out what they could achieve when they were given permission to do so.


Lesson Two: Success comes from keeping business personal.

‘Now more than ever…’ ‘In these unprecedented times…’ Some sectors struggled to contribute to the Covid conversation. Not so health care. For Chrissy Fice, marketing director at Simply Health, relevance was a given, the challenge was how to deliver.

Chrissy remembers the early days and trying to make sense of the different stories coming in. “We were hearing about healthcare providers struggling to provide access, dentists worried about sourcing PPE and customers nervous of leaving home for even the most essential healthcare needs.” Getting a grip on what was happening was hard, “It was like the blind men and the elephant - everyone saw something different. It took marketing to get to the big picture of a nation overcoming its differences to come together over shared concerns about the pandemic.”

Just as important as getting to the big picture, was painting this picture in a way that people in the organisation could relate to. “Marketing is often accused of being soft and fluffy, but everyone in the business responded to the story of how people were feeling in the pandemic. This wasn’t some abstract ‘Customer’, it was them, their families and their mum and dad. It was personal.”

Successful start-ups are often founded by someone who created a service they were looking for themselves but couldn’t find; they are their own customer, so they know what the customer wants and believe it’s important to do it right. The identification staff had with their customers gave the organisation clarity on what was needed and huge motivation to get it done. This included donating £2m of PPE to dentists and creating the Simply Me app to provide customers with health, nutrition and mindfulness support in a matter of months.

Chrissy is aware this direct customer connection isn’t easy to hold onto, “We’re doing 2021 planning now and we’re going back to the rational language we always use for business plans. We need that rigour - you can’t be fluffy all the time - but I want to keep some of the feeling we had for our customers and partners.” You can’t manage empathy alone - but it gives clear meaning to what your business does.


Lesson Three: Principles and trust are the best answer to uncertainty.

“Everyone has a plan until you’re punched in the face.” So said Mike Tyson. Rebecca Scholl, Senior Retail Marketing Manager at Bosch in Germany agrees, although she put it differently. “By March it was clear our plans were dead and buried, we were simply dealing with things day-by-day as best we could”. For her this meant managing a situation where on the one hand customers didn’t know if they could open stores or what demand would be. While on the other supply chain disruption meant product availability was unreliable.

So, what do you do when your plan goes out the window? “We focused on being open and transparent about what we could and couldn’t deliver; listening to our customers to understand their situation and concerns; and trying to fix work-arounds where we could.” With hindsight switching from ‘managing by plan’ to ‘managing by principles’ sounds obvious. However, delivering on this, while being punched in the face by a pandemic, is not.

Principles build trust. “We couldn’t give people everything they wanted, but they trusted us. And it was really great to see how we could reduce our clients’ insecurity about what was happening…”  In normal times, we talk about the importance of trust, but it can feel like background music compared to the foreground issues of price, product, prestige, etc... It takes a crisis to reveal the fundamental role trust plays in underwriting relationships and enabling business to manage uncertainty.

While 2021 won’t hit us with the pandemic sucker punch that KO’ed our 2020 aspirations, this year’s ‘great reawakening’ won’t return us to business as usual. Principles and trust will be high up the business agenda for a while longer.

Lesson Four: Opening up strengthens team spirit.

Managing day-to-day was an experience echoed by Susie Goldring, director brand and marketing operations at Dubai Tourism. “The workload was incredible and unpredictable. There wasn’t much I could do to plan ahead, so I just focused on keeping the team going.” Burnout was a clear and present danger.

If there was one positive of the pandemic’s severity, it was a social ‘force majeure’ - it broke down norms and conventions. As Susie explains, “Talking about mental health is no longer a taboo subject. Covid has had such a huge impact, it’s ok to say, “I’m struggling here”. We all understand.” Checking in with the team about stress, anxiety and other concerns is now perfectly normal, “I wish it wasn’t such a pressing issue, but the fact that it’s now easy to have these conversations is a positive step forward.”

In a similar vein, Denese Edgar, head of marketing at Clifford Chance, has noticed that the other great Covid adaptation - Working From Home - has also opened up new conversations. “We’re all on Zoom and can see into each other’s houses, you see the dog on the sofa, the kids walk in…. You can see personal life impacting work life, so it’s easier to talk about it.” WFH is clearly not without its down sides – but at least these are problems shared and the team’s response in setting up WhatsApp groups and ‘morning coffee’ zooms to maintain social relationships brought them together in new ways.

While neither would want their teams to go through anything like this again, Covid has opened up new conversations. Greater openness and collective spirit are things teams will be looking to take forward.


Lesson Five: Getting out of the office makes us more international.

“On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog,” is the famous New Yorker cartoon. The pandemic update might be, “Working from home, nobody cares where you are.” Provided you’re on the video call and responding to Slack it doesn’t matter which country you’re in.

Laura van de Ven, then Head of Brand at Fairtrade, noticed changes in meeting culture since office life ended. “It used to be the London team were ‘in the room’ and others dialled in. They could never hear as well or feel what was going on in the room… After the meeting the London team would continue the conversation on the way to the water cooler and the others were left out… Zoom has levelled the playing field. We are all equally present…. Now people continue the conversation on WhatsApp with whoever they want rather than the person closest to them.”

A more inclusive international outlook is also welcomed by Denese Edgar. “People are naturally talking more between offices and I’m encouraging it. I’m buddy-ing new joiners with colleagues in different countries to break down the silos… International buddies help answer the usual questions, but I also get them to do things like swap recipes to give a greater sense of internationalism.” The tipping point to a more international mindset came for Denese when one of her London team filled a temporary resource gap with someone from a German office. “I love that they are thinking as a global team and not just an office.”

Adam Ryan, marketing director at Azimo, found that by putting the weekly all-company meeting online, Azimo suddenly had an international company-wide culture-building event. “It was something we had always done locally in each office, with local teams attending in person. Moving it to a weekly online session meant everyone across the company can join at once, from anywhere in the world. The senior team provide a weekly update and there is an 'ask anything' Q&A. Everyone has a voice and everyone can hear what’s on everyone else’s minds… It’s a good reflection of our culture. Everyone can now feel more connected to what we’re doing, the leadership and each other.”

Working from home may not have been on everyone’s 2020 agenda, but it has opened up the space for more internationalist culture - an unexpected bonus to take into 2021.


A New Year For Old Lessons

So, there are a few pandemic lessons to guide us in the coming year. While everyone’s story was unique, they share a renewed appreciation that business is fundamentally about people. And in uncertain times, it’s your people’s creative energy that gets you through.

Perhaps the greatest lessons we can take from the pandemic are less ‘new’ ideas, and more reminders of age-old truths.

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2050 London, Thu, 18 Feb 2021 14:13:51 GMT