Justin Pahl and Laurent Simon tell Laura Swinton on how being an agency forged in fire has left them surprisingly geared up for a disruptive global crises
“It does feel like we love ambitious transformations!” laughs VMLY&R London CEO Justin Pahl. A few months ago we met to talk about how he and CCO Laurent Simon have found their journey with the agency that was founded in 2018 with the rather dramatic and instantaneous merger of WPP networks Y&R and VML. Now, in the midst of lockdown, we revisit our conversation in a very different-looking 2020.
The speed at which the network marshalled its merger into place was enough to cause whiplash, but it seems like that experience has stood the team surprisingly braced for a global pandemic that’s required another, even more dramatic handbrake turn. The year and a half has been about defining and deploying the vision for VMLY&R, building up talent, creating a culture and developing processes to deliver on the promise. Laurent and Justin jokingly refer to it as ‘the project’. That ongoing tinkering and refining means that change has been a constant in the agency’s relatively short existence.
“Our people have also shown incredible resilience and immense creative problem-solving skills,” says Justin of how the team has met the disruption of Covid-19 and lockdown. “It is a testament of everything we have gone through together in the past year. It. was important all along for our leadership team to develop personal connections with each other and with our teams. Our people have experienced these uncertain times very differently, for better and worse, they’ve had to adapt to a new virtual and remote working world which meant completely re-think not only how they work but their whole life. So the trust that had been established was a huge asset overall and to allow everyone flexibility and grace.”
On the creative front, it’s come at an interesting time for Laurent and the team. The beginning of the year saw the agency hit a stride crafted, eye-catching work – for example the It’s Everyone’s Journey, a campaign encouraging people to be more considerate
while on public transport, a message that’s taken on a new poignancy of late. And there was a bold, graphic initiative addition to their THINK! Anti-drink driving work
that combined punchy, humorous illustration with in-pub activation. These campaigns showcased the creative ambition the agency has for its people-centred and experience-driven work which was to be a big drive for 2020.
“We had an exciting first quarter with three campaigns signalling the first steps of what we’re aiming to do. Obviously, the global pandemic and our remote working situation have since dealt a different hand altogether,” says Laurent. As clients face sudden jerks and jolts to ride out, creative, like the rest of the agency, has had to embrace this unplanned new reality. “I’ve found myself much more upstream talking about business and strategy imperatives with clients. Creative thinking is not confined to creative work and every single department and discussion is now strangely much for integrated and focused on creativity.”
That means some of the longer-term vision has been put on the back-burner, but as the old adage goes, life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans – and so creativity has been re-channelled. “Great things can be born out of adversity and I have no doubt we’ll come out of this with more confidence, more fire and more trust from our clients than ever before,” says Laurent. “Internally, for the floor, we’ve had to figure out this remote working thing quickly and get good at it fast, because we have a new deal. Some longer-term projects are business as usual, a few tactical ones have been put on hold or postponed, but mostly we’ve had to be proactive and think ahead to support our clients in new ways.”
One thing that hasn’t changed between the beginning of the year and this unexpected present is Laurent and Simon’s conviction that brands need to start from people, their lives and likes – and not just when it comes to experience.
“If you think about people in the first place, we can’t digest a thousand experiences and a thousand messages from a thousand brands, we all have our ecosystem. The point is, how do we stay within that ecosystem or how do we get in and kick another brand out?,” said Laurent earlier in the year, explaining that the team talks a lot about ‘magnetic brands’ that have the appeal to ‘stick’ with people.
And now that human-first approach is more important than ever and brands need to understand the rapid emotional and behavioural shifts as brands are both relied upon and scrutinised. And over the course of the pandemic, VMLY&R have found clients have been keen to engage with the agency’s CX expertise. “I am also really pleased to see that we are set up to respond to the changing demands and challenges that our client partners are facing,” says Justin. “When we launched our EMEA CX Centre of Excellence in London last year – led by the brilliant Karen Boswell – I think many saw it as an up-sell. But we are now seeing a huge uptake on things like CX, UX and e-commerce tools. Brands are looking for this expertise, and we have the expertise and experience to partner with them.”
“Brands and agencies are rightly reflecting on their credibility and authenticity as they wade through these uncharted waters. There is a real opportunity for business and creative leaders to set the right tone not only in this challenging phase but beyond,” says Laurent.
The lockdown has also given the team a chance to rethink the internal experience too – what does it mean to work for VMLY&R when you’re separated from your colleagues? How do you support and empower talent as they rally to help clients – and juggle with their own anxieties and stresses?
“For a start, if anyone had a doubt, we now know that 99% of us can work remotely just as efficiently and flexibly. Some of us will appreciate going back (me!), but others might want to look at long-term, flexible work,” reflects Laurent. “It will be lovely to see the end of old-fashioned measures of what a team brings to the table. And, I can see the focus being on the outcome rather than who is in the room or how long they work on it.”
“Finally, we’ve been reminded of how important our mental and physical health is. I’ve launched some great new initiatives and so have many others,” he continues. “Once this is all behind us, I hope we don’t just go back to the old model. We’ve learned plenty of new tricks, implemented better ones too.I’m sure our industry will continue to look after each other and be more open about what we need and how we feel.”
One very human change that has happened is closer relationships with clients, more personal conversations as the agency and brand teams share windows into each others’ lives. It’s something Laurent and Justin hope will continue.
As the UK government has already started to tentatively relax some lockdown restrictions and lays out a potential roadmap for the summer months, it’s time for agencies and their client to embrace a future characterised by unknowns. The country must tussle with recession
, the economy may well emerge scarred and differently-shaped – and people’s behaviours and priorities will certainly be changed.
“The future has become very real very quickly, and few companies were prepared,” says Justin. “We must do everything we can to ensure our clients come back stronger. So that’s where all our focus is: how we can help them win in the new world. It’s not just about when will the economy bounce back, but also what will my brand, my services and products mean? Brands are rightly starting to think more consumer-centric than competitors centric. And we are working with our clients to help them pivot and identify new ways to reflect their brand.”
The past three months have jolted the public’s use of digital platforms, increasing reliance on e-commerce. And everyone from primary school children to long-retired pensioners have had a crash course in video conferencing. Technologies and trends that have long been talked about in the industry are becoming a reality. “I feel like the current situation has accelerated the digitalisation of almost every businesses, and from what we are seeing, clients are looking to double down on future capabilities,” says Justin. “I believe it could be a great accelerator for business. And in a way, for our own transformation.”
Laurent agrees. The true impacts of the pandemic are yet to be seen and with so much still unknown about the disease, it’s impossible to have more than a loosely sketched plan. That means that being nimble is going to be key to survival – and you can bet that Justin, Laurent and the team will be drawing on all of the experience they’ve built up from being an agency forged in the fire of change. “The winning companies,” muses Laurent, “are the ones, as the meme says, that: Improvise. Adapt. Overcome.”