Reda Raad, CEO of TBWA\RAAD ME, takes stock of the lessons learnt in 2020 and what they mean for agencies in the coming years.
2020 was a deeply challenging year, nobody needs reminding of this fact. The usual barometers of success were thrown out of the window. What mattered most was how well we protected our people, how agile we were, and how we helped our clients successfully navigate the morass of uncertainty. Throughout it all, we collectively vowed change.
But as we begin to emerge from the darkness, I can’t help but ask what we’ve done as an industry to evolve. What have we learnt? What insights have we gained? And how have we used those insights to redefine who we are? The last thing any of us should want is to re-emerge as a carbon copy of our previous selves. Consolidation, amalgamation, and the death of agency brands were commonplace prior to the pandemic, and that will continue unless we refine and rethink important elements of our business.
Talent. Everything begins and ends with people. Any agency’s success depends on how smartly we recruit, how effectively we coach, how beautifully
we empower, and how successfully we retain. We are in the business of people, after all, and that means reflecting the diversity of the markets in which we operate, championing both equality and inclusion, and listening when new employees come through our doors. It also means consistently evolving our employment strategy.
We committed to protecting our people during the pandemic. Health, wellbeing, security, and stability were chosen over award shows and fame. But many agencies played freely with the lives of others. They discarded employees too easily, cut salaries without a second thought, and went against everything they had previously stated they stood for. As the crisis worsened and leaders panicked, too many companies chose to cut development programs that were designed to retain and invest in talent. Years of talent development unraveled, sometimes overnight, and many people have been lost to our industry forever. What does this say about us and our future?
Our industry has always been stressful, but 2020 brought a whole new level of pressure. And that pressure accelerated a problem we can no longer tame: the need to address burnout at an organizational level. Whether we like it or not, the pandemic has brought a sense of urgency into our professional lives. It has imposed extended working hours and endless screen-time, and led to increases in client demands that have generated tremendous workloads. All of which, when mixed with anxiety, illness, and the fear of what’s to come, has left us with an exhausted, stressed, and worn-down workforce.
According to a survey published in the Harvard Business Review in February, 89% of respondents said their work life was getting worse, 62% said they were struggling to manage their workloads, and 57% said the pandemic had had a ‘large effect on’ or ‘completely dominated’ their work. Let’s face it, yoga and wellness sessions will not cut it as a remedy. The solution is much more intricate and requires bigger and bolder decision-making
We have begun implementing some practical measures at the agency that will hopefully instill positive change in the long term. We are launching a 24/7 counseling initiative, led by an organization that provides employee assistance and health & wellbeing programs. We hope this will encourage our employees and their families to open a conversation about topics that matter to them, as well as provide advice and action plans to help them solve any issues they may be facing in the workplace or at home. We have also introduced flexible working hours, allowing people to structure their time in the most suitable manner. And finally, we gave our employees the freedom to work from home for a month during the end-of-year holiday season, which allowed many to travel home and spend quality time with their loved ones.
I strongly believe that the agency of the future will need to be smarter, not just in recruiting and retaining a diverse and strategic range of talent, but in evolving its systems and offerings. It should also make the right investments, be mind- fully smarter, and have an empathetic leadership team. Our industry has to take collective action to ensure a healthier, happier, more flexible, balanced, and rewarding work environment – one where employees can be more productive and creativity can thrive.
Culture. Culture is the glue that binds people together. If that glue isn’t strong enough, agencies will fail. But the nature of that glue is changing. Values, ethics, shared experience, and a single- minded focus on creative excellence remain incredibly important, but we’re now moving beyond a sense of the collective towards a wholehearted embrace of the individual. In its most basic form, that means moving from a fixed to a flexible work- force. At its most profound, it borders on an almost spiritual concern for every single employee.
Discussions around flexibility have been around for a while, but they are accelerating. Harvard Business Review believes flexibility will shift from location to time in the not-too-distant future, meaning employees could soon be able to satis- factorily balance their personal and professional lives. That’s why we’re experimenting with three or four-day weeks and with hybrid models that allow people to choose where and when they work. The traditional employer/employee dynamic is chang- ing, and it is our job as agencies to satisfactorily respond to that shifting dynamic.
But that’s just the beginning. Harvard Busi- ness Review also believes the coming year will see employers shift from managing employee experience to managing their life experience. That’s a potentially huge undertaking that will revolutionize an agency’s idea of what constitutes corporate culture. It’s also a huge responsibility. It’s all very well fostering human connection and transparency, but digging into mindfulness and the overall wellbeing of any given individual is a different ball game altogether. Agencies that get this right will witness an increase in the number of high performers within their teams.
Creativity. For me, the advertising industry has always been about the creative product: the mentality of wanting to consistently produce great work through the application of bravery, passion, ingenuity, and imagination – all with the singular goal of building brands and in turn driving growth. But as we negotiate a potentially bumpy 2021, the significance of creative ideas as drivers of demand will heighten. And if you haven’t got creativity hard-wired into your soul, you’ll be in trouble.
Agencies more than proved their worth last year. Our teams rose to the occasion, driving business impact when our clients needed it most and coming up with convention-breaking creative ideas that helped their brands grow. We innovated for our clients in a myriad of ways, helping them navigate months of uncertainty by creating cam- paigns, products, and experiences for an entirely new shared reality. Creativity during Covid-19 simply required a little more ingenuity, teamwork, and imagination.
The post-Covid world offers an opportunity for brand disruption and creative innovation. And using creativity to drive growth will be key to the success of clients. Intractable problems require unconventional thinking, not the same repackaged solutions. For us, that’s where Disruption comes into play. Marketers need Disruption to create interest and desire, and to drive business impact. They need it to create a branded experience that accelerates growth. By reinventing how we work and the products we offer, and by recognizing the centrality of creativity in building businesses, strong agencies will be able to own their leader- ship position, shifting from service to strategy and from ads to the business of brand.
Business. Economically, the repercussions of the pandemic have been severe, but prompt action from the UAE government in terms of stimulus packages and the Targeted Economic Support Scheme helped to provide much needed stabi- lity. The Central Bank and the UAE government provided stimulus and relief packages totalling AED282.5 billion in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, with the Targeted Economic Support Scheme extended until 30 June. This, combined with an efficient and impressive vaccination strategy and the superior containment of Covid- 19, has enabled the return of positive sentiment.
Sure, we’re nowhere near where we should’ve been, but I expect a strong recovery in the second half of this year as confidence returns. In the UAE, we’re already well on the road to recovery, with containment, vaccination, and the lessening of restrictions set to generate a far healthier business environment in the run-up to Expo 2020. Saudi Arabia, too, continues with its large investment and infrastructure projects, accelerating growth in sectors such as finance, trade, tourism, and construction. Beyond the Gulf, Egypt’s economy is also performing well, with a stable outlook and tremendous growth opportunities, especially in those sectors that remain under-served. So, there’s all the reason to be optimistic, with the major economies of the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt driving growth for the rest of the region.
The Central Bank of the UAE expects the country’s economy to grow by 2.5% this year, and although the pandemic will continue to test our resilience for a while, we should be optimistic that growth and vibrancy will be consistent throughout the next few years. And it will be those agencies who have weathered the Covid-19 storm the best and who have prepared for a return to growth that will benefit the most.
Office of the future. Last year, everyone was talking about the continuation of remote working and the decreased importance of the office; but moving forward, it will be much deeper than that. All agencies will have to evaluate how they evolve in the post-Covid-19 era. Do they reduce office space, increase project-based teams, embrace auto- mation, utilize shared working spaces? How do we ensure that as an industry we become more sustainable? How do we give back at an even greater scale? Do agencies make all-encompassing commitments to the use of low-emission transport, to reducing energy consumption, to reductions in water usage? These are some of the important questions that will have to be answered in the coming months and years.
Everything comes down to the question of what kind of industry we want to be; what kind of agencies we want to be. Do we want to be tradi- tionalists who believe in the sanctity of bricks and mortar and in the rigidity of traditional corporate culture? Or do we believe in agility, in the freedom of location, and in adapting to our people rather than the other way around?
It’s time to disrupt how we work, think, behave, and interact with each other. It’s time to rethink the implications of our decisions, actions, and reactions, not just on our business, but on who we are as humans and who we aspire to become as a community and as agencies of the future. This will require ambition, boldness, and reinvention – the very attributes of the city we live in. In the space of a single troubling year, the Emirates has managed the Covid-19 crisis and reached Mars. If that’s not ambition, I don’t know what is.
This article was published in Communicate’s Q1 edition. You can access the full magazine here.