FCB’s Global CEO Carter Murray said he was almost brought to tears during one of the network’s first town hall meetings when COVID-19 took hold.
His partner in crime, Global CCO Susan Credle, said that’s not true and he actually bawled pretty hard.
"It’s only because I love the culture and the people," said Murray (welling up again) as he recalled hearing the Chicago office had made masks for all employees and delivered a batch to a local hospital. "We have people who really, genuinely care about society, not just the agency.
"That moment of vulnerability for me -- you know, I’m a rugby-playing, Duke frat boy -- was not necessarily easy, but the outpouring and learning that came from it was quite extraordinary, and I wasn’t ready for it."
Murray and Credle have learned a lot about leadership as well as creative and operational processes which will forever change the way business is conducted at the IPG agency in a post-pandemic world.
"The tone is so important," continued Murray. "You have to avoid the hysterical and overly emotional. People around you want confidence and calm and focus. So during these town halls we’ve tried to mix being open and transparent about the situation, share work that we’re managing to produce around the world, and try to talk with a human and empathetic voice.
"There’s a lot of people suffering, and industries less fortunate than us. We’ve got many employees who have lost loved ones. There are a lot of people stuck in their homes. And it’s really hard to get the tone right in all this. But I do think -- on a business front -- we’re trying to keep everyone focused on supporting each other, our clients and business as unusual-usual.
"We’ve definitely got closer as a community through this. That’s one of the big, strange observations for me: The longer we’re apart, the closer we seem to be getting with the people we work with every day."
All negative headlines aside, the crisis has brought about a number of unpredicted benefits for FCB on the business front.
The duo said it’s been interesting to witness a democratization of the room as virtual interaction levels the playing field. No more second-class citizens in terms of people who dial into a physical meeting. Putting everyone in the same situation has enhanced the strategic and creative discussions the agency is having, as well as the speed and agility with which work is being executed.
Credle said: "People’s names are on these calls. So all of a sudden you can actually ask someone a question because you know their name, versus before I’d be talking to the three people I feel comfortable calling out. I also think these little rectangles are a bit of an equalizer. Everyone has the same amount of real estate.
"On a call, we’ll have the project manager, the account director, the planner, the strategist, the producer and the creatives all listening to what we’re talking about creatively. We’re moving so fast. In a good way. It’s so much fun. We make decisions, there’s clarity -- and we’re all saying ‘how do we hold onto that?’ if we ever get out of this."
It’s also come in handy for pitches, too (FCB is currently wrangling three global reviews). Some industry folk have voiced concern about the inability to run a proper chemistry session virtually. But Murray thinks quite the opposite.
"If you’re in a physical pitch or client meeting and you’re staring at someone throughout the presentation, it would be a little bit uncomfortable," he said. "But when you’re on video, I can choose to just look at [one person] for the entire time and read every micro-expression. So when you’re doing a chemistry meeting, it’s easier to track if the client’s onboard. We’re learning a lot from this."
It sounds cliche, but FCB’s culture has been an integral part of its virtual success. Culture was the first thing these leaders looked to cement when Credle joined more than four years ago. They agreed that focus must fall on breeding a generous and helpful community with no internal competition. The CCO said that this was fully realized over the past two years and has set them up to tackle this crisis well.
However, a strong culture (the golden goose for all companies) means tough decisions come with more pain. That’s been felt over the past couple of weeks amid the departure of some network CCOs. Overall, though, the business is faring well, with salary decreases at the top and some furloughs but no mass staff reductions.
A tight-knit community also makes it easier to mobilize mass transformation. Murray said that, before the pandemic, around 93 percent of global staff worked from an office full time. Since the employees have gone into isolation, FCB asked for their preferred working style whenever a new normal takes place: In the office; at home or; a mix of both. More than 70 percent say they want a mix.
"If we don’t listen to that and we don’t change that, then we’re not living by our values and we’re not listening to people properly," stressed Murray.
"I promise you -- this is a big promise and I can’t give you a timeline -- we will be listening to our employees and offering a mix of work from home and office. How many, how quickly and how we do it will all be determined by when we go back to the office and what models we learn from. But it’s actually in the interests of the company and employees to move to a mix. The second-biggest cost for an ad agency is rent. So if you’re fulfilling the desires of the employees and you can control your rent better, and we know that working from home works, it would be crazy not to change."
He added: "We’ve kept the business stable. But it’s been hard. If we don’t take something from this to come out of it stronger, that would just be a shame."