R/GA CMO's 'rookie guide' to crisis-managing a creative company through a pandemic

R/GA CMO's 'rookie guide' to crisis-managing a creative company through a pandemic

Step #1: You Do You

I’m new in this job. I’ve been at R/GA for 8 years, on and off, and took on the Global Chief Marketing Officer role three months ago. 

A CMO at a company like ours wears a lot of hats, but generally my job is to grow the business and the brand, while making sure everyone at R/GA is clear on what we’re trying to do. This month, I found myself working with colleagues to understand how best to make decisions and communicate with people in a time of global pandemic. 

It was not in my job description. 

It’s been an extraordinary education in what’s important to people and how best to manage multiple frightened stakeholders through the spread of COVID-19. As there are a lot of companies like R/GA in this situation, here is our step-by-step guide to crisis-managing a creative company. 

Some caveats before we begin: 

We didn’t execute this perfectly. We’re building the plane while it’s in the air, and have highlighted below some places where we would have done things differently. Also: every day brings a new challenge, and not everything’s going to be perfect. 

Secondly: R/GA is an atypical design company whose product is mostly the brains of its people. Our work can be done remotely, and nobody else’s life is at risk. Not all companies can say the same. 

Step #1: You Do You 

As soon as you suspect something’s up, communicate loudly and repeatedly that you trust your people; that any decisions they make to protect their health are the right ones; and that there will be ZERO retaliation or judgement for whatever those decisions are. 

For us, ‘You Do You’ began in Shanghai and Tokyo before we asked our teams there to work from home; and in the US, about two weeks before SXSW, and one week before the event was cancelled. Some of our team didn’t want to travel; some were desperate to go. "You Do You" bought us some time while we figured out complicated issues like "would we have to quarantine anyone upon their return". It communicated early that the safety and agency of our people was our highest priority, and showed that we were taking this as seriously as they were. 

Please note: this step only works if you DO trust your people, they know it, and feel 100% empowered to make their own calls. 

Step #2: Test The Most Extreme Option (and be ready to execute).

On Tuesday afternoon, a global office work-from-home policy seemed like the most extreme scenario: something we would only have to put in place if things got REALLY bad. So we tested it: designated Wednesday as the day in which everyone who could work from home, was asked to work from home; put checklists on everyone’s desks to explain what they needed to do; emailed once, twice, three times as questions arose. 

By Wednesday lunchtime, the test was a success: everything working seamlessly. By Wednesday evening, the dress rehearsal had become the real deal. (The cancellation of all sports plus several world leaders and Tom Hanks testing positive for coronavirus in the space of 90 minutes will do that.) 

Something we learned here: while consistent messages to everyone are important, timing is everything. We were late telling our NY and centrally-located offices to work-from-home, meaning people were already on their way in to work. When things are changing quickly, "timely and often" beats "comprehensive and detailed." 

Step #3: Communicate, even when you don’t know the answer. 

See above. Timely and often. Nobody will fault you when you say you know it’s important and you’re looking into it. Everybody will fault you if you say nothing. 

To make this easier, we built a quick FAQ in Google Sites and are adding to it as we go. Any questions we can’t answer yet, we say so, and then let people know when the site is updated. 

We also wrote ourselves a mini comms strategy: Slack for immediate updates and answers, email for more detailed intel, Fishbowl for when things were blowing up and we wanted to let people know answers were coming. 

And: stay on it. Every communication and development drives a series of new questions. In the absence of information, people fill in gaps for themselves. Respond. Respond. Respond. 

Step #4: Focus on people's (changing) needs and the business will take care of itself. 

The most frequently asked questions were very, very human. 

As the news broke, the R/GA family wanted to know that our facilities staff were being taken care of in the same way we are, which means liaising with contractors to understand and communicate policies on PTO, sick leave and health insurance. Our annual review cycles have been pushed back to accommodate the need for face-to-face feedback. And we’re grateful that our holding company IPG includes access to Talkspace, an online therapy service, as part of our healthcare coverage. 

We’re also working to explain that while "WFH" is a blanket policy, everybody’s experiences are different, and patience is important. 

As our Chief Strategy Officer Tom Morton put it, " WFH is WTF when it’s not all French presses and sitting in the bay window of your perfect brownstone. It’s much harder if you have kids at home, or if you’re in a 6ft by 9ft bedroom in a shared apartment with no dining table." As such, we amended our ‘Work-From-Home’ policy to a ‘Work-From-Anywhere’ policy, enabling people to head back to family homes or home countries as long as it was safe to do so. 

Also: people’s needs change. When the school closures kicked in, we developed a framework for our 2000-strong staff to prioritize the most important workstreams, and let go of anything non-essential. 

Step #5. Crowdsource intelligence. 

We’re a creative company, and our employees are thinking creatively about how to navigate this new environment. So far, a standing morning coffee meeting for those suffering from anxiety and needing people to connect with; advice on how to set up your Chromecast so you can use your TV as your second monitor; Zoom yoga; and an award for the best surprise appearance of a family member or pet are some of our favorite adaptations. 

Slack (an R/GA client) is your friend here. It’s a productivity tool, but it’s also a culture tool, and it’s keeping our culture together. 

It also helps that we’re also a collaborative culture. 30% of all R/GA projects involve people from more than one office, so working together globally is the rule, and not the exception. 

Step #6. Share everything you learn. 

We have 17 offices around the world, and the pandemic is affecting them all differently. 

Our Shanghai office is slowly coming back together after a frightening couple of months, and has retained a policy of ‘You Do You’ for employees who would rather stay home. They’re practicing flexible hours, so employees can come in late and leave early to avoid peak travel times. This kind of intelligence is helping to inform our response in other countries. 

We’ve also crafted a thoughtful playbook for our clients, who are wondering how best to keep businesses and brands moving forward. This is not an opportunity to capitalize on, and no brand should link opportunistically to a health scare. It’s a time for companies to take responsibility, to identify a role to play as customers' needs and norms change, to lead and to serve. 

Step #7. Trust. Your. Team. 

Crisis management is a team sport. Our Chief Operating Officer, Wes Harris, designed this plan specifically to put our people first, and doesn’t seem to know how to panic. Our Chief Information Officer and Chief Technology Officer, Ivan Arbitman and Nick Coronges, put the technological systems in 

place for us to be able to do this. Our CEO Sean Lyons instinctively knows the right thing to do, and our Chief Talent Officer, Angie Hannam, advocated for empathy at every step. And they’re just the people in charge: their teams have demonstrated exceptional ability and leadership. 

In short, this plan is the result of collaboration between some very smart people. Many (non-touching) hands make light work. 

To everyone outside of R/GA: we hope that this advice is helpful to you. These are challenging times, and the wellbeing of the people who make this industry magical is most important. 

More information as the situation evolves.... 

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