What I Learned In The Last Crash And How It Can Help Leaders Today

"Data-Driven Thinking" is written by members of the media community and contains fresh ideas on the digital revolution in media. 

Today's column is written by Laura Desmond, founder and CEO at Eagle Vista Partners.

I had just been appointed Global CEO for Starcom MediaVest Group in June 2007, when signals began to point toward a big change in the economy. By fall the markets and the housing crisis had reached a boiling point, and the financial crisis was upon us.

Winter came early that year. We were in the midst of the Great Recession and were adapting to a new normal.

Every day we saw our clients struggling as consumer spending all but dried up. GM, along with Chrysler, began to signal that it would fall into bankruptcy as the world’s auto market ground to a halt. P&G saw consumers across the country systematically foregoing the purchasing of common household goods. Stuck with too little in their pockets, consumers were prioritizing medicine over milk and groceries.

It was bad. It was a shock to the system and the free fall was hard to understand and keep pace with. Staying ahead of it was hard.

As the head of a large, global marketing services company, I knew we had to make our people our top priority. And we needed to ask ourselves, all of us, to also make our clients our top priority.

There are many parallels between the Great Recession and today’s COVID-19 pandemic. However, there are also important differences, and it’s hard to contemplate and completely think through what the current societal, economic and human costs will ultimately be.

From a marketing and consumer services standpoint, there are many learnings that can be helpful, so I’m sharing them. There’s no teacher like experience.

  1. Put people first
  2. Be a good partner, even when there’s nothing to do
  3. Invest in your road map, innovation wins
  4. Consumers adapt faster than companies and technology
  5. Communication matters, build confidence and culture

Put people first

The highest priority and greatest asset for any organization is its people, especially during times of crisis. An organization that realizes its people need leadership and guidance at work, so they can focus on their home life and family in the short term, is doing the right thing.

While offices didn’t shut down in 2008-2009, there were plenty of instances where we modified and adapted our approach to meet our people’s needs. Flex time, child care at work and value-adds such as free lunch or corporate discount programs impact people’s stability and are helpful to their unique situation.

Yes, as a leader, command strategy and operations, but most of all, lead with empathy. People need to know you care.

Be a good partner, even when there’s nothing to do

As the financial crisis unfolded, events were moving so fast that it was hard to get a handle on what you needed to do at any given time for your clients.

As clients were working through their analysis and assessments of their marketing and media spend, we could be helpful by taking the lead on important negotiations with media to ensure investments were as efficient as possible. We could be helpful by providing important insights on how consumers were reacting and changing their behavior.

But there were times when just connecting, patience and partnership were what they needed most. I encouraged my senior leaders to be out as much as possible advising clients, being a thought partner and helping them do scenario planning. I believe this helped propel our return to double-digit growth during the recovery and beyond.

Invest in your road map, innovation wins

At the same time, it was critical to continue to invest – even to the smallest degree – in people, product and strategic innovation during the recession. Companies that did this were able to come out of the starting blocks faster once the recovery began. I don’t mean slightly ahead, I mean hugely ahead.

There was a clear-cut difference between companies that saw the crisis as an opportunity, not just a downturn to survive. LEGO, Netflix and Amazon are great examples. LEGO used the time to position itself as a content company in addition to a toy company. Netflix doubled down on its streaming model and data and analytics platform to predict which types of shows people wanted to watch as they stayed home more. Amazon invested to increase its capacity, distribution, warehousing and product selection as others were downsizing.

Consumers adapt faster than companies and technology

I love learning from consumers, what they do, how they react and how they adapt to change, opportunities and crisis. The big insight from the Great Recession was that consumers voted with their feet and their dollars toward the things they valued: online media, social networking, medicine, telecommunications and media and entertainment.

It became really clear that while the grocery category was under siege, shoppers were prioritizing mobile, consumer electronics and medicine when they shopped at the store. Consumers moved with lightning speed to adapt to their circumstances. They voted with their spending and their viewing time. They made tough decisions and prioritized what was most important to them.

The big shift from traditional media to digital and online media was rooted in the Great Recession. This was when consumers realized they had to decide to spend time with the things they valued most. And they’ll do it again this time around too. I have a feeling they will prioritize some of the same things: the need to connect, stay healthy and take care of their families. Social and search data will offer the first insights here, and eight of the top 10 global searches today are COVID-19 related.

Communication matters, build trust, confidence and culture

During a crisis, it sometimes seems easier to just shut down and communicate with a smaller group of people. I have found that during any big crisis, the exact opposite is what’s required.

People need to hear from you. They need to see you outline your priorities and the company’s priorities. This means over-communicate, in any form and in any channel with frequency.

During the financial crisis I termed the phrase “Frequency of 5.” People just need to hear things from their leaders more often than usual. I found that key ideas needed to be communicated every day for a full week, or five times during a day or a short period of time for people to truly get it and realize direction wasn’t changing. Importantly, when you are communicating openly with your teams, it gives them a chance to let you know what is on their minds and is important to the broader team and company.

Communication matters during times of crisis. Make it consistent, clear, frequent and take the time to listen. Two-way dialogue is crucial to building and maintaining trust, culture and confidence.

Follow Laura Desmond (@LBDesmond) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

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