There’s nothing a video call can do to replace this.

June 9th, 2020

Can’t smell you, can’t touch you, can’t make eye contact with you, can you still motivate me?

The movie director John Boorman has written that when he wanted to get the most out of a movie star during a shoot, he would make a small adjustment to their hair just before filming.  He said that this was about proving his attention to detail, to ensure that the actor knew that he could absolutely trust that he wanted the best for them.

There are no movie shoots at the moment of course, but the point remains, that a touch to add confidence (not in a creepy #metoo way) is impossible at work now.

You can’t smell your colleagues either.  Smell is a very profound sense.  People who have suffered from Covid and recovered, talk about how disorientating the loss of smell has been.  Smell is one of the oldest of all the senses.   A familiar scent can revive all kinds of memories.  (They can also sell your house.  Top tip for showing property is to have some vanilla toasting under the grill).  It is even likely that when we feel attracted to someone it is as much to do with how they smell as how they look.  Patrick Suskind’s novel Perfume spins a fantasy tale of the impact of how an individual can change his impact through his scent.   So, whether you recognize this consciously or not, you now can’t smell the people you are in a meeting with via video, or at a social distance from.

There is no eye contact.  Not in the way that you have when you are in a one to one meeting in real life.

And micro-expressions are much harder to read.  And easy to mis-read.  Especially when poor wifi delays their impact.  Less than 10% of communication is verbal and so much body language is lost on a Zoom call.  Micro-expressions which are only a few seconds in total are a massive part of how we react to someone, and this is now either lost or misconstrued.

When we give our Glass Wall Talks, Kathryn Jacob and I are often asked about speaking up in meetings and how to overcome nervousness.  We have to stress that it is important to understand that when you are in a meeting people aren’t judging exactly what you say because they are mostly worried about how they are coming across themselves.  Now they are literally watching how they come across.  Is there any point to seeing yourself other than vanity?  Imagine how a real life meeting would be if everyone had their own mirror to be distracted by.

It is still possible to connect emotionally, but you need to think about it differently.  In a way it is like moving from being an actor in a small theatre to becoming a movie star.  Michael Caine’s masterclass on this has some lessons for us all now – see 6 minutes in for how to handle a close up.

3 tips for video calls:

  • When you need to make a connection look into the camera, not at someone’s face. If there are 6 people in the meeting and you are looking at someone on the bottom left of your screen it will look like you are not looking at them.
  • Ask the people in your meeting lots of questions. Don’t deliver a long monologue.  Most people don’t have the attention span for this in real life, let alone on a video call – you will lose some of them to admiration of their own image.
  • Tell stories, short stories, to keep people’s attention. Lee Child writes mass market thrillers that are ultimate page turners.  How can you adopt the page turner technique (without the violence) to ensure you sell your points?  Here you need to think like a script writer for an unmissable USA TV show where every frame delivers drama, laughter, or emotional resonance.

What is your video background saying about you?

May 26th, 2020

1976_The_Fall_and_Rise_of_Reggie_Perrin_hi055592808Your video background is your brand

What does your working space, and what you choose to reveal about it say about you?

We are in the business of brand building, we know how crucial it is to consider what is on show as well as what is said or done.  You will be judged on your appearance whether or not this is even fair.  And now, you will be judged on your background (this might not be conscious but is an instinctive System 1 thinking judgement,) whether or not this is fair too.

Most people I speak to on video call reveal their actual background.  In my own case this is a disorganized but very wide-ranging collection of books that actually don’t belong to me but to other family members, and a mantelpiece cluttered with mementoes.  My colleague Claudine has been in front of a steely wall all week this week, and my CEO Kate’s collection of cookery books, which she frequently appears in front of in our weekly Town Hall meetings, has sparked curiosity about her favourite chefs.

The decision to use a fake background speaks volumes too of course.  I was on one call where the background of an office façade was so realistic that I assumed that the participant was a key worker – but he just hadn’t wanted to reveal his room.  If you do want a fake background then there’s a rich assortment here from the BBC.  Then there are people whose living space just make you envious.  I have been told of one CEO whose palatial home is so aspirational (there are statues, obviously expensive real art and pillars) that his team recommended that he relocate to a smaller room in the house to stay empathetic with his more junior staffers.    There is a new dimension to bringing your whole self to work, as we now get to nose around each other’s homes on a daily basis.

Anecdotally there seems to be some gender difference as well as the obvious difference between those people in a one bed flat or sharing space with others and people fortunate enough to be able to settle in a regular make-shift office area or a fit for purpose study.

More women than men (however senior they are) seem to be working from bedrooms.  More mums than dads seem to be interrupted by young children.  Many mums have disclosed their worry and guilt about letting home schooling standards slip.  This additional mental load is documented in the Economist’s briefing on the 90% economy that they are calling the “new ‘nearly normal’” where they write: “Women are more likely to take care of home-schooling and entertainment of bored children, meaning their careers suffer more than men’s.  Research finds that the productivity of female economists has fallen relative to male ones, as measured by the production of research papers, since the pandemic began… the growing gender divide in productivity points to the final big problem with the 90% economy: that it is unfair.”

Although it is difficult to complain that the current way of working is harder than before (given that the comparisons with ICU workers leave us with nothing to complain about) it is true that day long video calls are tiring.  It may be true that it is easier on introverts than extroverts as introverts don’t need so much stimulus from others.  However Direct Line Group MD of marketing and digital Mark Evans pointed out to me recently: “There’s extra ‘cognitive load’. Your brain is having to work much harder to interpret the reactions of other people in the many mini screens in the meeting since you don’t have the usual cues from face-to-face mannerisms and micro-gestures. Simultaneously your brain is constantly interpreting your own image staring back at you. It’s no surprise that it’s exhausting”

There are some upsides to video conferencing.  There’s no geographical barrier, I have relished calls with colleagues in China and San Francisco being the norm.    For those whose emotions are an open book, you can hide your immediate reactions by turning off your camera which sometimes, as we point out in The Glass Wall book, can be helpful when you need a balanced perspective to the emotional CoronaCoaster of the working week.

This tactical fall back might be necessary, but what is needed above all is openness, looking each other in the eye, reaching out to each other, and authentic leadership through these most difficult times.




Jerks hurt.

May 12th, 2020

We are going through a very large jerk.

There are roughly two theories about how evolution works.  Charles Darwin, who wrote the book on evolution, was a believer in gradualism, slow change over millennia.  For many years this was regarded as scientific fact.  But if this was the case you would expect to see a record in fossils of small incremental change within a species.  But fossil records don’t always back this theory.  Darwin explained this by saying that there were gaps in the records.

One hundred and so years later, in 1972, evolutionary scientists Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge suggested that Darwin had got this wrong.  They considered that the gaps in the records werent’ gaps but were real.  That not everything evolves gradually but that long periods of little change are disrupted by sudden huge change.  They termed this mode of evolution “punctuated equilibrium.” This means that species are generally stable, changing little for millions of years.  This leisurely pace is “punctuated” by a rapid burst of change that results in a new species.

After a huge scientific row, this was resolved by most experts into an understanding that both gradualism and punctuated equilibrium were true.  This became known as the theory of creeps and jerks.

We are going through a big jerk now in business.  Many business practices that might have changed over a period of months or even years have changed and changed suddenly.  Change that might have taken 5 years to bed in is happening fast, over a period of weeks.

One obvious example of this is the way we are all now conducting meetings.   Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Google Hangouts have all been available for meetings for years.  Conducting a global meeting used to mean jumping on a plane.  Now any of us could be in a meeting with colleagues anywhere in the world in the next half an hour.  Now we are all working globally.  One senior exec has said that he is having more meetings now than he ever has because the team are usually at airports, out to dinner or on a plane.  Now, with everyone working from home, its easier to arrange meetings and in some ways its easier to get closer to colleagues and team members than ever.

It is now well recorded that in some respects media behaviours and attitudes are changing at a widespread and unanticipated scale and speed.   Some commentators are saying this is human evolution turbo-charged.

Darwin also said that it’s not the strongest or the most intelligent that survive, but those most responsive to change.  The ability to pivot, to react and to take advantage of the opportunities of this crisis is currently crucial.  This is easy to say. No-one currently knows when or how we are going to come out of this.  It isn’t going to be easy or quick for economies to recover, for new business models to stabilise.

This isn’t like previous crises.  We are living through history being made.  What happens next isn’t about returning to normal any time soon.  A new normal will emerge, but for now we are operating in the new abnormal.

Now is the time to begin to re-imagine what the new abnormal means for your business.

As industry expert and WPP global president of business intelligence Brian Wieser says: “Now is a time to re-invent, to rethink, to optimise the forest not just the trees, a moment of reset the growth agenda to come out stronger than ever.”

The goal, tough as it might seem right now, must be to frame the new developments, and tech and digital adoption as an opportunity for the business and to get closer to customers.   This is what leaders need to focus on – what can we do to reframe and re-imagine and not just what must we cut.

Jerks are painful, more painful than creeps, but teams that are resilient enough to navigate them will get through these difficult times best.


The long and the short need adding to now: here’s the medium and the very long term of it.

April 27th, 2020

London-lockdown-coronavirus-600x336The long and the short needs some additions: the medium term and the very long.

The ad industry and marketing is familiar with the collective wisdom of the IPA best practice papers summed up by Binet and Field’s paper The Long and the Short of It where the importance of balancing short term tactics with long term strategy is emphasized.  (Initial findings recommended balancing 40% short term with 60% long term in terms of budget, although later findings are more nuanced by industry, recommending that some sectors, for instance retail, long term effort should take up 70% of spend.)

In 2020, in current circumstances, these rules of thumb are tested to the limit.  The necessity of short term measures may well over rule carefully laid plans.  Longer term branding activity, planned for months, will, in some cases, be replaced with brands communicating how they are doing their bit, with messages reflecting the current crisis or by CSR.  Short term activity may focus on ecommerce as discussed in this assessment of the current circumstances in Campaign last week.

One senior marketer has reflected that it is relatively easy to plan for the short term.  In this quarter, maybe next quarter, you do what you must.  Equally it is relatively simple to write strategies for the long term, for when things get back to some kind of normal, for next year.  The tricky issue is planning for the medium term.  For later in Q3 and Q4.  When the unknown unknowns are dominant factors and for which there is no precedent.  Despite what some opinion formers are saying this is not like a recession.  It is not like Sars.  It is unprecedented in our lifetimes.  So a focus on scenario planning for the rest of this year, is crucial.  The relative certainties that managers are accustomed to are impossible to count on.  But businesses that only focus on the short term can be expected to suffer more than those that can find the opportunity to think medium term.  Now is the time to ask questions that include what the balance of brand versus performance media spend should be;  the medium term outlook for the sector; whether the brand should respond directly to the pandemic and how this should look.

So as well as the long and the short of it, current planning should include the medium term.

There is also the very long term to consider.  Many businesses are focused understandably on surviving 2020 and the current unprecedented pressures.  At this time however there is another crucial consideration.  It isn’t just about the balance sheet for 2020.  It is about the shape of the business for the very long term, about preserving jobs, about caring for people, about putting people first.  Now is a testing time for leaders.  Now is the time not to lose sight of humanity for the sake of short term kpis.  Edelman and LinkedIn have just published a new guide to building consumer trust in uncertain times.  In this, Rob Norman comments:  “If we fight to only minimize investor losses, the consequential loss in other parts of the business and eventually to the underlying assets, will be catastrophic”.

This is an important opportunity for businesses and brands to build affinity and earn loyalty for the long term.  Empirical decision making has a flaw at a time like this.  There has never been a time like this before.  We are in the midst of a black swan event.  Brands should think medium term and longest term now and put people, their employees, their customers and the nation at the heart of their decision making.





April 14th, 2020

rmWe’re in survival mode.  And this affects each of us in different ways.  A recent assessment of how consumers are feeling includes this list: Anxiety; Isolation; Loneliness; Boredom; Thankfulness; Community spirit; Slow Living; Personal growth.  And, of course, it describes how we are all feeling too.

There’s been a faster transformation in how we work than anyone in charge of transformation would have imagined possible in normal times.  As the weeks go by we can expect more change, and more necessary adjustments.  Some of these will be professional.  Some personal.

This week on the MediaCom Connected Podcast we heard from Rupert McPetrie, ceo of our China office.  They shut the office on January 23rd for the Chinese New Year, and then could not re-open.  Now, eight weeks on, the restrictions are gradually relaxing: offices are re-opening as too are restaurants, bars and shops.  Rupert told us, live from the Shanghai office, that the first two weeks of the lockdown were about managing short term issues. During the closure the transformation in use of tech has been huge. At the same time as technology has become much more vital, contrastingly, so too the importance of human connections has become more clear.

Everyone who works in an office normally is adjusting now to the very new normal of running business and their lives literally at the same time.  Many working mums are familiar with this, its one of the shocks, in fact, of returning to work after maternity leave.  It is now something that everyone is experiencing who has children or a parent or even their partner at home.  Rupert said that there were three phases of the virus.  Anxiety, Analysis and Action.  We’re constantly going through the loop of these three phases with each new bit of news.  We are all coping with it differently.

Brian Cox was on Desert Island Discs this week.  (One of the ways that I cope with anxiety is listening to the shows on radio 4 that I have been hearing all my life).  The award winning actor talked about how important it is to stay in touch with yourself when you are in survivalist mode.  He tells young actors to keep a picture of themselves as a child with them as they work, as “really that’s who you are”.  I’d add to this, you’re all the ages you have ever been.  So sometimes you’re the frightened child who wants a parent to set everything straight, sometimes you’re the rebellious teenager who wants to break all the rules and sometimes, sometimes you’re the grown up professional, or the leader of your community at work or at home.  Be prepared to switch randomly from state to state during this current crisis.

One powerful woman has told me that she has found much more time for herself during the last few days.  She normally lives for work and is ruled by her head.  In recent times she’s found time to breathe, to connect with her whole self, and with her children.

Others have said the same, parents have noted that they have been able to have lunch with their young children every day, which normally only happens when they are on holiday.

Others are connecting with nature, grateful for the sunshine and sky visible out of their windows.

None of us expected this level of stress and worry.  Perhaps empathy has become easier for us, the divides of Brexit forgotten for the time being, as we are all much more in the same boat.  Our gratitude for those in the front line in the NHS demonstrably pulling the nation together in each week’s Clap for Carers.  (And let’s hope that this continues in the longterm).

We will all have different ways to find the serenity to survive these difficult circumstances.  As the famous prayer says: ““Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference”.