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Can training save the world? By Nick Clements

From pitching to presenting to partnerships, marketers can be helped to adapt to the industry’s new realities, writes Nick Clements

By Nick Clements, CEO of Ampersand and member of The Marketing Society UAE


The pandemic has made it more challenging than ever for marketers and their agency partners to navigate through rapid change and uncertainty.

The realities of the world behind walls, the feast-or-famine polarising of different sectors and fast-evolving consumer habits mean that long-term planning is harder than ever.

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Brands are under scrutiny like never before, not only to respond at speed but also to do (and be seen to do) the ‘right thing’ as consumers increasingly use their moral compass to guide purchase decisions. In the teeth of recession, marketing strategies are being redefined and many budgets slashed.

The new conundrum reminds us of the old observation that stopping advertising to save money is like stopping a clock to save time, and as ever those brands that do continue to spend are likely to come out stronger.

But for many the outlook is bleak, with intense pressure to generate short-term sales and revenue, and restrictions on consumer movement in many major markets expected well into 2021 and beyond.

And whilst the ‘at home’ lifestyle creates many problems, it also remains a driver of change and has offered new opportunities for brands who can become a welcome part of our lockdown lives, with online retail and media the most obvious big winners.

In all of this, clients have looked to their agencies to respond quickly and innovatively, and the relationship with the agency as a trusted partner has never been more important.

So, how have agencies responded?

A recent Drum survey of international marketers found that 83 per cent of brands feel well supported by their agency partners, although 90 per cent had changed their strategies, with more than 61 per cent declaring that what they need from agencies has also changed.

In turn, many agencies have been quick to recognise that what’s ‘good for the goose is good for the gander’, looking at ways to equip their teams through training.

For instance, Andrew Robertson of BBDO made his position very clear last year when
he emphasised the group’s continued commitment to upskilling by putting in place a new digital training programme across the global network, which was successfully completed by more than half of all employees. WPP’s Mark Read also restated the group’s determination to “train our people in the skills they need for the future”.

Beyond the multinational group schemes, individual agencies generally take their own approach to development training.

On the broader front, diversity and inclusion and wellness are still big themes, of course, but in the area of specialist skills, four pillars are as familiar as they are perennially important.

1. Presentation skills and storytelling. This is still top of the list for most agency heads. The need to structure, articulate and deliver the narrative around creative and media ideas remains as critical as ever. The shift to doing this mostly online means not only mastering the sometimes-recalcitrant technology (“can you see my screen?”) but, more demandingly, finding new ways to engage with an audience easily distracted by the dog or the kids, and too often with the camera off.

2. Pitching. New business remains the engine of growth for agencies. Pitch preparation and delivery, often stressful and exhilarating in equal measure, are even more so remotely and virtually, and there is an increased interest in training needs around ‘the winning pitch’. Some familiar rules hold good, but clarity on the shape of the pitch, and absolute commitment to dates and rules of engagement have become even more important. Using the right platforms well allows easier all-agency pitch briefing sessions, and virtual private meeting rooms for breakout chats are a boon. But with the opportunities for pitch ‘theatre’ much reduced, casting the smallest, tightest, teams to best tell the story (with the fewest possible slides) is crucial, and strength of the ideas and work are paramount.

3. Collaboration. The collaborative creative process can be messy, and without the stimulus of face-to-face interaction, there
is an even greater need for frameworks and processes that simultaneously empower individuals and build team rapport. Managing ‘constructive chaos’ across disciplines, cultures and even countries is
not a new challenge, but it is certainly more significant with today’s constraints.

4. Managing client-agency relationships. Even those most comfortable with the worlds of Tinder and Bumble know that forging and nourishing meaningful relationships effectively can be tricky at the best of times. Creating the environment to strengthen ties, developing skills to understand perceptions (and therefore realities) and deploying tools to measure them continues to be the difference between a rich, ongoing partnership and the frustrations that can lead to a re-pitch.

So, can training save the world? Absolutely not. For that we need global health-led solutions, smart political leadership and so much more. Can training allow agency folk to hone their skills and disciplines to deliver even more effective creative and media ideas to help brands rebuild better societies and economies? Absolutely yes.