Mike Nakamura, Global President of dentsu X, shares his top 4 reflections on how the COVID-19 crisis is shaping corporate culture.
At dentsu X, we live in the most technical part of the marketing landscape, immersed in data, technology, and a stream of products. Yet dentsu X is founded on a firm conviction that marketing is, and always has been, about People. Whether it’s understanding consumers better, or the value which brands can add to society, it is all about People.
That is why my strategy, as the leader of a global agency brand, has been to invest in our People and the culture they live by. Culture kills organisational silos, culture elevates the client to the centre of our organisation, and culture creates innovation. That’s why the awards our agency wins annually that I’m most proud of, are those that celebrate the talent that lies across the dentsu X globe.
In that sense, COVID-19 has proven the biggest challenge of my leadership: how do we sustain a winning culture when we are physically remote when we can’t easily have those ‘accidental’, 5-minute meetings which are, ultimately, the most valuable meetings of all. How do we ensure that our Town Hall meetings are really interactive when we’re all on Skype, Zoom or Teams? How do we demonstrate excellence in client service when we can’t meet with our clients. And most importantly, how can I look after the mental health of creatively-minded people who need to bounce ideas off each other and who risk feeling very isolated.
Here’s what I am currently learning:
1. Communicate more than ever before.
Whether it’s on video chat or just a phone call, we need to make up for our physical absence by speaking more. To combat the difficulty of establishing a daily routine, my leadership team meets every morning for 15-30 minutes at the start of the day. There is absolutely no agenda and no preparation needed. It’s merely a check-in for all of us, a ritual, which acts as a marker for the beginning of our working day. I encourage everyone at dentsu X to do the same with their teams: ditch the weekly hour-long status meeting and opt for a 15-minute daily check-in. It’s easier in those contexts to ask if people have been out exercising, or what they had for breakfast. These innocent questions empower me to keep in touch with the team’s overall wellbeing.
2. Our clients are suffering too.
Of course, any cuts to marketing budgets affect agency income, but they also affect clients’ hopes and dreams. Our clients have wonderful plans, which they have invested in emotionally as well as financially. To adapt or lose these altogether is not just financially painful; it is also painful to their careers and their own trajectory. With many of our clients, I am finding that the simple question, “how are you?”, can unlock the kind of personal dialogue I have rarely had with them before. We claim to be partners in transformation; now we need to take that transformation to a much deeper level. If we get it right during these difficult times, I believe that we will enjoy a deeper and more sustainable level of the client relationship.
3. I am practicing and coaching my team to notice physical signals better.
It is relatively easy in an office to notice the person who is quieter than usual on a given day, but it is much harder to do that on a computer screen, when you can see 15 people or when the video is switched off. So, we have a rule of video-on. We make that easier by empowering each other to laugh at one another’s dog or cat or makeshift office. We celebrate the moment when a child walks into the room, or we hear a hungry baby in the background. If we make the most of these moments, they allow us to bond even more closely with the reality of each other’s lives.
4. Technology really is our friend.
Of course, it is difficult to have several people speaking at the same time, but tech developers are working on alternatives. It could just be a chat sidebar or an app like House Party, but tech developers are working hard to help us communicate differently. Something as simple as a pub quiz format gives everyone some time to speak, nobody is drowned out, and can work on any kind of technology, however limited.
Finally, my biggest learning is simply this: we are doing ok during lockdown, because we invested in a strong culture before lockdown. This is the biggest test of my leadership: have I created a strong enough culture to withstand the pressure of lockdown? I believe that those companies who have invested in building a culture will be in a far better position to take on this extraordinary situation than those who did not. I think that we will be happier, more productive, more client-focused simply because that is where we invested. In the end, all agencies have high calibre tools, technology and products. Those who win will be those who underpin those with the strongest, best-connected culture.