‘If you sit back like a stunned mullet, you’re gonna get stuffed’

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The widespread enforced lockdowns and economic disruptions and uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have hit the entire world hard.

Entire industries are being forced to find new ways of working and marketers are grappling with some pretty large existential questions, including how customers can access goods and services, and if they should even be advertising at this time.

We wanted to get some clarity around these, so alongside TRIBE founder Jules Lund, we created ‘Marketers in Pyjamas’, a series of ‘Lockdown Lunch and Learns’, video conferencing into their homes to not only pick their brains but also get a sneaky look at their home decor tastes.

So far, we’ve featured ex-Unilever CMO Keith Weed, nomadic strategists Faris and Rosie Yakob, consumer psychologist Adam Ferrier, head of audience for Australia’s ABC Leisa Bacon and Australian business guru Mark Bouris.

All the videos are available to watch here (each about 20 minutes long), but below are a few of the insights they shared.

Business survival 101

“If you sit back like a stunned mullet, you’re gonna be a target and you’re gonna get stuffed.” So says leading Aussie businessman (and former boss on Australia’s version of The Apprentice), Mark Bouris.

“So right now we need energy. We need to be creative. We need to show initiative. We need to come up with new ideas. We have to be innovative. That’s really important,” he adds.

For Bouris every business leader right now needs to “keep your head” and think rationally, taking basic actions like assessing the balance sheet and making sure they have enough cash to keep the business going. And if they don’t, work with staff to work out ways around it.

But the founder of (usually) nomadic strategy agency Genius Steals, Faris Yakob, warns everyone has to brace for much-changed conditions in the post lockdown.

He warns: “I don’t think the nature of business will remain the same. And I think that it’s very important people keep themselves busy and that they focus on whatever keeps them distracted and happy, and thinking about a medium-term future. I don’t know if I’d be allocating massive amounts of time and assets to very specific things beyond like, you know, survival skills and hunting, maybe.”

Should we even be marketing at this point?

Many advertisers have paused campaigns and turned off spending amid the crisis, grappling with wider issues around access to their products and services and whether it’s even appropriate to be pushing products at this point.

For former Unilever CMO Keith Weed, who helped the FMCG giant navigate the global financial crisis, the answer is to keep marketing through this period: “The opportunity to engage people with relevant advertising is important and we shouldn’t forget that.

“I mean, we have to be respectful to the real challenges going on in this world. But equally, we have to be respectful of the economy, which supports everyone out there. And to turn off all activity would be catastrophic.”

But he says businesses need now, more than ever, to pivot their positioning: “We’re in a crisis right now, and…certainly, the most important thing that I think brands can do is remember the golden rule of marketing is to put the consumer first, to put the customer in the centre of what you’re doing – put people first.”

Why have people been hoarding?

We’ve all seen the images of customers fighting in the aisles over rolls of toilet paper and bags of pasta. Everyday items are suddenly the new hot property. But why are people reacting so irrationally?

Consumer psychologist and founder of creative agency Thinkerbell, Adam Ferrier, explains it like this: “I think we all have a natural optimism bias. So we all think this is going to just be a temporary thing for this week or next week. And that allows us to stay in control.

“But the reality is this is going to last a lot longer and be quite unprecedented. And I think the actual seriousness of the situation is very, very easy to avoid because the seriousness of the situation makes us feel out of control, anxious and upset. And therefore, we distract ourselves by doing what we can, by listening to comedy, watching the news, hoarding toilet paper and Vegemite and doing those kinds of things.”

Leading teams at this time

Many leaders and teams are now grappling with problems they never dreamed of before, keeping the work train moving while dispersed to the four corners.

Head of Audience for national broadcaster ABC in Australia, Leisa Bacon, is managing a team of more than 160 across the country, at a time when most of their usual output, including outside broadcasts and live sport, have dried up. She says she has been using mass conference calls to keep the team updated on the ever-changing landscape:

“It just highlighted that we can keep doing what we do, but we have to find new ways of communicating and new ways to stay together and keeping consistent on the priorities. And I said to the guys, let’s just all be flexible because things that we have been working on are evolving. And that’s okay. We just need to make sure our job is all about audiences. We have to make sure we continue to do the right thing for our audiences. And that will change by these changes.”

Working in close quarters with your partner or family

Adding to the stress is suddenly being forced into close proximity with family, partners, and housemates for extended periods of time. Even in the best relationships, tempers can get frayed under such pressures.

Rosie Yakob spends almost every day working with husband Faris, and has learned a thing or two about resolving issues.

“The other thing I’ll say that I think has been really helpful for us on the relationship side of things, for people who are in smaller quarters with each other and not used to having to share space or responsibilities in the same sort of way, has been the Calm App. It has a guided 10-minute meditation every day. Faris and I are both very opinionated people, you might be surprised to know. So there are times when there is some tension, some arguments over our work and we choose to just, instead of letting that continue on, let’s just do a 10-minute meditation and then resolve it.”

Keith Weed has seen his three adult children move back into the family home in the UK as the lockdown plays out. With all three of them vying for space and bandwidth, they’ve developed a pecking order.

“I’ve stolen my son’s laptop because my daughter is in my office, on my iMac, because she had a video conference and in the pecking order her importance is higher than mine because she says ‘Look, Dad, I’m still building my career. You’ve had yours.’”

Looking after yourself

Looking after your mental health is a priority for everyone in these changed conditions, with most interviewees expressing concern that this will end up being the unseen damage done by the virus. So everyone has a different method of coping.

Mark Bouris advocates sticking to a strict routine, setting yourself simple tasks and then ticking them off to create a mindset hack and sense of accomplishment.

Keith Weed is using his commute time to do something new: “…turn your commute time into a passion project, whether it be learning to cook something or learning to knit, paint, play a musical instrument… and when we come out of all this, we can say, you know what? What did you do? And you could go over X, Y and Z. But I’m also now an expert in creating strawberry jam.”

ABC’s Bacon is embracing the chance to connect with her family: “I’m really interested in playing more games with my kid because I’m spending lots more time with her.”

What leadership looks like now

Business leader Bouris says leaders in companies need to shake off any ideas of being a martyr and embrace new communications and platforms.

“Leadership here is not about you carrying the burden on your shoulders and thinking, I’m going to drag everybody through this, I’m going to do it, I’m going to make all these sacrifices, et cetera. No, leadership right now is about collaboration, communication, understanding and then driving.”

And he says leaders need to embrace digital platforms and over-communicate in this period.

“I guess we got to stop calling them social mediums now, I mean these are communication mediums because we’re not socialising anymore. We are socialising ideas. But this is not a social environment, it’s not about us being friendly or anything. It’s about leadership. So these are leadership platforms, these up communication platforms, and messaging platforms.”