Harris Diamond on leading McCann Worldgroup through the coronavirus pandemic
As the coronavirus pandemic worsens around the world, causing shutdowns, shelter-in-place mandates, travel restrictions and marketers to pause their advertising, agencies face potential negative impacts to their own businesses and a new way of operating as they, like many companies worldwide, adjust their staff to working remotely.
Ad Age caught up with Harris Diamond, CEO and chairman of McCann Worldgroup, to discuss how his agency is adapting to the new way of working, and how it's advising its various clients on marketing during the pandemic. Diamond spoke from his home in Connecticut, as McCann has mandated a work-from-home policy across the U.S. and most of its global offices.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.
What have you found to be the biggest challenge to working remotely?
I think what we’re all learning is working from home has many new challenges. Many of our employees have worked from home during vacation or time off, just to check in. But this really is work. With our staff, we have to remind people this is a marathon, not a sprint. We've seen people working from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and we tell them they need to take a deep breath; there has to be a [work-life] balance. We're recognizing the fact that people are working from home with significant others and roommates, and in ways no one ever expected.
Having said that, our productivity is as high as it’s ever been.
That's good. What are you hearing from clients? How are they thinking about advertising right now?
Obviously, we're seeing a slowdown around the world but I will tell you our pitches are continuing; we're continuing to win business. When you look country by country, the numbers vary.
Most clients I'm talking to are asking what they should be saying and how they should be saying it. If they are saying something, how do they make sure it's meaningful for consumers? We have strategists working with creative [that is] based on the research we are doing, which shows the concern we [as a society] have for each other is at the highest it has ever been. Making sure the tonality is appropriate and work is meaningful is vital.
And I would say we are at the beginning of conversations around how we come out of isolation. How do we make sure demand ramps up again? We're just at the beginning of those conversations; they will become more important in the coming week or two.
So how have you adapted to pitching, creating the work and conducting ad shoots remotely?
We've seen people return to work in China; people have pretty much returned to work in our Shanghai office. We're able to do some work in China, Thailand, Japan and other parts of Asia, which is obviously great news for us. We’re farming out work and producing it over there. There's a lot of digital work we can still do around the globe. We're still doing a significant amount of work for healthcare clients; we've been able to produce work for them and keep that going.
Candidly, I’ve been a little surprised by how well it’s worked. I'm really proud of our team.
I know it's not the best time to be speculating but, in your opinion, what might be the long-term effects of all this on the industry and what we deem 'business as usual' for agencies?
We're at an inflection point. Here in the U.S., it's clear we've moved into a more digital, e-commerce world and we are accelerating that by the minute. Areas like gaming, streaming are accelerating dramatically right now.
And then, just in terms of how we work, I, like anybody else, am learning that it is possible to have more videoconferences; it is possible to do work around the world in ways we probably didn't think about in the past. There will be effectiveness and efficiencies that will come out of this and take our industry into the future.
In terms of seeing how usage has ramped up for social media, apps and streaming services due to the current state we're in, how is McCann looking at that and planning advertising around that?
I think it's early [to plan around that behavior] but we're looking at every medium right now. Our strategists are having conversations with the Googles, the duopoly; in fact I had one this morning around the opportunity at this moment in time to look at our systems in a different way than we did in the past. Our strategists and creatives are looking at Instagram; increased usage there. There are mediums like videoconferencing that have seen increases in usage but we're not going to put marketing messages there—it's integral for people and we want to use that medium for what it is. But there are a lot of mediums where we will place marketing messages.
How are you preparing McCann for the potential negative financial impact the coronavirus pandemic could have on the business?
Obviously we're looking at all the issues. How long this goes on for will contribute to how big of an impact we see. I'm pretty proud that we have a strong company. We're clearly looking at what clients are doing—right now most understand that they need to be present in consumers lives.
And have you leaned more on your parent Interpublic Group of Cos. through this?
I never comment on my mother or father. That said, we have a strong company. Of course, we utilize their services. A lot of our clients are shared across IPG agencies.
Fair. How have things been for you adapting to leading the company while remote?
It's different. I'm a wanderer. I like going into people's offices. We have offices in over 100 countries; I like spending time at those offices. This is a whole new world for me. I'm calling people, videoconferencing with people; some of that engagement you can still have. But I like being there with the people. I thrive on that and I miss it a little bit.