10 Marketing Leaders, 10 Ways to Lead Through Crisis

As a marketer, how do you lead through a crisis? What do the best and leading marketers have to say about the current crisis, and what are they focusing on to get their teams through the current climate in the months ahead?

We scoured the internet to find what the top marketing leaders are saying, and compiled some of the best advice below. Here’s a breakdown of 10 pieces of advice from 10 different marketing leaders.

1. Invest in becoming a more agile organization.

Sir Martin Sorrell recently offered his thoughts about the global pandemic’s effect on the advertising industry. Sorrell didn’t hold back, calling COVID “a Darwinian culling.” But he is optimistic in the long-term: “‘Q2 will be horrendous, Q3 will be tough but better, and Q4 will be a recovery.”

How can a firm position itself for a stronger recovery? Sorrell advocates for more agility. “My favourite question to anyone I’m talking to is: ‘What’s your biggest problem? The answer in most cases is lack of agility… When you have two people in a company, you have a cooperation problem. To get 2500 people to think as one, or to leverage whatever knowledge the 2499 have – that’s the game. If you can get people to share knowledge and insight, you have a much more potent organisation.”

2. Use frameworks to keep your “internal game” up.

Nathan Furr, Associate Professor of Strategy at INSEAD, advises that one of the most important things for marketers right now will be honing their ability to respond to uncertainty. After researching how leaders respond to the unknown, he concluded that “those who develop this “uncertainty capability” are more creative, more successful, and better able to turn uncertainty into possibility.”

How can marketers make sure they calmly and strategically navigate current uncertainties? Based on his research, Furr recommends applying 5 frames to our thoughts and internal narratives. These frames are:

  • Learning. What can I learn from the current challenge?
  • Game. Consider the ups and downs as part of a game: perhaps you’ve lost today, but you may win tomorrow.
  • Gratitude. Don’t lose your perspective — remember what you already have, and actively practice gratitude for those things.
  • Randomness. Keep in mind that much of life is quite random and out of your control. Respond to what you can, but don’t stress other things that are out of your hands.
  • Hero. Finally, Furr says that “the most powerful” frame he’s observed is the hero frame. This happens when leaders see the obstacles and uncertainties they encounter as part of a larger journey that every hero has to go through. In other words, it’s the obstacles themselves that make doing anything at all worth it.

3. Take marketing back to its roots of trust-building.

Mayur Gupta, CMO of Freshly believes that “COVID is a blessing in disguise for the world of marketing.” As spending across channels starts to shrink, brands have to turn to organic channels to build and maintain relationships with their customers. Mayur sees disruption happening in two types of organizations:

First, “those that had over-indexed completely on the performance side and are now working to bring the soul back to marketing.”

In the second cohort are the “legacy organizations who were still thinking about digital as a bolt on.”

For Freshly’s CMO, the Covid crisis means an opportunity for brands to push themselves to think harder about how they can serve their community. “This crisis is forcing [brands] to either perish or evolve to understand that this is all about marketing in a digital world, not digital marketing. Mayur says that we have to push ourselves to ask daily “how do we serve our community?” Freshly aims to do this in their partnership with Nestlé “to contribute half a million dollars to Meals on Wheels. That’s one example where you stand up for what your mission is and realize it’s not about how many users can you acquire on that day.”

4. Know when to put safety above business.

Josh Chapman, Chief Global Brand Officer of SmileDirectClub, states that the thing “you’ve got to acknowledge right now is business comes second to safety.” The company leads by example here — SmileDirectClub recently closed every shop globally except for Hong Kong. Chapman makes it explicit that the company has to make the hard choice to do what is right above what is profitable: “we did that because it’s just not safe for workers or for people coming in. It was obvious to us that it was just the right thing to do.”

Like many others, the company has also pivoted its production priorities to tackle the safety of others: “We quickly started reaching out to HP and other vendors because we’re the US’s largest 3D printing facility and have capacity. We ramped up those efforts to build face shields and masks, which are currently shipping across the country to first responders.”

5. Consider a “volume” model for your marketing.

Gary Vaynerchuk, serial entrepreneur and CEO of VaynerMedia, says that his “volume thesis” is proving to be the right approach to serving clients during the crisis. This volume model is in effect “a formula which enables quick-fire content and culture creation at scale by collapsing creative, strategy, media and production.”

Vaynerchuk comments: “I do think we’re built for this [time] because — and this is just very honest — I think we’re a better value than the alternative media and creative out there, because I don’t think we’re running at the same margins.”

In other words, he has built his company to move quickly and to accommodate the many creative limitations currently in place due to COVID, and he’s committing to trading off high production value in favour of volume. Of course, this may be a unique position only to some companies, as the CEO comments: “A lot of great shops outside of Wieden+Kennedy are publicly-traded shops, and they need to hit certain numbers and I have empathy for that — I don’t think that makes them bad, I just think it doesn’t allow them to invest as much as I do.”

6. Take the opportunity to think about the brand, not just the product.

Cory Berger, CMO at Grey Worldwide believes that right now “advertising agencies have a real opportunity to show the value they are able to provide clients.” With both client and agency in a difficult position, the agencies that can demonstrate that kind of value will be those “coming out of this crisis in a stronger position.” As many businesses have seen a downturn in how many products they are selling, this may create more “time to step back to think about their brand and not just their product.”

7. Lead with vulnerability.

Celia Jones, former Chief of the award-winning Escape Pod Agency, reflects on her time running an agency, and challenges some of the ideas around what makes a successful leader. As she puts it: “the most powerful moments I’ve experienced as a leader have come from letting go of the archaic notion that strength lies only in bravado and bluster, or self-serving agendas that your staff can see right through.”

While Jones stands firmly behind the need for leaders — especially women who lead agencies — to “use their voice, lean into their power, and advocate for structural change,” she also acknowledges that there is something that goes beyond this: “there’s another side to true badassery that is equally important: leading with vulnerability.”

8. Stretch your budget by investing in co-marketing.

Raja Rajamannar, CMCO at Mastercard, notes that those who have to cut performance marketing dollars are bound to face difficulties. But the loss of performance marketing spend doesn’t have to result in the loss of all marketing results. Rajamannar explains: “that’s where I see opportunities for companies to come together and do co-marketing. And co-marketing works brilliantly because collectively, what multiple companies can deliver as a value proposition to any audience is far higher than what an individual company can do by itself.”

In other words, it may be time for marketing leaders to prospect for partners, forge stronger relationships, and build joint marketing campaigns in a battle to make budgets do more.

9. Foster transparency, openness, decisiveness, and empathy.

Claire Beale, global editor-in-chief at Campaign, calls out the advertising industry and points out that “too many leaders have failed to be transparent and decisive.” After interviewing staff at agencies that have been placed in difficult positions, Beale has found a lot of the leadership to be lacking. She suggests that “if you really want to know how well your company will emerge from this crisis, look at your leader. Are they transparent, open, decisive and empathetic? Are they really making the same degree of sacrifice and compromise they’re asking of their staff right now?”

Moreover, Beale reminds us that “an agency’s best staff are its only real assets,” and that the best leaders should already know this and act accordingly to empower their staff to come together in response to the crisis. This means aiming for true transparency, not just lip service appeals to say we’re in this together.

10. Invest in creating a “brain trust”.

Carla Hassan, Global CBO at Citi, advises that it’s crucial for marketing leaders to not put themselves in a bubble. Right now is a great time to surround yourself with diverse opinions, meaning “people who you can bounce ideas off of so you’re not sitting in your own echo chamber.” Hassan thinks you should “give yourself like four to six people who can take you out of your teams and your current world right now as you’re evaluating ideas.” This means having people who are part of your trusted circle — a “brain trust” — who can advise you on upcoming decisions without bias or filters. Now more than ever you should be stress-testing your opinions against others, in order to make the best strategic moves possible.

Need more strategies for leading marketing through a crisis?

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