The new CEO of Starcom tells MediaTel's Michaela Jefferson about her plans for the agency, her advice for working parents, and why she believes in a team-first rather than client-first approach.
In September this year, you were promoted from MD to UK CEO of Starcom – what are your plans for the agency, both in the near and long term?
In the near term my focus is on keeping our brilliant team motivated during what will inevitably be a tough few months. Over the past six months, I have seen the most amazing shows of resilience as every person in our team has risen to the challenges we’ve all faced. I know how lucky I am to have such a strong team working with me as I take on my new role. We also have new clients to transition which we’re all excited about.
Longer term is about realising the potential of being the Human Experience agency in the Next Normal, and making sure we are perfectly set to navigate our clients through what will be an uncertain year ahead.
What has been your biggest challenge in the last 12 months, and how have you tackled it?
My biggest challenge was definitely trying to keep it together during the height of lockdown. Balancing a very busy and difficult period at work while trying to support my team, coupled with trying to look after an eight year old on my own – I struggled, I don’t mind admitting.
As to how I tackled it, I would love to give some pearls of wisdom here but beyond telling myself every day that it wouldn’t last forever, all I can really say is that the Minecraft app was extraordinarily helpful. As was wine… Lots of wine.
What does it mean to be a “human experience” agency, and how do clients benefit from this approach?
Our ‘Human Experience’ positioning is rooted in the belief that insight and speed are our clients’ true competitive advantages. As such, we strive to understand people better, and act on that understanding faster than their competition.
Our perspective is to come at every challenge from a ‘real behaviour’ perspective, core to which is having in place the right data and the right processes to make that happen. Increasingly, when we think about media, the growth areas will be from experiences. Whether through bots, voice or in-game commerce, the ability to turn technology into brilliant human experiences that drive business growth is what will set our clients up to win in the future.
Starcom describes itself as being “honest about what real people want” – what do real people want right now, after months of lockdown and now strict restrictions in place until the new year?
Throughout the last six months we have been regularly asking ‘The Street’, our online community of everyday people across the UK, how they’re feeling and what they think about a range of topics. As the pandemic has been unfolding, it’s been important for us to understand the experiences of everyday people away from our London media bubble.
Right now, a longing for togetherness, a desire for normality and a renewed appreciation for the simpler things in life are craved – overall a new appreciation of ‘normal’ everyday activities and a desire for shared experiences, which is made all the more significant by the approaching festive season.
With the increased confusion around the new COVID restrictions being put in place, people are rallying around sources that bring clarity to a confusing world. Overwhelmed by a nonstop news feed, people are grappling with who to listen to and as a result, they are in a hyper-vigilant, hyper-observant state of mind.
Expectations are high, and while experts are divided on whether or not brands should play a role here, my personal opinion is that there is a big opportunity for brands to bolster, and to secure consumer confidence by being relevant, showing empathy and offering clarity.
As a mother yourself, do you think the industry does enough to support working parents?
The industry has come a really long way from when I first started and I personally am a better mother and a more productive employee because of that. As an industry there is always more we can do to support not only working parents but anyone who has any need or desire to work in a more flexible way.
Agencies need to be absolutely open minded when it comes to embracing different models. Flexible working can mean more than a four-day week, for example, and at Starcom, we have several examples of different successful models.
People to whom these ways of working are important will find the right fit, and my only advice would be to listen carefully for cues when you’re discussing this with a potential employer! Make sure they are not just giving lip service. Hold out for the right teams and the right roles – they do exist.
What is the most exciting technology or experience for brands to be thinking about right now? I.e. AR, VR, gaming, etc?
All of those and more. It’s one of the reasons I love this industry so much, you never know when all the technologies available to us will reach the tipping point of consumer scale and interest, or what’s around the corner.
The most exciting consumer experiences are when content, commerce and technology collide, and these will become even more engaging and compelling with time. There are many avenues in this space we are actively exploring that we believe will give our clients a real competitive edge; I could tell you but, as they say, then I’d have to kill you.
What did you learn from your experience leading PG One, Publicis' network dedicated to FMCG giant Procter & Gamble, and how have you brought those learnings into your new role?
Leading the PG One team was my first ‘management’ role (from a strategy background) so it was an eye opener to me in too many ways to list here.
In terms of the most important things though: I learned what a strong client/agency relationship looks like and the true potential of what it can deliver in terms of brilliant work and results. I saw the real benefits of an agency structure that brings together media, content and technology seamlessly – not only for the client and quality of output, but also for our own talent.
But the biggest lesson I learned, which I have tried very hard to bring to my broader Starcom role, is that any leader’s ‘vision’ isn’t worth much without a brilliant team on side.
So while ‘client first’ is a popular agency mantra throughout the industry, I will always argue hard for ‘my team first’. And in a crappy year like this one in particular, motivating and recognising the enormous efforts of my team has been something I’ve tried to keep front and centre.
What is your biggest hope for the future of the media and advertising industry?
That one day we will do away with timesheets (to be clear, until such a time, can everyone at Starcom please keep doing them).
Read the original Mediatel interview here.