Kaizo Live – The US State of Play
STEPH MACLEOD [00:00:05] Welcome to another Kaizo Live. On this week’s show, we are revisiting the state of play in the US market with more of our US partners from our International World “Computer” Network. Now, as you might know, we spoke to our U.S. partners on Kaizo Live back in early April. At that point in US, like us and the U.K. and across Europe, we’re at the very beginning of various stages of lockdown, with the focus firmly on ensuring that organisations were set up to continue to deliver for clients in the coming months. With a media agenda that point firmly uncovered. They, like us, were facing an uncertain time ahead. A lot has changed since then. While media attention remains on call for testing. The past five months have also been a period of significant economic and social upheaval and change, some hopefully representing strides forward in terms of social justice and equality and others not quite so positive for many. Add to that that we have no election campaign season in the US and we wanted to revisit some of our partners to hear their latest views on how all of this is impacting consumer and business confidence in the USA. To that end, I’m joined today by Managing Partner and Chief Creative Officer at Off Madison Avenue and welcome chair Roger Hurni. Keith Donovan, who’s President at the Airfoil Group, and Stefan Pollack, President and CFO at ThePollack Group. So welcome.So, as I said, it’s been a couple of months since we’ve had a US focus on Kaizo Live. And how have you all continued to adapt and change? And what is your new normal actually looking like?
STEFAN POLLACK [00:02:01] So, Steph, thanks for having us back. And yes, it’s we’re now in month six. I think we did speak in April. And it’s definitely been continuous turbulence from a market perspective. But as I said in the last time that we were together, we were already seeing companies starting to talk about recovery and what recovery would look like and how to plan for recovery and using the not only the time for and the opportunity to hopefully stabilise things, but also start to look at, as you say, what the new normal is. And, you know, there we’re seeing that the new normal means a company and a brand of an organisation that’s gonna have to be able to thrive in the face of continuous turbulence. Obviously, everybody has gone virtual. They’ve embraced digital and automation initiatives for both customer interactions and internal operations and have accelerated really those have astonishing speeds using companies embrace agile and they’ve all been agile and working towards agility. But you’re finding that basically every organisation, whether they were addressing the agility in their old organisation or not, basically thrust into it. And teams had to come together and minds have been broken down inside the clients and they’ve been forced into immediate transformation. And so the recovery we’re seeing is you’re obviously not gonna be a straight path. Employees are heading back to work and operations are restarting at different timetables. There are different curves across different countries and regions and counties and cities. And you’re gonna see an asymmetric recovery as companies in some areas are more effective than others. And you’re seeing opportunities and companies doing what they do in terms of how to be the most helpful in their environments.
ROGER HURNI [00:04:10] Thanks Stefan, you make a really good point. It’s been in the six months I think we’ve gone through the five stages of grief/. And clients and agencies are now in that level of acceptance to where they recognise, okay, new normals, maybe the normal period. And so they have embraced digital in ways that they’ve never done before. They’re reacting to new consumer behaviours in ways they’ve never done before. And they’re restructuring accordingly. Whether that’s their physical office environment or how their communications are actually operating in their messaging is going out into the marketplace.
KEITH DONOVAN [00:04:49] Yeah, I think we’re certainly seeing the same sort of thing. People are settling in, you know, they’re adjusting to this period. Certainly as we look at the workflow that’s kind of coming into our agency and the work we’re doing with clients, it’s perhaps shorter, more project based work. You know, I think people are thinking a little bit more short term and just taking things step by step. And I think that’s to be expected when you have a lot of turbulences, as we said. You know, that’s I think that’s going to be the norm for some time to come.
STEFAN POLLACK [00:05:21] Yeah, and with that said. I was just going to add a couple of things, this is that there, you know, I’m starting already see two different types of companies starting to emerge. There’s the company that is wanting to go back to normal and kind of using the path of least resistance to try and normalise things which is just want to go back to where things were. And then those companies that are actually committed to the harder path and that they’re recognising that there may not be a normal that you can go back to. And so they’re really starting to kind of reshape and advance their future and kind of resist this gravitational call to go back to the way things were.
STEPH MACLEOD [00:06:06] Absolutely. And on that note, you know, we talked a little bit there about a different channels, such as digital really being brought to the fore and that whole kind of transformation pace. Have you seen a shift in the issues that clients are communicating? And what other new channels are you really finding out even more? Well, increasingly exploitate. And Keith, maybe we can start with you.
KEITH DONOVAN [00:06:31] Sure. Yeah. I think that’s that’s the story right now. There’s a multitude of issues that I’m dealing with with COVID 19 to important issues around social justice and equality, issues around privacy and cybersecurity. The backlash against big tech. These are all major issues that companies are are really contending with on a daily basis and having having a lot of conversation around. These are the issues they’re shaping the narrative of 2020. And, you know, as I think about, you know, the multitude of challenges that come with that. I think there’s also a lot of opportunity in that as well. I think there’s an opportunity for companies to think creatively, think big, to be able to lead the conversation. And a lot of these issues, and that’s really what we’re trying to work with our clients to encourage them to do is to to look at the opportunity here. I think, interestingly, to what’s what’s coming up. This is the lot of these conversations are happening within different parts of the organisation right there, happening within operations or H.R. or compliance. And I think that stresses the importance more than ever that communications needs to have a seat at the table in order to really drive the strategy through a lot of these important conversations. So I think that’s critical. And, you know, we often think of the role of external communication and how to communicate externally to our different audiences through all of these these issues. But importantly, over the last couple months, what we’ve really seen is the importance of internal communication. And we’re thinking about channels, you know, the importance of educating our employees, building trust, building culture within an organisation. A lot of the communication is having start there even before we go external with the messages.
STEPH MACLEOD [00:08:35] Absolutely and Stefan?
STEFAN POLLACK [00:08:38] Yeah. So we’re finding that, you know, the shift really has been, you know, a lot in the owned communication, whether brands and products and services and companies had robust own channels to begin with. Before COVID start and how well and adapt were they able to actually communicate through those channels from an agile perspective? Could they do it from any work that they produce content from anywhere? How could they adapt and kind of continue to do so through those platforms to create that dialogue? We also found that helpfulness prevailed. So brands had found a way to be the most helpful or invented ways for them to be helpful if they were trying to either fulfil a particular purpose or maybe they were even creating new purposes along the way and found kind of a new value set. And really, they’re starting to kind of emerge and change the course of their company as a result.
ROGER HURNI [00:09:41] I haven’t seen that too Stefan with the clients that we serve at Off Madeline Ave. It’s become somewhat sort of this bifurcated approach when it comes to communications externally. It becomes like, let’s have that own space and let’s break down the silos inside of our organisation and get our messaging out there in a way that makes the most sense. And then let’s lean on our influencers. Whether that’s journalists or our consumer advocates, our brand advocates, how do we lean on them more? How do we create new social media programmes through them so that if there’s this objectivity that’s brought to the issues that we need to discuss around all the things that Keith are saying you know. There’s, it is about being helpful and understanding what issues are happening around diversity and inclusion. And everyone’s concerned around COVID. Selling is practically dead and helping is replaced it. Which has always been probably the best form of selling. But I think companies are now waking up to that realisation.
STEPH MACLEOD [00:10:52] So given these shifts, how what kind of initiatives or what kind of responses have you had to put in place with your teams of communications professionals?
ROGER HURNI [00:11:05] Oh. Well, we at our agency, we’ve always been very digitally focussed anyway, but our clients not necessarily have been. And so they’re recognising that the world is very, very digital. Maybe almost too digital, because I think we’re all getting a little fatigue from the amount of organisations out there putting out Zoom-ish kind of clients with Microsoft teams and all of that. So there’s definitely been a a shift to finding new ways to explore and create the kind of content on digital channels that really address consumer behaviours and their concerns. And it’s the message has really shifted within those channels overall. The other shift that we’re seeing is just internally, regardless of how integrated our communications firm is. I’ve seen a change in that actually happening in practise amongst WorldCom partners, amongst friends of mine who have other agencies where moulted very skill sets are now really being embraced in a more holistic and all touristic sort of way. And so those silos are even being broken down inside communications. It’s like, oh, you need help. I don’t really know how to work the back end of “CMN” WordPress, but I’m going to learn. I’ll figure that out for you tomorrow. Like, those kinds of things are happening all the time. And I think ultimately clients and agencies are going to be far stronger for it at the end of this.
STEPH MACLEOD [00:12:42] Keith anything from your perspective in terms of responses from Airfoil?
KEITH DONOVAN [00:12:47] Yeah. And, you know, I think that shift towards digital has has been key, just as Roger said. I mean, we’re definitely seeing that across the board. Clients a lot more receptive to that conversation, understanding. That’s really the stuff that that they need to start to make in this environment. I’ll tell you, you know, I would say really doubling down on understanding our audiences and spending a lot of time understanding kind of those buyers journeys and what motivates those buyers, where they’re shifting their attention into different channels and just different means of different ways that perhaps they’re consuming information right now. That’s been a big part of a lot of the work that we’ve been doing. So maybe going back, you know, a step and and making sure that we’re really crisp on those buyers journeys and understanding that audience, that’s been very key.
STEFAN POLLACK [00:13:42] Know, I think actually you’ve seen one of the greatest upskilling environments that we’ve ever seen in modern times from an agency perspective and a client perspective. There is a new willingness to try new things. There’s an ease and we’ve all of a sudden become less. It’s become frictionless, actually, for companies and brands to gravitate to things that are simple, easy and direct and get the message out. I am old enough to have seen a few recessions in my lifetime or economic upheavals or downturns or whatever. This is the first time in my professional history where brands have really doubled down and tried to communicate through this process and make sure that they communicate with intent and really getting rid of all the fluff and stuff that goes around all that sizzle and really just find ways to be helpful and be directed and intentional.
ROGER HURNI [00:14:49] Say Stefan, you know, you mentioned the upskilling is kind of interesting. When we were doing our confidence index for WorldCom, how six months ago, upskilling became like one of the number one concern of the top couple of concerns of CEOs with how you can have a force that can upscale. And they weren’t really sure how to do that, but they had a high degree of confidence. It was something it was needed. And now I think we’ve been forced into a situation where it’s happened organically and it’s happened through the masses at the at the companies and not necessarily some sort of process that was put in place. And it just sort of mind the irony of that fascinating.
STEPH MACLEOD [00:15:33] Yeah. And actually, the next I wanted to ask and I had a little bit of a discussion around your perceptions of business and consumer confidence currently in the U.S. and you mentioned the welcome confidence index. And maybe you can tell us a little bit about that and then some of the findings that relate directly to that, these levels of confidence.
ROGER HURNI [00:15:55] When we look at the confidence of C Suite across the world, honestly, wherein dozens of countries. It was prior to this, you know, there was issues around, you know, upskilling and and some environmental concerns and things like that. The pandemic is kind of amplified, all of that to where you’ve seen the lines blur between those issues. And people have really embraced upskilling, as Stefan pointed out. And they’ve done it in this organic fashion. However, the confidence has been shaken quite a bit as far as what the future holds. And it’s dropped most in the US and Australia, Asia sort of region by 5% in the last few months. So it’s it’s down below 20 now. I think 19 something. And primarily the concern is that it’s dropped amongst 55 and older. And that typically is those larger Americans are typically the ones that are most confident because they’ve been through recessions, they’ve been through other sorts of of economic downturns and they’ve been through political upheaval and so they’ve always seen us get through it on the other side. But the pandemic is there’s something I don’t think we haven’t faced. We haven’t faced it in one hundred years, truly. And having their confidence shaken is understandable. And it could be very telling for what things are going to look like on the other side of this. I don’t think it’s going to be normal. All the indicators in our confidence are like saying, like there’s gonna be a there and it’s already occurring. A fundamental shift in how businesses operate, how we operate physically, how we integrate with our employees, how we handle communications, how we sell to customers and adapt to their behaviours. And that’s what that confidence index is now showing that that’s going to be that new normal is going to be normal. And in some ways, I think it’s going to be for the better.
KEITH DONOVAN [00:18:09] Yeah, I think the WorldCom gig has been very interesting and as Roger said, you know, this is a bit unchartered territory for this generation. I think I’ve how this narrative has evolved over the last several months. And, you know, there was this idea early on that this wasn’t going to last long. We were going to get through this summer time was going to look different. Now we’re kind of in that back to school time of year and everyone’s kind of uncertain about what that looks like. And there’s going to be milestones around the holidays after that first of the year. And there is just a continuous stream of uncertainty that people are constantly feeling like they’re on shaky ground. And so then the numbers, you know, from the WorldCom data, it’s reflecting that. And I think we have some time to go here before people that confidence starts to tick up again. But in the meantime, I would agree. I think people are starting to adapt to or at least maybe come to grips with the fact that, yeah, the future is going to need to look different. We are not going to go back to the pre-COVID days and business as usual. It’s it’s going to need to look different. And people are sorting through that right now. What does that exactly mean to their business?
STEFAN POLLACK [00:19:28] All good points, Roger and Keith. Roger to your point about the 55 and older set. You know, I’ve seen all sorts of interesting studies about Gen X, and they’re being kind of one of the most independent generations that have grown up and have seen multiple regular shocks to the system, so to speak, over time. They seem that those might be the most adaptable to the current situation. So I think that maybe speaks to the confidence. Right and then, I mean, if you look at things like that. So I also think that that confidence numbers are going to shift as companies are “cute” to, you know, not simply navigating a restart, but they’re actually positioned their company for a world of continued turbulence and regular shocks of the system where they’re gonna have to be adaptable and resilient in order to create the most value. And so I think that’s when people kind of settle. It’s almost like the quicksand suddenly. That’s how the new normal kind of “cemented” like. But I think we’re going to see brands that have to not just restart. They’re going to have to change.
ROGER HURNI [00:20:43] “‘Adding to that bridge” I just, absolutely, I’ve seen clients come to agencies who are a lot more agile, as you put it, and nimble and quick to change and quick to adapt to these situations. Come to us not just from a communications perspective, but for a how should we physically structure our office? How should we break down these barriers and communication internally? How can our workforce integrate from home? And we find ourselves in unfamiliar territory, as everyone has said, giving advice and counsel to clients along a whole set of communications issues that they never included us in and before on the conversation.
KEITH DONOVAN [00:21:24] Yeah, that’s an interesting point. There’s a lot of what are you doing? And kind of best practises and kind of learning from one other, which has been fascinating part of all of this. You know, I think just as business leaders turn to one another could be in completely different industries and are really just trying to absorb what the people around them are doing and try to find the best path forward.
STEPH MACLEOD [00:21:48] Absolutely, I think it started in the U.K. and in Europe. I mean, there’s been a lot of chat across the board about being more data driven, whether that’s in response to corporates or not. And by I think we we’re certainly seeing from clients, especially on the consumer side, that kind of ongoing measurement and tapping and to that order, things are moving so quickly. And I understand in the different channels that are really gonna impact business is gonna be critical. Well, obviously, it’s not just COVID-19 overseas had a monumental effect across the world. But there are other movements that have a global impact. So I’m thinking black lives matters, the MeToo movement. How do you think that’s impacting ought your clients and sectors are seeing about pockets led communications? Is it turning into… You know, I think that unfortunately there was a little bit of a tech books and attitude, I think to a lot of “purpose work” before now has that changed.? What are you seeing?
KEITH DONOVAN [00:23:03] Yeah, well, first of all, I mean, these are critically important issues. And I think, you know, as business leaders, as professional communicators, as professional marketers, we all have a responsibility to advance social justice. In a way that we make decisions for our own business, in the way that we counsel our clients. And, you know, there’s been we’ve had a lot of discussion around these issues in our agency almost on a daily basis over these last several months. And there’s a lot of energy around this topic. And and that’s a wonderful and probably long overdue. Are we seeing, you know, real change and a real difference? I think in some places we are. But I think we have a long way to go. You know, with these issues and certainly the conversations we’re having more and more conversations with clients on these topics. And that’s really positive to see. Get engaged into those conversations and how they can be making a very real difference in their business. So I think that’s a good first step. But there is a lot of work that needs to be done. And I think there are some, you know, very immediate near-term things that businesses can be doing. But there’s other things that are going to take longer. And it is about a cultural shift in the way people think and behave and operate their businesses. And that is going to need to play out over a long period of time. And it’s going to need to be a sustained conversation that we have over a period of time. That’s what it’s going to require. And, you know, I hope we continue to give the attention to these issues because it’s what needs to happen.
ROGER HURNI [00:25:01] I think you’re 100% right. And it’s kind of a long way to go, but the attitude and the conversation, the idea of people being open. There’s definitely been a big change. We’re fortunate to be in a communications field, and I certainly can’t speak for all the WorldCom partners. But these were sort of non issues for us because of the diversity of our workforce inside. Most agencies but and now seeing those conversations happen at a corporate level inside of brands. I heard recently a stat on a financial network here in the US where they said last quarter, 4% of all of the quarterly calls for public companies, diversity was mentioned in some way, shape or form. And it was more than 42% of calls in this quarter that corporations talked about diversity. So there’s definitely a shift in sensitivity with MeToo. There’s definitely conversations that are happening around diversity and what people should do about it. They don’t know what they should do about it yet, but they’re open to the idea. And I think it goes beyond conversation. I think it’s like we’re ready for change. They just don’t know what to do yet. And I think that’s what’s gonna take a lot of conversations to get to a point where. Those changes can occur, some of them organically, some of them through process. Some of them through maybe law. But it will be a long time. But I think for the first time it feels different, like we’ve been in this situation before in the past. And it kind of just went away after a short period of time and we were sort of like slid back into old habits. I don’t feel, this feels different. I don’t feel like that’s going to be the case this time.
STEFAN POLLACK [00:26:55] And I completely agree with everything that’s been said. I will say I think one of the reasons why it does feel different, Roger, is the emergence and the sustainability of the activist consumer that is out there. Gen Z is ushering in a complete change. And it’s not sitting idly by. And it is demanding change. And I think some brands were and companies and clients were kind of stunned by the need to for them to act and then not knowing how to act. And we found a lot of clients that, you know, maybe wanted to say something but didn’t have something appropriate to say. And so found ways to be an ally and move over and allow voices to be heard. And I think that you think what is unprecedented about this time of social justice, this is that the voices are being heard. And I think one of the reasons why, you know, Roger, to your point of why things maybe go away in previous instances like this is that I don’t think that people really stepped out of the way for the voices to be heard in the past. And it was a tremendous amount of volume and appropriate conversations that are being had about this. And I agree with you. I hope they stick for a very long time.
STEPH MACLEOD [00:28:26] Well, talking of voices, and it would be remiss of me to have you on this show and not ask about the upcoming U.S. election. And obviously, you know, grabbing global headlines as the Democratic National Convention this week by Hillhouse announcement, as well as the postal votes and situation and controversy. How does that impacting the current media agenda in the U.S. and how are you overcoming that?
STEFAN POLLACK [00:28:56] So, in a word, had dominates. There’s absolutely no way to avoid the dominant nature of the election news cycle. It has been dominating for months and maybe even years, depending upon what circle you ask. And it’s probably gonna continue past November 3rd, which is also, you know, we’ve had times and before where elections weren’t necessarily settled on election day. And so will this cycle continue past November 3rd? And how long does it continue? There is a twist and a turn daily by a tweet, by news headlined by… It’s just an overall upheaval, so that is thrown the media landscape, which was already in covered up people, it’s just an entire another layer on top of that. So how and can brands and companies communicate in this? this is a very delicate scenario. Finding opportunities again to be helpful, provide analysis, understand the nuances of the twists and turns each twist and turn to the news cycle in and of itself. And so by the time maybe a brand decides to communicate on that particular twist, it’s possible that the twist is already turned. So it’s a very delicate balancing act in terms of being the PR and communications professional. Picking your moment as to advise client to engage or not engage.
ROGER HURNI [00:30:56] This shows is absolutely brilliant because I just found out there is an election. I had no idea that it.
STEPH MACLEOD [00:31:05] We like be helpful. We like to be helpful.
ROGER HURNI [00:31:07] Thank goodness for our friends in the UK. Stefan’s, right? It does dominate the news cycle and it is a delicate balance. Every time the topic shifts, kind of politically, there needs to be kind of an adjustment and sometimes that can be on a daily basis. It’s a very fine line for brands to walk where they can weigh in on an issue without necessarily taking a side. They could be on the side of what they believe is the right thing for that issue, but they can’t do it in such a way. A lot of brands can’t do it in such a way that says I’m for one candidate or a or for the other or against this candidate for this reason, they have to be true to who they are. They have to stick to their core values and they have to have the kind of messaging that allows them to navigate those issues through those core values. If you can do that, then you’ve got a brand that can really try to find a way to get a little bit of their own voice inside that landscape.
KEITH DONOVAN [00:32:13] Yeah, I think you have to pay attention and be ready to pivot, because this is going to go all different directions over these next couple of months. And I think Stefan’s right. I think this could be a very long gaited process as well. So, you know, a lot of the same principles apply that we’ve been applying over the last couple months. It’s just been very agile, being flexible in our plans and, you know, paying attention to those new trends and taking advantage of those news windows, you know, as much as you can. But that’s going to require a lot of flexibility and a lot of patients through this time.
STEPH MACLEOD [00:32:55] Absolutely. I’m just aware of everyone’s time for the show. But a little cheeky question at the end. So given all of that. What are your predictions for the rest of 2020 for the USA?
KEITH DONOVAN [00:33:09] Yeah, well, I think we summed it up. I mean, it’s going to be a wild ride. There’s no doubt about that. I think we’re going to be cloaked in uncertainty for months to come. And again, we’re just gonna have to keep our heads on a swivel and do our best to, you know, be those straw councillors for our clients to do our best to help them kind of see what’s coming around the corner and get them into position to succeed to these times, because we’re gonna face a lot of uncertainty here, probably at least through, you know, at least the first quarter of 2021
STEFAN POLLACK [00:33:47] No, I don’t have any election predictions, but I will tell you, though, that companies are going to need to be ready for continued turbulence and shock to the system and communicators and agencies and clients. Our programmes are not gonna have to be set in stone. They’re gonna have to be adaptable and looking for opportunities to where they can create the most value for that particular company at that particular time.
ROGER HURNI [00:34:17] I think that is actually part of I think you’re both right. I think that’s part of a larger system that needs to be in place. And that system is going to be how do you structure your communications in your brand for this kind of turbulence for the foreseeable future? I don’t think it’s just till the end of the year. Even if we had a vaccine tomorrow, we got seven billion people on the planet who can make one or two billion vaccines per year. Everyone needs two or three doses. This is gonna be a problem. We’ll live with us for years. And the ability to change your organisation to pivot is both Keith and Stefan said at a moment’s notice. That’s what 2020 needs to be about. It needs to be about planning and preparing yourself for the next several years, not just for the next six months.
STEPH MACLEOD [00:35:03] Absolutely will, I’m sure that the eyes of the world will continue to be on the US and economically, socially, politically for the remainder of this year and certainly beyond. And I think that’s what’s come across loud and clear, is that agility, innovation, communication and empathy seem to be the name of the game and not just in the U.S.. I think that’s good global messaging and for all regions. And I’m sure that we will have the pleasure of speaking to you all again in the coming months. And on that note, all that remains is for me to say thank you so much for joining us on this week’s show. I’m sure the “FB’s” really find interesting and for us for now. Don’t forget that this and all previous episodes of Kaizo Live are available on the Kaizo website. And we will see you here next week. Thank you.