Hanson Search talks to Valérie Lecasble, General Manager, H+K Strategies Paris on the impact of Covid-19

Welcome to our ‘Getting Business Back’ series where we are talking to industry leaders from agency and inhouse backgrounds about the impact of COVID-19 on their businesses and the steps they are taking as we move out of the crisis. We have seen tremendous innovations take place during this time of uncertainty and we want to know what leaders think have been the most consequential, pushing organisations forward, what values have come to life, and the biggest challenges they’ve faced throughout it all. 

Here, we sat down (virtually) with Valérie Lecasble, General Manager at Hill+Knowlton Strategies Paris. Read on for her thoughts about the impact of COVID-19 and the transformations that she’s seen take  place as a result of the pandemic.Valerie L

What impact has COVID-19 had on your business and on your sector as a whole?

COVID clearly had an impact on the communication industry. Very quickly we saw TV campaigns stopped for example and for advertising agencies or media buying agencies the impact was huge. At Hill+Knowlton Strategies in Paris, we do strategic advice, corporate and executive communication, the impact was less severe. All brands were in need of advice on how to communicate during this unexpected situation. We provided a lot of studies and published best practice guidance for our clients. As part of a global network we were also able to produce a report about corporate citizens and how companies were reacting to the crisis on an international scope.

Like most communication and marketing agencies, some clients’ campaigns were put on hold but thankfully we didn’t have any major cancellations. It is still a bit uncertain whether all campaigns will restart; however, on the positive side, we had five new pitches in two months and this really created momentum with the teams to keep them motivated and reassure them on the strengths of the group.

Overall, the impact of COVID on us has not been insignificant, but it’s not been too dramatic either.

As a result of COVID-19, organisations have had to move faster than ever before to problem solve and navigate the crisis. How has this pushed your organisation and industry forward positively and which of those measures taken would you like to remain in place post pandemic?

The main change was working from home 100%. It wasn’t as much of an upheaval as it could have been though; we are a global network present in 45 countries with a total of 85 agencies, so we are used to communicating virtually within the group. Plus, in the Paris office we had a working from home policy up to two days per week, so we already have all the online tools for communication. From the first day of the lockdown, we quickly adapted, it wasn’t a huge change for the team.

This period was paradoxically very motivating and dynamic. When something this big happens, it generates a kind of alchemy that allows the agency and the team to move forward. It creates a momentum for innovation and rapid idea generation.

There was a cohesion and solidarity around facing this complicated situation all together and I was proud of it.

Which of your values/your company values has truly come to life since the beginning of this crisis?

The crisis has revealed our “raison d’être”. This was something we were working on before and it has been accelerated during the crisis. It was important to us that our team find a purpose in what they do, not only the financial aspect of working. Hill+Knowlton is part of WWP group which has a lot of different clients around the world. We wanted to have a direct impact on our clients in Paris and we decided that our purpose was to help our brands to do good for the society. We advised our clients to do initiatives with societal impact like producing hydroalcoholic gel or masks.

Internal communication has never been more business critical, how has your business engaged with its employees and what changes in culture has it resulted in?

The challenge was to keep the dynamism and motivation of the team. We usually had only one meeting a week before the lockdown and we would adjust during the week because we were physically together and could talk easily. In this lockdown situation, we had to do things differently. Every morning we had a quick catch up with the managers to run thought priorities and clients. They would then speak with their teams. It was perhaps more time-consuming and tiring than physical meetings but it worked well in terms of structuring the days in this uncharted time.

What challenges have you faced leading people remotely and how have you had to adapt your style?

The first priority was to make sure that everyone was safe and healthy. It was important to make sure that everyone was in good condition. Some people have children at home or isolated people living in small apartments. We had regular calls with everyone just to make sure they were OK. On top of that, WPP group opened a free international phone number that anyone could call to discuss COVID concerns or any issues they had working from home. We also proposed virtual activities like cooking classes at an international level, where each country could organise a cooking class. Isolation was a big issue, so we really wanted people to feel supported and part of the group.

I would say that in terms of management style, the most important thing is to be present and available for your team.

Are there any businesses you feel have communicated particularly well during the crisis?

There were a lot of very positive initiatives from brands globally. We can name companies like PSA or Michelin who redirected their production lines to produce masks or medical equipment. The retail industry also communicated well, for instance, Alexandre Bompard the President of Carrefour France or Michel-Edouard Leclerc President of Leclerc.

The best communication remains the healthcare sector. All medical institutions were very active during this crisis and were helping and leading French people during this sanitary crisis like the PHP or croix rouge.

I think the best way to communicate was to not make the communication about yourself. It was a sensitive time and your message had to be very honest and genuine and open to the society. Companies who contributed to fight the virus and protect the population had the right communication, when it was not for opportunism.

As companies move from reacting to mitigating the impact of the outbreak, what is your strategy to move forward over the coming months?

We had a slow and structured process to get back to the office and provide our team with sanitary equipment and masks. We have organised the office differently to comply with social distancing measures. The first weeks only 10% of our team will go to the office and we will slowly increase to 30% and more if the situation allows us to do so. We have done everything to provide a safe environment for our team when they come back; this was the priority.

Now we have to go back to normal life, which is not easy as we are still in between phases. We are not in lockdown anymore but we still can’t go back to our normal routine. It is still uncertain as to when we will be able to live our lives as before and probably we never will. I believe there will be a lot of social changes and changes to the way we work.

We did an internal survey that showed that 90% of the team accommodated well to the working from home situation but still a third of them really wanted to come back to the office. It really depended on each personal situation and home situation, but globally the team was happy about the way we worked  remotely.

We need to find the right balance between how we lived and worked before taking into account this period that had a massive impact on our society and we need to be able to move forward and be prepared for whatever comes next.

What do you feel are the major communications challenges once the recovery begins?

The economic crisis will be one of the main challenges. It is still unknown how deep it will be; it is an uncharted situation we are all in. There are a lot of questions around when the economy will rebound and how fast. Communication will support companies through these changes and help the public to understand them. We saw for example that the European Commision is funding 750€bn for the recovery. It is also our role to have clear communication about that and what it means for citizens. There will be a lot of new topics around healthcare which previously faced a lot of criticism but during this crisis it showed everyone its real contribution to society. Burning topics are also around national sovereignty or economic independence. We are here to support companies and governments to communicate their best and protect their reputation.

Posted on 18.09.2020

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