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Getting Business Back Series: Anna Hope, Managing Director, Middle East, Plus 1 Communications

Hanson Search talks to Anna Hope, MD, Middle East, Plus 1 Communications 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.

Here, we sat down with Anna Hope, MD, Plus 1 Communications in Dubai. 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.

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

As an agency, I'm very thankful that we have a diverse portfolio of clients. That's really been our saving grace. I've heard of a lot of agencies that specialise in one sector, such as travel or hospitality, who've been hit incredibly hard. Yes, we took a hit at the beginning of the pandemic as a few clients put their contracts on hold, but since the Summer we've actually seen a lot of new business come in, and now we are busier than ever.

In terms of which sectors we've seen increasing business in, education is very strong still as it’s a hot topic at the moment. As a mum of two, we've all been keeping a close eye on school openings. In times like this, schools need to be incredibly clear with their communication, it's certainly not a time to stop communicating; it's a time to change your message and reassure your stakeholders.

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? 

All the strategies we wrote at the beginning of the year were well and truly torn up and we just had to start again. It's all about problem solving. It's about being adaptable, thinking quickly, and coming up with really interesting solutions, whilst also being sensitive with your tone of voice and the stories that you're putting out there.

Another thing that has changed, obviously is that everybody has learnt to work remotely. Having international offices, has always meant we have been digitally connected, so the London, Dubai and Mumbai team were all able to adapt quickly to remote working. Moving all our client meetings online, was a big change, and I’m sure something that we will continue with, as we’ve proved we can do it, and can make meetings more efficient.

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

Having empathy, being transparent, and being adaptable have really served us well, both internally and externally. For me, my team is my top priority. They are incredibly talented and without them we wouldn't be able to implement the amazing campaigns that we do.

The initial shift to working from home was a bit of a shock for some of them. But we are all quite independent and senior and we've been able to adapt quickly. As a team leader I feel really fortunate that I trust my team. It has taken that element of stress out of the picture because I know that we are all going to deliver what we need to for our clients and not let them down. It's been a really interesting experience for us, and I think we are much stronger, as a result.

Internal communications  has never been more business critical. How has your business engaged with its employees and what changes in culture has it resulted in? 

At the beginning of WFH, it was definitely focused on checking in with my team to make sure their mental health was okay. We’d go through our work lists and discuss ideas for our clients, making sure we were all coping mentally. Everyone has good days and bad days and we've learned to support each other. I've also been flexible in how and where we work.

I'm grateful that the UAE made Zoom available. That's been fantastic. All those online meeting platforms have enabled us to do what we need to do. And as marketers and publicists, we don't really need much, just a laptop, phone, a contact list and off we go. We really can work from anywhere as long as long as the team is connected and coordinated. We are a boutique agency and we have worked as a team for many years, so luckily, we understand our strengths and weaknesses and we know who's good at doing what and when we need help.

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

It has certainly been a learning curve. I have become a lot more open and transparent with my team during the crisis about the running of the actual business. Uncertainty causes a lot of stress, so I decided early on to be very open with them about the situation we're in, what we need to do to get out of it and how we're going to come out the other side and thrive. In return, my team have been very thankful. Any worries that they had about work we've openly discussed, made a plan and came to a solution.

On the flip side, I've heard some horror stories about companies not communicating with staff and landing a bombshell on them and not helping them through any of that process. Of course they feel bereft and lost and completely uncertain.

We're not out of the woods yet, though I am optimistic. We’ve had a great influx of new business since the Summer, but we’ll be prepared for the next 12 months to have its ups and downs.

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

We all need a little bit of comedy during times of darkness. One of my first jobs was looking after comedians so maybe I'm harping back to the old days, but one of my favourite campaigns was IKEA. They released a whole range of guides on how to build forts and caves and I just thought that was brilliant. It was so simplistic. Finding and understanding what people need when they are in lockdown and completely engaging with your consumers. They can't really go out and shop - they have their kids at home and everyone is going stir crazy. What can you do? Be creative.

In the UAE, there are various brands who've adapted quickly to consumer consumption in lockdown. We ran a lovely campaign for wagamama’s which I'm really proud of. We took their cooking courses online - for kids and adults - and they had thousands of people live streaming the event. That worked really well for them. As a result, they've just opened their new restaurant in Motor City. And the response on the Facebook mum community groups has been brilliant; they are all so excited because the brand gave something back. They're were not asking for any money; they're said, 'here you go, entertain yourself and your kids and eat well.'

I also love seeing what publications do and how they react to these sorts of things. When I saw that TimeOut rebranded to TimeIn, they were spot on. They did it really early on. And then seeing the likes of Grazia putting front line workers on the cover of their magazines. That was nice to see.

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

COVID has really sped up the digital transformation of businesses and one of our strategies moving forward is certainly to try and boost our clients within that digital sector. But being digital is not enough - understanding the data and how to use the information is key.

We will also continue to grow our portfolio and ensure we have clients that can withstand another the impact of COVID. Education has been great for us in the UAE and will continue to be something that we will always work in. We have a real passion for that.

Also, with everybody working remotely, we see that it's possible and it's productive. We've actually had more international companies come to us as a result of COVID because they're realising that it doesn't matter where you're based, if you're good at what you do people will come to you.

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

I think the main challenge for everyone is restoring public confidence. That's number one. Our role as communicators is to continue to communicate simply, clearly and frequently. Mixed communications we have seen causes complete confusion, leads to anxiety and stress and more questions.

Once public confidence has been restored, then it also means that the events sector will start coming back to life and that's a big one for the communications sector; we need events. We need that sector to be working and to be fulfilled. I think things will really start to improve across the board when that happens.

Also, we all know that unfortunately print media is on the decline and the pandemic has sped that up. Numerous titles have closed down which means that we have to be even more innovative with how we get our stories out there. We know that we have to digitise our campaigns even more. But I am an optimist. I have been in this industry for 20 years and I firmly believe that good communications will always be needed across a range of sectors, whether internally or externally, and we just need to be able to adapt and change for the situation that we're in. We are needed - absolutely.

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Author: Felice Hurst

With nearly twenty years of experience in search and recruitment and a decade of experience working in MENA, Felice set up the Hanson Search Middle East office to develop our offering in the region. Working across the spectrum of high-level vacancies, Felice has had considerable success across in-house and consultancy roles.

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