Hanson Search talks to Sandrine Cormary, General Manager, Omnicom PR Group France on the impact of COVID-19
For our Getting Business Back series, we are speaking with leaders in marketing and communications about the effects of COVID-19 on their businesses and the wider industry. 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 Sandrine Cormary, General Manager of Omnicom Public Relations Group France. Read on for her thoughts about the impact of COVID-19 and the transformations that have taken place as a result of the pandemic.
What impact has COVID-19 had on your business and on your sector as a whole?
OPRG has been impacted as anyone else. Our clients have been financially impacted and are facing difficult times, mainly in the retail and aeronautic sectors.
The SINAP, the national trade association for press officers and public relation consultants, revealed a study in April 2020, showing that 69% of companies working in the communication industry had either a decrease of their client budgets or payment cancellations. Less than 1% had won a new client during this period and 57% had lost income. We have also seen some communication campaigns postponed or cancelled altogether, same with new pitches. Globally we have evaluated a decrease of 10% of our fees during this period.
There were also some positive signs during the lockdown though. We won a new pitch at the very beginning of lockdown for a corporate campaign with a Healthcare and Hygiene brand. This was very good to keep the team motivated and mobilised. It was a strong example for the team that the agency was moving forward through this unexpected crisis.
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 what measures taken would you like to remain in place post-pandemic?
This crisis has highlighted that there are different levels of strategic communication. It has shown the importance of internal communication. Having constant communication with your team is essential to keep them motivated and productive during such hard times.
The communication with our clients was in two phases; first was the shock effect of the lockdown and the pandemic, then the realisation of what was going on and the need for action. We are a strategic corporate communication agency, so we had to find innovative ways for our brands to communicate when everyone was talking about public health. It was important to be aware of the sensitive global situation and choose our communications carefully. Many used the crisis in an insensitive way, some sort of marketing opportunism that fired back when the message was not appropriate. Relevancy was key to keep our brands in the public space.
For our client Fitbit, a fitness and wellbeing connected watch, we have developed an influencer platform where they would share their best workout tips and programs. This had a huge success and the media liked it as it was meaningful during this period for people to practice some sport at home and stay fit.
The SCRP, the national trade association for public relation consultants, whom OPRG is part of and whom I'm an administrator, has launched a study in April 2020 about the consequences of the crisis. It was interesting to see that the main focus of French people toward companies to rebuild the future was mainly around health and well-being of employees even before an ecological concern, which before was the main concern. The second focus was the perception of sincerity and proximity of a company's communication. We can then say that the crisis acted like a catalyst and reinforced individuals’ expectations toward their colleagues, employers and brands.
The challenge for us is to prioritise the communication cause: the economic versus ecologic crisis. The study also showed that 52% of people think that actions should be taken to help the economy restart even if that means putting the ecologic crisis on the side. 48% think the ecological issues should come first, which means half of the population. Our objective is to reconcile the two.
Brands are looking for purpose, the “raison d’être” in French, which comes from the 2019 Pack Law Raison D’être. This law stipulates that the company must henceforth be managed in its social interest, considering the social and environmental issues of its activity. In this context, engagements are not enough, there is a need for real actions.
The President of Le Monde, an economic and business newspaper, said that now brands who have the most visible values and who bring humanity to the centre are the most likely to succeed in their communication. Brands have realised that they have to focus their communication around the customer, what they can do for the customer to improve their well-being, health and daily life, followed by the proximity and the emotion. As a communication agency we need to update our tone of voice and angles of communications. These are fascinating times!
Which of your values/your company values has truly come to life since the beginning of this crisis?
This crisis has reinforced the place of the human in the agency. Relationships within the team have grown stronger. Some team members have told me that I was more open, and they have appreciated this proximity.
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?
Thanks to technology and all the different tools that Omnicom Group have, we have maintained great communication within the team and had a video call with the entire agency once a week. Each Monday morning we had a clear agenda of how the agency and the group was coping with the crisis and asking them how they were feeling and dealing personally with the situation. They really appreciate our transparency in our communication to them. This brought a lot of humanity and purpose within the agency.
What challenges have you faced leading people remotely and how have you had to adapt your style?
The irony is that the social distancing has brought the teams closer during this period. Working from home was already an active policy at OPRG, everyone could use two days a week to work from home even before the pandemic which is very rare in France. This was something we were used to and that works very well with all the different digital tools. All we had to do was to reinforce the communication points and create a human link to keep them motivated and informed not only about the agency but also government updates and how as a business we were adapting.
I’ve always believed that the balance with working from home was important because it can help to focus and concentrate sometimes even better. Being physically in the office doesn’t imply that you are a better consultant. Some people go to work with no motivation and that’s dangerous. On the other hand, too much working from home can be exhausting and boring and sometimes it can affect creativity and collaboration. Plus, as a leader I think it is easy to motivate remotely but it is harder to inspire. It’s better to show an example and lead your team when you are physically there.
It is important to have the right balance and I’m happy to see that more companies will now implement it in France.
Are there any businesses you feel have communicated particularly well during the crisis?
I would say it’s all the companies who reacted very quickly to the pandemic with a societal impact like LVMH who diversified their production chains to produce face masks. The importance was to communicate with humility.
We saw lots of companies doing digital campaigns. One of the great initiatives was the video game Fortnight who saw a record turnout of 12.3 million attendees to its virtual concert starring rapper Travis Scott. Other companies were giving free webinars or training. Facebook has launched a real-time sports platform.
Some companies were smart enough to adapt quickly and in an intelligent way.
As companies move from reacting to mitigating the impact of the outbreak, what is your strategy to move forward over the coming months?
The future is still unpredictable, it’s very early to say when the bounce back will happen. We hope that by September we will have more clarity on the financial implications and the economic situation of the markets. We are an intermediary business so if our client suffers, we will too in a way. Lucky for us, PR communication is still possible, but when I think about the event industry for example, I know it’s a terrible situation for them.
We will have to adapt as everyone else, rethink our strategies and focus on our core expertise which is the management of brand reputation.
What do you feel are the major communications challenges once the recovery begins?
The recovery hasn’t really started yet. We are now in the phase of restructuring plans that are announced or will be soon. We are lucky to work with mainly large corporations, but a lot of companies will have to restructure and the crisis will have heavy financial impact.
On the other end, we have some nice surprises like in the aeronautic industry that has restarted their communication and reopened 50% of their budget. We are happy to see new pitches coming through.
We are also lucky to be part of a large and solid global group. I believe the crisis will impact the independent and small agencies the most as they are more fragile economically.
It will be a “damage controlling” year and only after that we can recover. The communication agency market will be reshaped, some will rebound stronger and those who suffer the most will disappear.