Bass on the outside: Ex-IPG Mediabrands CEO says culture needs agencies, media people back in the office for magic; COVID to hurt media more than agencies
Danny Bass has been conducting executive leadership offsites for media and agency top brass in recent weeks. It won’t be music to some ears but he’s convinced those that can get their people back in the office, or at least physically interacting beyond Zoom, will have “first mover advantage”. The industry’s collective culture needs it for creativity, ideas and magic. And he talks irony and Sir Martin Sorrell's S4 Capital.
Check out this week's unfiltered podcast with Danny Bass below:
Get back to the office
While the second Covid spike has thrown a spanner in the works, Danny Bass is convinced media agencies need to get staff back into offices sooner rather than later. He thinks the first agency to work out how to do it safely will take the spoils.
Lockdowns, Bass suggests, have held up a mirror to industry:
"Those leaders who pre-Covid had a strong executive team, strong culture, good chain of command and clear strategy have done well, or as well as can be expected during a period like this. Those who didn't have a clear plan, who didn't have that line of communication culture within their executive group and therefore filtering down to their business, have really struggled.”
To be fair, he says, nobody had a plan for how to run a media agency remotely.
"How do you engage not just your executive team, but the two, three, four or five hundred people underneath? We're an industry that is built on relationships internally and externally," says Bass. "To move from a culture like that to one of Zoom calls, email and text messages would be difficult in any circumstance. But to do it when people are feeling like they are, it's incredibly difficult."
Why working from home is not the answer
Nobody should ever go back into work if it is not safe to do so, emphasises Bass. "Wherever this debate goes, it will always and should always be in light of the recommendations from the government. But if we wind back the clock two weeks [before the second spike], when things were looking better and more optimistic, my view is we are an industry that is unique.
"We are an industry that that is centred on its people, its creativity, its thinking, its passion, the way we drive ideas forward and the additional work that people put in that no one else ever sees," adds Bass. "And I worry about what sort of industry we will have moving forward if our industry is centred on people working from home."
That’s not to say no good has come from enforced change.
"It's shown that roles can be done from home. You can see it opening up opportunities for older workers or those that left industry for life decisions that couldn't come back. Whatever happens in the future, it's shown that we are an industry that can be more mobile and agile. But I still come back to my strong belief that we are better as an industry when we are in a room together, working together, solving problems."
Bass thinks remote working will further crimp the supply line of new talent agencies rely upon.
“Media management in an investment department is a tough gig, and it gets tougher every year because more and more media is appearing on the schedule. I can't imagine many people wanting to do that from home, particularly if you're 21, 22, fresh out of university,” says Bass.
“I think about great people who I've worked alongside, who would walk the floors and sit with these people in London [imparting] the craft of media investment. How are they going to do that working from home? It also reaches out into areas like strategy and creativity and all the areas that I think make media so good.”
Incoming job cuts and why you should never waste a crisis
Veteran adman Bob Hoffman told Mi3 last week that Covid impacts may shrink advertising agency headcount by 30 per cent. Forrester has predicted the big agency holding groups will layoff 100,000 workers globally by 2021.
Bass says it is too early to predict how many jobs will be lost. He thinks that media agencies may hold up better because structural headwinds have already forced a shakeout.
But he urges those now working from home to make their time count.
“When all this started, everyone said don’t waste the crisis. I think that’s true. It's probably tempting to just do the work that you need to do, but the smart people are using this as an opportunity to redefine their career, to see where the next opportunities may be,” says Bass. “So choose wisely.”
But do people really have a choice right now? The Centrelink queues suggest otherwise.
“That’s what I mean, choose wisely, work harder,” says Bass. “However hard you're working at home, always assume there's someone else working twice as hard. Because if it does get to the point where there's a ruler and a red line going through a P&L, you want to be the one that stands out, where they say, “we can't let that person go.”
So while it is an opportunity to redefine careers, says Bass, “everyone right now, whether you're a CEO or an intern, will in their own way be nervous about as to whether or not they'll have a job this time next year.”
That is not a healthy situation, says Bass, with industry needing its culture and HR departments more than ever.
What would Danny Bass do?
Bass thinks some businesses will come out of Covid stronger than they went in. Media owners are likely to take more pain than agencies, he suggests, given the structural challenges they were already facing.
But he thinks those that had planned pre-Covid to reshape their business can now do it much more quickly – in a matter of months rather than years. “But that goes hand-in-hand with some very, very difficult decisions, which inevitably mean people losing their jobs.”
Asked how he would reinvent an agency, Bass says he would “reengineer it truly around the client, truly understanding the role that you played within their business, supporting the CMO, supporting his or her team, and ensuring that your voice was right at the top table when decisions around the future of that company were being made.”
Consultants taking pain too
Consultants have marched into media marketing by taking those top table seats. But they are now slashing jobs as quickly and deeply as anyone in Australia. What does Bass make of that?
"I think most people know how ruthless they can be when it comes to making money. It shows how ruthless they can be when they stop making as much money as they are used to,” he says.
“It's surprising to see the numbers that have been let go from those businesses. But it shows the pain they're in as well.”
Were he back at an agency helm, Bass would be less concerned about consultancies, which “gave him a few sleepless nights when they first came over the hill” and into advertising a few years ago.
“I’d be more concerned about my people,” he says.
Robots aren’t coming yet
Bass is less concerned, however, that algorithms and automation will take media jobs. Some predictions have the robots handling some 65 per cent of transactions by 2025.
Should that occur, it would undermine arguments for office-based people culture. But Bass is not convinced. Relationships, he says “will matter as much in 2025 as they as they matter today. We might have a different looking workforce. But I just don't think we move as quickly as we might think we do”.
While businesses will have to adapt, “the holding groups will still be the holding groups” as economies emerge from lockdowns. “The independents will have their moments, the consultants will still be doing what they're doing, in-housing's probably going to increase more. But as much as it needs automation and a number of areas, I just don't see industry moving that quickly,” says Bass.
“Under normal circumstances, I just don’t think the industry will move at that pace to enable that effect to be in place by 2025.”
Irony, with Martin Sorrell’s S4
Martin Sorrell’s S4 Capital told Mi3 last week that holding companies are too big, slow, and cumbersome. The irony is not lost on Bass, given Sir Martin’s role in creating the structures he now cannot resist denigrating.
“There's no doubt S4 will continue to grow. And as they do, they will hit the same issues that all global businesses eventually do as they reach that level of scale and complexity. I'm sure they would argue against that, but I don't,” says Bass.
“I don't really believe that the offering is unique against what currently exists within the majority of agencies and holding groups. They have done a very good job in packaging that together, and they focused on areas of the industry that clients are more focused on and the most areas of profitability,” Bass continues.
“And they have a very strong front man in Sir Martin. He's certainly knocking the doors down and getting those guys at the table for a conversation, so good luck to them.
“I'm sure they have a very clear plan around where they want to be in the next 12 months, and they'll fight aggressively against the agency groups and holding companies, which will return fire accordingly.”