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The brave new world of PR and Marketing

Thu 10, 12 2020

In August this year, we convened a panel of marketing and PR agency leaders to ask them about their experience of the pandemic and lockdown. What effect did it have on their businesses? How did they rise to the challenges? What changes have they made – and what are the likely longer-term effects of the massive shake-up everyone has been through? On the panel were: Sadie Groom, MD of Bubble Agency; Jennie Marwick-Evans, MD of Manor Marketing; Rob Ettridge, COO of Red Lorry Yellow Lorry; and David Lawrence, MD of Platform Communications.

Could you briefly tell us how the last 6 months has impacted your business and your customers?

Sadie Groom has seen positives and negatives: “It's been an interesting time; there's no manual for this, but we would sum it up as react, recover, reimagine. And that's the way that we've gone through the whole process.” She reported some inevitable clients putting things on hold in sports, and had also signed the lease on new premises in December – which her team had yet to move into. “But lots of positives - from our side and from our clients’. My clients are having to really think about their business - what data they've got, what content they've got, what processes, how they look after their team and how they can use our additional services we offer. For us and the industry that we love I think everyone has opened up a lot more. , For example we organised a call with all the PR agencies just before NAB got canned; I don't think that would have happened before. So lots of sharing, helping people out and a feeling of all being in this together.”

Rob Ettridge also reported clients pausing campaigns in the live events and live sport sectors, but he has also seen “lots of positives. As a broader tech agency, our AI, blockchain and cybersecurity clients have been really prospering, and certainly for Q4 and into 2021, it's looking a lot more positive for our new business pipeline. The cancellation of shows has driven clients to ask for different kinds of marketing support - lead gen campaigns, content marketing campaigns, support with managing customer communications, etc. We're all having to be a bit more creative, think a little bit differently, and be a bit more flexible for our clients. We've also spent more time on our CSR initiatives to continue to give something back to the industry during these weird times – for example our partnership with ACCESS:VFX to promote inclusivity and diversity in the VFX, animation and games industries.”

Jennie Marwick-Evans also reported doing different kinds of work for her clients: “We've put the emphasis on business continuity. We're very fortunate - we've actually gained some clients during these challenging times as well. But it's not traditional PR - it's far more commercial marketing and sales.” Jennie’s team has also been working more closely with clients to help them move from marketing not just the technology itself, but to the use and application. The real benefits and ROI. “We've completely switched how we actually work with clients.” While Jennie has missed face-to-face, “The last few months has been a good reset for everybody in a way - in what we do, how we do it - in our lives as well as our companies. I think it has been an opportunity; you've got to know way more about your clients and their customers than you would ever have known before.”

David Lawrence of Platform Communications said, “We’ve focused on supporting our clients and our team in the best possible way. I'm very proud of how our team has come together and really been supportive of each other and our clients. We've been very keen to keep training going; I think that's especially important when people are working remotely. I think the strength of our team is reflected in the fact we’ve won six new clients in the past few months. Our clients have had to, in many cases, face up to a total shift in business priorities, the market's shifted massively in all sorts of ways. But I think in all of this, communications have been shown to be more vital than ever. Every company needs to ensure visibility and continue to drive sales conversations. We're really proud to have been part of helping our clients move forward.”

How did you adapt during remote working and what tools did you use to keep the creative juices flowing?

“With a global team we have always had to work remotely but we have had to get used to being creative on yet another Zoom call which can be difficult.” Sadie Groom reflected, “so we would spend a bit of time outside going for a walk around somewhere, share different people's music to try and inspire things and yes we did  a lot of quizzes! What we found was one of the best ways is being part of different business and industry groups. We've got a business coach that we work with, and he got together his clients very quickly, and every Friday we were able to share learnings and talk creatively about what we're doing - our business and our clients. In the past, people would have said "I'm not going to tell you that'. They're all in different sectors - the PR and marketing sector, Facebook groups or things like forums have just been amazing. And I think that's really helped inspire other creative thoughts. That's been the key to it for us.”

The lorries were already very used to working and collaborating remotely. “We have teams in Boston, LA, Berlin, Paris and London, plus our global Convoy partner agency network, so a lot of our work is virtual collaboration anyway – using tools such as Slack. It's what we do to come up with global creative campaigns for new business pitches and for client campaigns,” Rob Ettridge explained. “It’s more important than ever to involve and engage our teams, and help get them thinking beyond the day-to-day. We have our weekly get-togethers - lorry breakfasts, lunches, quizzes, socials, etc - all types of activities to encourage the teams to engage, collaborate and think differently.”

Like the lorries, Platform already encouraged flexible, remote working pre-pandemic, though “We’d never want to be an entirely virtual agency long term,” David Lawrence added. “But there's no doubt that brainstorming is much easier to do in in person. It's important to bear in mind though that the secret of good brainstorm is actually much more about having a good brief to start with and preparing a good brief for the people that are going to be in that brainstorm. And to do that, you have to make sure that you've got a genuine strategy and genuine insight that you want ideas to support, rather than just getting a bunch of people together just to shoot the breeze about a topic; you'll get much better results from any brainstorm if you do the prep time.”

“We've invested in many tools including a dynamic whiteboard where you can actually collaborate together  in a virtual world,” said Jennie Marwick-Evans. “We also did picnics and other events - everybody had to bring a certain thing, a certain colour or whatever else it was type of food. When we started lockdown we used to do twice a day Zoom meetings, but I soon lost the will to live on that, and it went down to one a day. And then it, well, stopped, basically because it was too hard to actually chat about different things in this environment rather than face-to-face.” Jennie also put priority on offering training for her staff and their wellbeing and is proud of how they stayed and grew #TeamManor.

In the absence of trade shows what are the ways your customers are re-focusing their efforts to generate new leads?

Sadie Groom has been working with the Bubbles’ clients to identify what leads came from trade shows and what were the other sources. “How they can work their partner community better, especially when there is no choice and you're not going to meet your representative from the Philippines at certain show for example. We've been trying to look at the best bits of shows. Not just what people like and don't like, but what works, what doesn't work; what can be recreated really well, and what can’t – ‘not another virtual demo!’ I think there's some real basics like LinkedIn – using that massive network to actually get sales, that people can tap into.”

“One positive is that it’s made everything a lot more measurable,” said Rob Ettridge. “You can track the buyer journey from the moment you find them through to how they're engaging with you, when they visit your website, engage with your content, sign up for an event - whatever they're doing. Customers are rightly looking much more closely at their return on investment rather than just having a huge stand and hoping that someone passes by and wants to buy the latest product. We’ve been doing this content marketing based engagement for a while now. Our Brands to Business approach helps track the journey from when a company interacts with a brand to when they actually buy from that brand – and makes sure that the right content reaches the right audience on the right channel at the right time. That’s where our campaigns are increasingly shifting with our clients.”

“People buy from people,” said Jennie Marwick-Evans, “that’s what, as an industry, we’ve relied on and thrived on. People have LinkedIn but don’t use it. We give our clients assets to put on their personal LinkedIn and they are really shocked at the level of engagement they get. It’s about educating them on alternatives to shows. It’s taking them out of their comfort zones, and it can be proved through tools like Lead Forensics - watching a journey over a website and seeing what people hovered on and what they didn't and then look at why - is it because it's written or a video or whatever else. And it might be somebody who was never going to walk past your stand at a show, and now you've got access to them. If you maximise every single opportunity that you're being given right now, you're going to be streets ahead of your competition.”

“The disruption to trade shows and conferences has been a huge change because those events are such a massive part of the industry,” said David Lawrence, “We conducted a major survey report called ‘The new world of tech communications’ that showed clearly that the future of events is a hybrid of physical and digital. Nearly three quarters of the journalists and analysts we spoke to said that virtual events can sometimes be more useful than physical events. When events do happen again, 90% of those we spoke to said that they want more content from physical events to be available online. There’s no doubt that digital marketing will continue to grow, driven by the shift toward technology sales on a monthly recurring basis. This means marketing needs to keep solutions in front of potential buyers all year round. There’s going to be much more focus on brand, much more focus on the audience, much more focus on ‘what is our purpose in this market?’ To be successful, technology companies need strategic marketing that drives real conversations with potential buyers on an ongoing basis.”

In this new virtual world, have you had to shift your internal team’s efforts to support your clients’ needs and are there any new services that you are offering as a result of this?

“As a company we have always offered marketing services but not all of the team were skilled in it so we’ve invested a lot in training – every conversation I’m having at the moment is around digital marketing,” said Sadie Groom. “We've also gone out and found some amazing partners for where we can't be specialists - I can't suddenly get in a team of 12 people that are all PPC experts. We also widened our PR network called The Big Bubble; a lot of our clients are looking into new sectors and territories, and we’ve also brought in staff with expertise in those areas to support them.”

The lorries have been offering a wider range of marketing, customer and employee communications and lead-generation services for some time – and now clients are tapping into them more. “What's really come to the fore is the mantra of how you deal with the client - doing the right thing, getting the teams to think above and beyond and not thinking too rigidly,” said Rob Ettridge. “We need to be sensitive to clients’ challenges as well: you can't just say no, that's the scope of work, those are the payment terms etc. You can't hold them hostage to those sorts of things during these times. Instead where needed we’ve pivoted our campaigns to support our clients with managing difficult customer or employee communications, and getting sensitive messages across in the right way. That’s been invaluable to them.”

“One of the biggest things is to challenge clients in some respects, and their partners and their customers. I am looking at it from the commercial angle and achieving a purchase order at the end of the day,” said Jennie Marwick-Evans. She helps her customers by challenging why and what they have always done in these changed times. “How you actually get technology to market these days is really crucial. We now understand our clients’ pain points a lot more, and help them manage and prioritize those pain points; this is a big part of what we can do. And it can be something really obscure that they would have never thought is a priority and suddenly it becomes a real priority.”

“One thing that we've offered before has become even more relevant now is social influencer campaigns,” said David Lawrence. “In B2B tech, people buy from people who they see as being credible sources of trusted insight. This is an incredibly sociable industry - people getting together to discuss things and find out things from each other is what this industry is all about. But right now, it's harder than ever for that to happen. And certainly without shows and events, there's really limited opportunities for people to network in the same way that they would before. So, with a social influencer campaign, we help our clients be seen as the experts. And not just the brand as the expert but individuals within that company. We help connect them to the right conversations digitally. Our clients have told us this is a real game changer in terms of creating deeper connections with prospects. We help them open up all sorts of business opportunities by allowing them to, in effect, network digitally.”

What does the future hold for our industry and how are we going to have to adapt from a Marketing & PR perspective?

“None of us really know what the long-term impact of this pandemic will be,” said Rob Ettridge, “except that it will be a catalyst for long-term change. From a client and marketing point of view, it may be the wake-up call to think about how they need to measure the success of their marketing programmes. And clearly the move to lead-gen marketing will be a part of that. We'll see a lot more personalised campaigns directly targeting individual buyers or engineers within organisations, rather than just going for the big catch-all campaign. But I sincerely hope that face-to-face interaction doesn't go away completely. While we're all talking about digital as the future and being able to target people directly, we still want to meet in the pub, we still want to go to the shows and events. Whatever happens, the M&E industry is pretty resilient, and we'll find a way to adapt.”

“You could argue there's potential for genuinely innovative technologies to take off more quickly than might have happened pre-pandemic,” David Lawrence added. “We've already seen that with cloud technologies for remote production.  Marketing has got a huge role to play in making these new ways of working visible to the right people. And making sure that’s done in a way that’s truly audience focused, integrated and digital.”

“I believe there is no substitute for face-to-face,” said Jennie Marwick-Evans. “Digital is great, but actually seeing the whites of their eyes and being able to  react to behaviour and the body language gets missed. So I think shows and networking will come back, but maybe a lot smaller and probably more intimate. Marketing will be much more personal – talking to the right people in the right language. If you make things far more targeted, people feel all warm and fuzzy – you’ve made an effort for them individually, and if you do that then they'll actually make the effort to invest in you as well. We’re working with our clients to be more targeted, focused, regional and relevant. And maintain your relationships with your clients, their partners and customers, you built through this pandemic – don’t lose that; people buy from and remember those relationships and how supportive you were, so the rapport you have with them and you've built up over these months is vital to maintain.”

“Strong companies are going to get stronger, and we're going to see a lot of consolidation and more focus on budgets,” said Sadie Groom. “People that have reacted have been agile and will take that mentality forward and benefit out of this. I also think there is going to be a wider focus on diversity and inclusion; corporate purpose and social responsibility will be more important. It’s going to be interesting – it’s been a challenge that I don’t want to happen again for the rest of my life but I think we’ve all learned a lot – every day has been a school day on so many levels. Everyone we're talking to has got their own version of build back bigger and better and that is how the industry we love will survive.”

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