Interviews

“I think we are too tolerant of inaction”

Jo Arden, Chief Strategy Officer at Publicis•Poke on workplace culture, behavioural change and why we as an industry need to get more vocal, urgent and radical.

Izzy Ashton

Deputy Editor, BITE

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In a world of few certainties, one perhaps is that it has never been a better time to be a behavioural scientist or strategist. With the coronavirus crisis impacting almost every aspect of human attitudes and behaviour, for people in the business of brand building there is perhaps no more important question than how this global crisis and subsequent nationwide lockdown will affect people’s behaviour in the long-term.

From remote working to awkward waved greetings and bad webcam angles, the last few months have shown just how adaptable people can be when they need to. Perhaps most significantly for businesses, particularly across the creative industries, the lockdown has proved the power of flexible working. With every member of the team working remotely, it turns out pitches can be run, work produced and even Friday night socials held.

For Jo Arden, newly appointed Chief Strategy Officer at Publicis•Poke, she feels that “this forced change could be transformational.” Her belief is that “embracing remote working is one of the best ways we can improve the culture for working parents, people with disabilities or those with care responsibilities.”

There is so much more that we can and should do to ensure we keep the cultural magic of working in this business alive.

Jo Arden

Workplace culture under lockdown

This doesn’t mean Arden has found lockdown easy; far from it in fact, as she reveals honestly. For her, one of the things she loves most about her job, and the creative industry more broadly is the physical connection and collaboration that takes place in offices. Having started a new job under lockdown, this unsettled feeling was perhaps exacerbated by the fact that, as she explains, “all the shortcuts are gone; you can’t say a quick hello at the kettle, and you can’t get an immediate grasp of how people are feeling because it’s all online.”

But she praises the work that the agency’s Head of Strategy Alex Mimmoun has done in building up a brilliant culture in the strategy team. It has, she says, made her feel “that I am joining a hugely welcoming gang.” It helps that, within her team alone, there have been three people who have begun their roles under lockdown, so they are all learning the business’s ways together and prioritising time together as a group. She acknowledges that, “the org chart might be one of the surprising lockdown winners.”

While Arden believes that technology has been used effectively to allow people to collaborate, when it comes to culture, she says that “we need to replace the kinetic energy we create by being together in our agencies.” She adds, “there is so much more that we can and should do to ensure we keep the cultural magic of working in this business alive.” 

Behavioural change

She is optimistic as she talks about how the industry’s way of working might change in the long term, noting that there is now proof that flexible working works; “that presenteeism doesn’t mean productivity,” she adds. This means being kinder and more patient with colleagues as they navigate dodgy Wi-Fi, shared living space and video calls with noisy little plus ones.

Lockdown for many, although not for all, has been about families coming together, whether willingly or not, to share more moments together, whether that’s sitting down at the dinner table together or engaging in group exercise. She notes that “this is a huge opportunity for us to access family decision making and could be of real value for both commercial brands and behaviour change campaigns alike.”

It also means examining other behaviours around this new way of working, particularly introducing better boundaries between work and home, exercising “the right to disengage from our emails and our laptops” Arden says. Although she does admit she might have broken her reliance on her printer, unfortunately, she adds, “I think we are some way off having healthy behaviours around our use of technology as we move to a more remote work style.”

Arden feels that, “there is no doubt that even the most technophobic of us will have had to adopt new habits to stay connected, as well as fed and watered.” She notes that this is perhaps good news for brands moving more towards digital means of connecting to save on the costs of a physical location. Ever the optimist, with this in mind Arden sees the shifting of the high street as an opportunity “to reimagine what the centre of our towns will look like.”

I think we can look to more powerful catalysts for change such as the new energy in the Black Lives Matter movement as a model of how we can collaborate, and communicate, better.

Jo Arden

Unlimited by channel

Perhaps one of the more interesting consequences of a nation under lockdown is the creativity that abounded as a result. Gone were the constraints of old and instead, in their place, were new barriers, limited production, campaigns shot on iPhones and directed on WhatsApp or simply compiled from user-generated content. It is this adaptability that Arden loves about the industry, as she explains, “I love how multidimensional communications are today. Ideas can begin anywhere in a business, can change and grow, become part of culture.”

For Publicis•Poke this ever-changing approach to communications is something they call Living Ideas, a concept Arden says she loves the tangibility of. “There’s a palpable ambition here to make work unlimited by channel”, she adds, noting that she’s joined a team of “incredibly progressive thinkers.” This limitless channel approach is something that she believes we’ve seen the best of in brands as they’ve moved to switch up their distribution outlets to make scrubs or deliver meals. “COVID-19 brought out the best in lots of businesses,” she says.

But while she notes the raw humanity at the heart of those actions, believing that this shift may even force businesses to reappraise the role they play in society, she is quick to add that “that’s not the same as responsible advertising.” She advises caution from brands as they navigate this space, “to make sure there is congruence between what they have done during COVID and what they do and say from now on,” she explains.

Fostering a sense of community

This also will extend to consumer attitude as well. Will they shift to reject brands that didn’t step up in the crisis? Or will there be a move to those who fostered what everybody needed most during lockdown, a sense of community and an offer of support. The way in which people, brands and communities have come together is something that Arden believes has been incredible; a feeling of “mutual support which has made lockdown more bearable for lots of people,” she adds.

She does point out that this move to collaboration is nothing new, a partnership approach that is taken by many businesses, charities and even the government. But she believes that this time might have made certain brands more open to the idea of working alongside one another more collaboratively.

Arden cautions against the assumption that communities are all functioning more effectively. While the crisis has brought some people together, she explains that it, “has also created huge tensions, a new means to judge what others are doing and disapprove.” She adds that, “I think we can look to more powerful catalysts for change such as the new energy in the Black Lives Matter movement as a model of how we can collaborate, and communicate, better.”

We need to get more vocal, more urgent and more radical in the actions we are prepared to take on every aspect of inclusivity, respect and representation.

Jo Arden

Get more vocal, urgent & radical

These catalysts for change, as Arden so labels them are vital both within the industry and outside of it because, she believes, “we are too tolerant of inaction.” For her, she wants to see the industry “get more vocal, more urgent and more radical in the actions we are prepared to take on every aspect of inclusivity, respect and representation.”

What aggravates her is just how many leaders choose to retain their naivety and ignore the reality of their privilege, deciding not to see the dimensions of the problem at hand. It is something that frustrates Arden, herself a champion of diversity and inclusion through work with NABS, WACL and beyond.

One point of particular aggravation is “the ease with which some agencies excuse a boardroom of people who look and behave the same, come from the same background and have the same experience of life.” For her this is a “dereliction of leadership and humanity and it is incredibly bad for business.” She notes that one of the reasons she joined Publicis•Poke was the agency’s commitment to making change happen, faster.

Arden has been an accelerator of change and a champion of the industry through her work with the NABS Fast Forward programme, which gives new talent in the industry the tangible tools and pitch-experience to help them thrive. At a time when graduate shows have been cancelled and many placements and internships postponed, Arden’s advice is simple: “we have to make time for our people.” Although quick check-ins down the corridor or a hastily grabbed coffee are off the table now, instead diarising time is essential. “There has to be a restructure of priorities which allow for meaningful conversations,” she explains.

She points people towards the work that organisations like NABS, WACL, APG and the IPA are doing when it comes to keeping people connected and inspired. But when it comes to individual support, Arden advises people to ask direct questions and be proactive about finding out how people are feeling. You can’t always tell over a computer screen.

While Arden has been finding inspiration in TedTalks and book clubs, as well as discovering a newfound respect for the ability of her elbows, from sneezing into to button pressing, her parting words to the industry is to keeping pushing to go further: “I believe our industry is full of innovators and problem-solvers and I think we need to constantly strive to set a high bar, even in lockdown.”

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