Interviews

Claire Gillis, CEO International, WPP Health Practice

From ensuring digital transformation is focused on deeds not words, to opening the door to the next generation of talent, Claire Gillis leads through actions.

Nicola Kemp

Editorial Director

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There is no question that the coronavirus crisis has delivered a myriad of lessons; yet perhaps the simplest was the fact that consumers did not know how to wash their hands properly. A simple focus on everyday wellbeing that is all too often forgotten in the midst of the ever-growing demands of daily life. However, for Claire Gillis, CEO International at WPP Health Practice, health, both for her clients and staff, is on the agenda all year round.  

“We used to know how to wash our hands; our grandmother’s generations who have lived through childhood diseases knew. We used to know, but we forgot,” explains Gillis. “I would love to think that people will carry on washing their hands and will incorporate that into their lives forever, but we are fundamentally human and that means we forget.”

Yet despite humanity’s innate tendency to move on and forget, Gillis believes that the current crisis has ushered in entirely new conversations and understanding about health that were not happening previously. “Now you have people talking about and interacting with health in a different way,” she explains, adding that we are having conversations collectively about subjects like antibodies and vaccines that would not have happened before. An ecosystem which opens the door to more open conversations about health and wellbeing. 

For leadership there is no rule book for this crisis.

Claire Gillis

The folly of predictions

In the flurry of prediction articles that always usher in the new year in marketing there was one glaring admission: the coronavirus crisis. As Gillis explains: “There is no question the current crisis has put the spotlight on healthcare decisions.” Pointing to the fact that long prior to the crisis dominating both our lives and the news agenda, it wasn’t a question of if, but rather when a virus would come.

With clients such as the London School of Tropical Medicine, WPP Health Practice has been at the forefront of tackling the misinformation that surrounds the coronavirus crisis. Through open virtual question and answer sessions the team has underlined just how much we need experts when it comes to healthcare. “We look to the science at all times,” explains Gillis. “We put marketing communications out into the environment to underline that science and help to improve health outcomes.”

No rulebook for leadership in lockdown

Prioritising health and wellbeing is not only in the DNA of WPP Health Practice within its work for clients but also within its internal ethos. “The agency is only as good as the talent we have and the clients we have. When this crisis began it was clear none of us knew exactly how to navigate this,” Gillis says honestly.

But navigating the unknown is easier if like Gillis, you take empathetic leadership as a given. “I can remember talking to one of my team in Italy at the start of this crisis and she and her husband were juggling work with two young children in a small room. It is clear that the pressure that people were under was untenable,” she explains.

It was a situation which was equally high pressure for clients who were facing the same challenges. “For leadership there is no rule book for this crisis,” explains Gillis. She points to the fact that while the foundations of marketing may well remain the same, nonetheless the everyday lives of consumers have changed so much, and brands needed to recognise that.

“The key is really having an open mind,” she explains. “Customer experience totally changed, and we needed to understand those pinch points whether they are negative or positive. In such a regulated environment such as healthcare you still need to ensure that you are still adhering to all those rules.”

We think just because we talk that is enough but change needs to be translated at the coalface.

Claire Gillis

Open conversations and remote locations

Yet while customer experience has changed irrevocably, the fundamental marketing challenges remain. She points to the fact that while the industry has talked a good game on digital transformation, the harder job is to transform these lofty statements into something meaningful throughout an entire organisation. Something that happens not just a board level, but at a brand manager level too. “We think just because we talk that is enough but change needs to be translated at the coalface,” she explains.  

Making change where it matters has always been a priority for Gillis. It is poignant in the midst of the coronavirus crisis, which is having such a devastating impact on women’s creative careers that Gillis is prioritising making the time to share her advice with the next generation of female leaders. Especially at a time where an alarming number of data points show those women may well be considering exiting the industry altogether or worse still are being forced out through redundancy. “Never make a decision immediately,” urges Gillis. “Always take 24 hours to think about it, lean on your networks and your peers; you might not need to exit.”

As further restrictions mean that remote working is set to continue indefinitely, Gillis underlines that while for health and safety reasons we can’t have open conversations in the office, that doesn’t mean they aren’t vital. As she explains: “The truth is it can take longer to learn in a remote environment, but as we enter the winter months, we need to ensure open communication is a priority.” An open communication which starts at the top. 

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