Why JOAN London leant into exposure therapy to smash stigmas around 'vulva'
Kirsty Hathaway shares the importance of tackling taboos head on
Michelle Whelan, UK CEO of VMLY&R Commerce on the power of trust, autonomy and expertise in uncertain times.
“In uncertain times the most debilitating factor is not doing anything at all.” Michelle Whelan, UK CEO of VMLY&R Commerce is articulating the unique pressure that comes hand in hand with the constant uncertainty of the pandemic. The Coronavirus crisis has ushered in a revolution in almost every aspect of our lives as consumers and employees alike. Change is the only constant.
Being at the helm at WPP’s creative commerce agency in the midst of the most unpredictable period of business history has brought with it a unique set of challenges and creative opportunities. For while it may feel like the marketing industry has been talking a good game on digital transformation for over a decade, the pandemic has seen a decade's worth of innovation in ecommerce happen in just a matter of months. A pace of change driven by both necessity and market opportunity.
Notably, Whelan does not talk about the rise of direct to consumer channels in isolation. As she explains: “When we talk about commerce we talk about all commerce - our audiences don't differentiate across channels.” She continues: “The opportunity for D2C is to really be mindful of the role of all commerce.”
Instead of focusing on individual touchpoints or short-term opportunities and trends, Whelan is focused on the entire customer journey. An approach that is inherently platform agnostic. For example, she points to the example of Netflix and TikTok, which are investing in physical spaces, reflecting the fact that people are looking for differentiated experiences across platforms.
Across many of the digital transformation products we spend as much time on coaching and on helping the people transform as the products themselves.Michelle Whelan, UK CEO of VMLY&R Commerce
There is no question that a growing number of brands are reappraising their ecommerce strategies in the wake of the pandemic. Direct to consumer brands that experienced rapid growth as physical stores were forced to close and now face the challenge of evolving their offerings alongside their consumers' newly opened-up lives.
Whelan believes that the biggest challenges for brands when it comes to digital transformation lies not within the technology itself, but within legacy products and culture inside organisations. In essence, this is a problem that is fundamentally about people, not platforms.
As she explains: “Across many of the digital transformation products we spend as much time on coaching and on helping the people transform as the products themselves.”
“Brands need to embrace that beta mindset and just get on with it,” she continues. It is an inaction which means that there remains the white space of opportunity for brands who innovate faster than their competitors. “If they don't innovate they will probably die. You have to transform or die,” she warns.
There is no question that consumer behaviour has transformed in the midst of the pandemic. Yet it is already clear that not all those changes are for the long term. Brands that fail to adapt alongside their consumers' changing lives are destined to share the same fate as that wilted cauliflower from the food delivery box service you forgot to cancel; ending up in the bin.
So how do brands ensure they have the right recipe to build long-term loyalty? “You have to be distinctive and you have to create something of value,” explains Whelan. In the current climate that means being laser-focused on behaviour change and adapting quickly to consumer needs with new product offerings and new service offerings.
“Look at the example of Just Eat. They constantly test and learn and they look for those niche behaviour changes and they adapt early and they fulfil consumer needs,” she says. It is these ever-changing needs that are crucial for marketers to both understand and adapt to.
Rather than looking at consumer insight in silos Whelan points to the driving force of fulfilling customer needs as key to innovation. In the heart of lockdown, many of those needs were driven by necessity; today those needs might instead sit within the urge for an instant treat.
This focus on behaviour and needs can lead to complete brand transformation. For example Evergreen; a brand built on its core product of weed killer expanded into plants in the midst of the pandemic. “They saw how behaviour change allowed them to innovate around services and innovate around products,” Whelan explains.
A lot of the conversations we have had with clients, those old segmentation studies have gone out the window and we can really focus on communities of people. From a leadership perspective the levels of patience, understanding and empathy have been extraordinary.Michelle Whelan, UK CEO of VMLY&R Commerce
Yet this ability to innovate around products and services alongside the myriad of pandemic induced personal pressures on employees demands a fresh approach. One that required the agency to move beyond the hierarchies and overly-complex matrix structures which can easily become the antithesis of agility.
Whelan is clear-eyed on the importance of reorganising in the wake of the pandemic. She shares that the agency immediately recognised the need for individual autonomy and created what she describes as a ‘team of teams’ structure. “Every client has a leadership team and each one has a lot of autonomy. We did this to give us visibility of how each of the teams were running and took out the hierarchy.”
These teams in effect created little communities, arguably strengthening that all important client and agency relationship, as well as giving leadership more visibility. This shift in how people organised themselves has been nothing short of transformational.
“A lot of the conversations we have had with clients, those old segmentation studies have gone out the window and we can really focus on communities of people. From a leadership perspective the levels of patience, understanding and empathy have been extraordinary,” Whelan adds.
Trust has such a key role and we often talk to clients about the importance of embracing uncertainty - the ‘test and learn' mindset. In uncertain times the biggest debilitating factor is not doing anything.Michelle Whelan, UK CEO of VMLY&R Commerce
This leadership approach reflects a crucial yet often overlooked simple truth; employees and consumers alike were left craving control in the wake of the pandemic. The Coronavirus crisis callously and brutally disrupted and diminished people’s lives in a way which left many feeling powerless.
‘Empowering employees’ is vital in this context. For while it might seem like a trite statement; the power of giving back that sense of control is almost impossible to overstate. “It really is about empowering people and giving people the tools and resources that they need,” explains Whelan. “Last year we grew and we had a really good year, the pace was insane; but people felt more empowered and in control.”
As a leader, Whelan recognises that sense of control, coupled with refocusing on expertise, allows employees to feel a sense of having both feet on the ground; even in the midst of the tectonic shifts of the pandemic. “For me, the most important thing was identifying how I could empower people to help them navigate that change and best help clients.”
Pointing to the uncertainty of the pandemic, Brexit, as well as digital transformation Whelean notes that grounding people within their skill sets and expertise and having a genuine culture of trust has been vital to success. “Trust has such a key role and we often talk to clients about the importance of embracing uncertainty - the ‘test and learn' mindset. In uncertain times the biggest debilitating factor is not doing anything.”
From the transformative power of social commerce to the possibilities of the metaverse; the creative and cultural opportunities of the new era of connectivity are expansive. Equally so are the skillsets required to leverage these opportunities at scale.
For Whelan the skill sets required are exceptionally broad and rooted in a real understanding of the end to end customer journey. “If you look at the new CMO’s coming into organisations they don’t come into businesses talking about above the line and below the line; they are really digital first.”
Yet she also notes the principles of engaging with people and understanding customer behaviour remain the same. What has changed is the opportunity provided by connected commerce. She explains: “Everything will become commerce driven, everything will be about entertainment and the level of innovation driven by technology and the opportunities are huge.”
As an employer we have to go beyond just giving people a job, we have to be inclusive and ensure people are mentally well.Michelle Whelan, UK CEO of VMLY&R Commerce
Yet ultimately it will be people, not just platforms, which will be the key ingredient in unlocking the opportunities of connected commerce.
While we remain far from post-pandemic; from the ‘great resignation’ to the reimagining of hybrid and remote work it is clear that the creative industries are in the midst of a great reassessment; one which is impacting individuals and organisations alike. A shift that means purpose is at the very top of the business agenda.
Whelan is clear that cause-related marketing strategies are not right for every brand, yet that doesn't mean that brands can sidestep purpose. “Every brand needs to really pinpoint their role in the world and understand and communicate that role. It goes beyond product consumption,” she explains. According to Whelan people are looking for meaning beyond the product, yet this can be simply answering the question; does this make my life a little bit better?
Yet what does this shift mean in the workplace in the wake of the millions of employees choosing change in the wake of the ‘great resignation? “As an employer, we have to go beyond just giving people a job, we have to be inclusive and ensure people are mentally well.”
As connected commerce continues to offer new frictionless and increasingly creative ways to make consumers' lives that little bit better, Whelan’s approach ensures that commitment to testing and learning extends to employees as well. A straightforward approach which delivers not just a solid bottom line; but builds a team in which people can truly be trusted to thrive. A compelling reminder after all we have been through, of the power of always aiming for better.
Kirsty Hathaway shares the importance of tackling taboos head on
The campaign from BBH uses humour to put a Burger King stamp on the festive season
Human insight, AI, breakthrough work and Barbie dominated the top reads of 2023
Jay Short argues that innovation in festive campaigns comes in the form of experiential