“There are no experts because no one’s done this before”

Carly Avener, Managing Director at Leo Burnett on over communicating, creating space for difficult conversations and fighting cabin fever.

Izzy Ashton

Deputy Editor, BITE Creativebrief


For many, the prospect of starting a new job is both an exciting but also distinctly unnerving thought. When it’s jumping into a leadership role, it’s perhaps even more anxiety inducing. But try being just six months into a Managing Director role and the nation going into lockdown amidst the greatest pandemic to arguably hit the planet in generations. For Carly Avener, MD of Leo Burnett, the momentum the agency was experiencing was a cause of great excitement. After five new client wins in the last year, Avener says, “I had just begun to get my arms around the agency and really feel it.” Then COVID hit and everything changed.

“I desperately wanted to not start with it’s really hard, but it is really hard!” she smiles, revealing that one area that she has kept her focus on is around communication. “You have to work twice as hard to stay in touch,” she says. This means that the agency has implemented more structure, introducing regular all agency meetings and internal workshop sessions. As she explains: “one of the things I’ve been really conscious to do is really over communicate,” she explains.

The meetings, she believes, are “a real touchstone for everyone,” particularly new joiners to the agency who feel the camaraderie between colleagues that translates even through a screen. “In a way we’ve had to manufacture some of that stuff,” she explains, but it’s been something that’s almost been easier to do virtually.

It’s the workshops that have proved to be of most benefit to the agency staff, throwing people together with people they hadn’t seen in ages: “just that in itself has sparked just more interaction and through interaction you get ideas and creativity and you’re stimulated by different people. And that’s what we’ve lacked not being in the office.” She adds, “So, we’re trying to force it a bit and recreate it in a virtual way.”

We’re all just in the same boat now. There are no experts…no one is because no one’s done this before.

Carly Avener

Inherently collaborative

On a personal level, Avener reveals she has been networking during lockdown more than ever. Prior to joining Leo Burnett she had six months off during which time really realised the true  potential of networking: “It just gave me the confidence to know that you can just get in touch with someone in your network for help and advice and it’s always welcomed, and it’s always reciprocated.”

She says that lots of her peers are now also running agencies and so it has been a relief to reach out to one another to swap stories, learnings, experience and advice. “We’re all just in the same boat now. There are no experts…no one is because no one’s done this before.”

Lockdown has revealed the true power of collaboration as agencies, brands and individuals have cast aside their competitive edge to work more closely with one another. Avener believes that, “when you break it down, agencies are inherently collaborative [because] collaboration is obviously the fundamental of a good client relationship.”

But, she feels, the type of collaboration has changed, thrown into stark relief by the ongoing crisis: “it’s more about not just collaborating with partners but actually with the competition as well and joining forces as an industry.” Fundamentally, Avener believes, there are bigger issues at stake than historic competitiveness: “We have responsibility as an industry to grow and protect ourselves and not be bogged down by infighting.”

Acknowledging the bigger picture

She has seen that level of collaboration between traditional competitors play out within the Publicis group amongst agencies perhaps best described, she says, as “frenemies.” This has become particularly poignant in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement that resurfaced earlier this year, giving momentum to a long overdue conversation and action around racism and diversity in adland.

Avener has been part of a team within Leo Burnett who are in the process of launching an internal anti-racism collective. She says she is trying not to lead it but rather is “an enabler.” It became quickly apparent that the issues sparked by the global protests were ones that mattered to the agency. Avener says that people across the agency were speaking up, even those who perhaps in the past might not have thought it was their place to do so. “There was an absolute groundswell of feeling,” she says.

Avener wanted to respond with something tangible so she asked those in the agency to put themselves forward if they were interested. Avener worked simply, she says, as the organiser, as a member of the team but not the leader. “I do enough leading on other parts of the agency that I just felt it was something that I wanted the people who felt passionately about it to put their own stamp on,” she explains.

She is excited to see that it is in fact many junior members of the agency who have naturally risen to the top within the collective. “It’s giving them leadership opportunities and a voice on things that they’re really passionate about,” she says.

[For brands] it's about being what you’ve always been but louder and better because people want that right now.

Carly Avener

Creating space for difficult conversations

Avener believes that the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement is vital and will drive change as “everyone’s feeling so vulnerable and is so open to empathise much more and have much more compassion for people less advantaged than themselves.”

She explains that the leadership team is using this time to both listen and learn as well as educate themselves. They have drawn up an agency mission statement and policy, she says, “so everyone in the agency is really clear on what our stance is around racism and diversity.” She wants people to use the statement to open doors to conversations or to simply guide them in flagging something to senior staff. Avener says the agency policy is “reassuring people that we’ll put our money where our mouth is and have that difficult conversation with clients.”

This statement, she explains, will also inform a new casting policy, highlighting the situation many agency teams have found themselves in where the client says, “can you make the casting less urban or the story less urban?” “We all know that that is racism in disguise,” Avener adds.

“The bigger thing that will take a bit longer to get right is bringing more diverse talent into the agency,” Avener says as the conversation turns to what the team is doing right now. They have started by anonymising CVs as well as stopping the referral policy. She says an Account Exec, “brilliantly pointed out that that just perpetuates the same kind of people joining the agency.”

She believes change requires building new recruitment systems and policies into the budget, “because ultimately it’s an investment, and we should be making that investment.” This stretches across access, recruitment, mentoring and outreach. It also informs many of the conversations had at group level, with Avener and her team at Leo Burnett using parts of the group initiative to inform their own policies. “At the end of the day, there’s a bigger picture here,” she says.

Brands dialling up their role in society

“What I’m really noticing throughout this crisis is, it’s just accelerating the trends that were there already,” says Avener. “I don’t think it’s creating anything radically new. I think it’s just lighting a fire under lots of trends that have been there for a while.” One such trend is that around brand purpose, or exactly what brands should be doing or saying, or perhaps not doing and not saying.

During lockdown Leo Burnett partnered with insight and research consultancy Britain Thinks, who have been doing a weekly panel called The COVID Diaries to understand the mood of the nation and how people are thinking and feeling; “taking the temperature and mood of the nation,” she adds. The pair hosted a series of roundtables with some clients and some prospects delving into the insight to establish what that means for brands and how they should behave.

What emerged is that people were looking for leadership from brands, for an element of confidence that they weren’t finding elsewhere. “Sometimes that confidence is just about being visible,” says Avener, about brands showing up and spending money. For others, “that’s about being a breath of fresh air and a bit of light relief. Because if that’s what your brand is about, then that’s what it should continue to be about.”

This latter idea was at the heart of the agency’s work with McDonald’s; they advised the brand simply, to “be what you’ve always been but louder and better because people want that right now,” Avener explains. At a time when people are looking to cornerstone brands for reassurance, “McDonald’s in a way has been more of a bellwether for people,” she says, “and we saw this come out of The COVID Diaries, than the government.”

For brands, Avener believes, it was about “dialling up your role in society.” But in doing so, authenticity was key; to really understand the consumer you were selling to and to recognise the role they had to play within society.

If you put creativity front and centre, then it means that you can solve problems and it means that you can adapt and change when you need to.

Carly Avener

Putting creativity front and centre

The other shift for brands was the speed at which the pandemic impacted the country; “This crisis felt like it came out of nowhere,” Avener says. But, she says, “the brands and businesses who were most agile and able to adapt are the ones that have done best.”

For the agency, that meant realigning what craft meant to production, as content was created without being able to shoot anything. A Skoda ad scheduled to be shot in Italy was recreated in CGI while Avener reveals that the lockdown has meant a heightened reliance on specialist partners. But, she believes, creativity has prevailed.

“If you put creativity front and centre then it means that you can solve problems and it means that you can adapt and change when you need to,” she explains. “Because ultimately that’s what creativity is; it’s finding interesting solutions to problems.” Avener wants to see “a recommitment to creativity,” that will hopefully be the future. In a way, she says, “that is a return to what agencies have always supposed to be about.”

More good days at work

One of the more successful workshops run by the agency during lockdown was called More Good Days at Work. It brought together different departments and then the agency as a whole to reveal and brainstorm around what was causing people stress under lockdown both personal and professional. The agency pulled together a series of themes that people were really struggling with and spent a few hours as an agency, “coming up with different ways to mitigate some of those stresses,” she explains.

“It’s really brought to the fore how important looking after your people is. Pre-lockdown, people turned up for work and you didn’t think twice about where they’d come from, how they’d got there, what was going on at home,” explains Avener. But now that we’ve peered inside people’s homes, met their children and their pets, all of a sudden, the life that exists outside of work is thrown together with work. It has, she believes, made her realise how important it is as a leadership team to recognise this.

“People have got lives going on around work and, just taking the time and the care to make sure that people are happy and healthy in all aspects of their life,” she says, is how “you get more out of people.”

She has introduced an agency wide Walk and Talk scheme that encourages people to step away from their desks for one on one phone calls, to simply change the environment. She reveals that this has been a blessing for her as she’s struggled with feelings of cabin fever throughout lockdown.

“In a way we’ve all opened up to each other. We’ve shown our vulnerabilities,” she says. It’s a way of working that she hopes will continue moving forwards. “When people feel like they belong somewhere and they feel they can bring their whole selves to work, that’s when the culture becomes really rich and strong.”

It’s a lesson in holding onto and developing a company culture that supports each of its members in turn. That champions the life lived outside of work whilst encouraging people to find a structure that works for them when they are there. It’s an attitude that only looks set to continue for Avener post-lockdown as the industry slowly returns to some semblance of pre-pandemic normality.