Interviews

“What we need to do is look after each other”

As our nationwide lockdown continues, Helen James, Managing Director of Crispin Porter Bogusky demonstrates the importance of empathetic and authentic leadership.

Izzy Ashton

Deputy Editor, BITE

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The word normal almost feels so redundant now, explains Helen James. “You say it and you laugh a little bit,” she says. As Managing Director of Crispin Porter Bogusky, James says that over the course of the national lockdown, the team have been discussing the idea of the ‘new normal’. James adds, “will there ever be a back to normal or will the whole world shift?”

James is speaking from her sunshine filled kitchen, a month into lockdown, as Zoom allows for possibly greater communication than teams were afforded when working side by side, as we all find ourselves virtually meeting in each other's homes. Her role leading the agency’s London office, she says, “is quite stretchy” spanning “making sure that we’re delivering value for our clients” to “delivering incredible creative ideas that will solve their business problems” The latter, she describes as “critically important.”

James points to the rapidly shifting landscape for the agency which has impacted the way they are working with their clients. She explains that their focus has become an approach based on behavioural science as, “as we help [clients] work out what’s the right messaging [and] when should we go out with that messaging.” She believes this will lead to more authentic ways of communicating and working.

If it wasn’t so bloody awful, it would be a fascinating time.

Helen James

Bringing your whole self to work

“If it wasn’t so bloody awful, it would be a fascinating time,” James says steadily as she elaborates on the challenges facing leadership under lockdown. As the coronavirus continues to place businesses under pressure, every day we see high profile examples of both good and bad leadership played out in the media. The reality is, says James, that “everyone’s having to learn it on the hoof.”

But for James, who describes herself as “someone who’s not in that old school leadership vanguard of agencies,” exploring new styles and areas of leadership has been something that she was doing long before the crisis began. A process which has seen her “tapping into empathy, really understanding how you unlock brilliance from people in very difficult situations.”

James believes, when it comes to the leadership qualities that matter most to her, that authenticity is key. This is being made easier, she believes by the fact that team members of every level of seniority are all logging in from their homes, from kitchen tables, bedroom desks and, if you’re lucky, an outdoor table.

James says, “I’m generally interrupted by a kid every other Zoom; the fact that we can all see each other’s homes I think just creates a lot more personal connection and personality and means that everyone’s a bit more relaxed and a bit more themselves.” This allows for the phrase bringing your whole self to work, a subject of many cross-industry conversations over the last few years, to play out in real time. A shift which James believes passionately in. “I think this moment will allow us to move into a properly authentic way of working,” she explains.

The agency hosts a daily Zoom call with its leadership team to ensure, says James, that “we make sure nothing falls through the cracks.” This includes encouraging their teams to create some structure in their days, something that increasingly difficult to do in the current crisis. “There isn’t really a start and end to anything,” James adds. A shift, she believes, that means teams, and consequently businesses, need to accept that more flexibility is only ever going to be a good thing.

Shifting the pitch process

James is adamant that this lockdown will have lasting effects on the way we work as an industry. She believes that it’s important for people to communicate with one another about their expectations: “I think there is something in how we might get better at being upfront about what we need and what we expect in order to get the best from us and to get the best from others,” she says.

These lasting effects, James adds, will also force a change in the pitch process, which she believes needs to undergo a massive shift post-lockdown. She tells of how as the country was moving into lockdown, a client had to move a pitch from off to online the morning it was due to take place. Coming out of this, James hopes that there will be a “different way of pitching” which might extend to “taking a bit of that intensity from an agency and from a client point of view, out of the process.”

She believes that the beauty of an online pitch is that “it can be a bit of a leveller. Not coming into offices, not seeing ‘the pitch theatre’, the pizazz. It does put a lot more emphasis on the strategic and creative thinking and how an agency has properly solved and thought about a creative challenge.” Yet this virtual pitch process still captures and accurately represents the chemistry of a pitch team. Even though you’re not all in the same room, James says, “a team can come together” on screen.

We’re just trying to be very aware that everyone’s in a different situation.

Helen James

Keeping culture under corona

Working amidst lockdown is revealing a lot about people’s characters. You join them in their homes, with families or flatmates juggling working remotely with many other challenges facing individuals during this crisis. It means we’re learning a lot about colleagues you might never have otherwise found out.

For James, what’s vital is that she is “trying to bring people together as much as possible.” She accepts that this is not always possible, considering people work in different ways and are experiencing their own challenges. 

Yet it's notable the agency is doing far more than simply recognising those challenges; it is taking tangible steps to help people overcome some of them. This includes creating a two-hour window in the middle of the day that is protected from meetings, allowing people to make the most of the time as they need to whether that’s working parents home schooling or joining their children for lunch or others going for a run or speaking to friends and family. It allows people, says James, to “bring family life into that working day period.”

She recognises that as an agency leader, striking the right communication balance is key, ensuring that she is, “keeping people updated, keeping people informed [and] being super transparent about where the business is.” This transparency is another leadership trait which James says she hopes we see more of both during lockdown and as businesses emerge on the other side.

James also wants to give her staff, “a bit of a break from their standard working week.” So, while they still host the agency kick off on a Monday morning, the agency has introduced new features like Corona Island Discs or celebrating a colleague’s baby shower. James believes that “it’s a really nice way of actually just knowing a bit more about each other.”

The agency also views this time as an opportunity for training and development, as well as supporting colleague’s broader wellbeing, James says that they are simply, “adapting and changing as I’m sure everyone else is.”

As she explains, “It’s so hard with wellbeing because everyone has their own challenges, be it kids at home or living on your own, so not having enough creative stimulus, right the way through to those people who are caring for [others] or are sick. We’re just trying to be very aware that everyone’s in a different situation and it’s not very easy to know what that situation is because you don’t have those quick, water cooler, how-you-doing chats.”

Behavioural shift

There is no question that the broader business ecosystem has shifted massively over the last month, from attitudes to behaviour in every sector, business and personal interaction. For James, this is something she’s been thinking about, on a broader societal point, that there perhaps is “no new normal and actually our whole society structure, capitalist culture may well flip.” She hopes that this will extend to a continued heightened respect for key workers as everyone continues to see what James describes as, “the value they bring to our culture and to our community.”

“There may well be a bigger point on how our society shifts which may well have an impact on the consumer, not really confidence, but appetite and ambition,” James adds. She muses as to whether people will still want to spend as much on luxury items or whether consumers will be more likely to question their purchases before they make them.

It’s really important what we do but it’s also not as important as our lives; what we need to do [is] to look after each other.

Helen James

Conscious consumption

She believes, or at least hopes, that a degree of that assessment around consumption will come as part of a broader shift when it comes to environmental behaviours. James cites a tweet from the journalist and speaker Alan Rusbridger in which he wrote, “The main lesson we have to learn is this: Covid-19 is a dress rehearsal for climate change.”

James is particularly interested in the shift into brand utility taking place, as brands figure out their place in people’s lives, and what they can offer in a practical sense. She thinks that this utility is at an “extreme level at the moment, as companies pivot their businesses to see how they can best support.”

Looking ahead James believes there could be genuine power in brand utility, a step on perhaps from the industry’s ongoing conversation surrounding brand purpose. She explains, “I just wonder whether this shift to brand utility and the way that consumers will interact and behave might set a different type of relationship with brands.”

Diversity and inclusion still matter

As businesses have scrambled to adapt to the crisis and new ways of working, conversations across the industry have predominantly been around how to do so successfully. But one thread of discussion that James is worried will “fall down the list a little bit,” is that around diversity and inclusion, something she believes passionately in.

Notably it is a belief which has been backed up with action not just words. James is making a tangible difference by heading up the business arm of Creative Equals and believes that the key to maintaining the good work that’s already been done is to continue to talk about the importance of diversity and inclusion, wherever and whenever she can. “We’ve made such incredible strides over the last few years to make sure that there’s representation, to make sure that there’s real diversity within teams,” says James. “Without funding, without people properly pushing this agenda and talking about it, I’m worried we’ll fall back very quickly especially within the creative industries,” she adds.

With the latest IPA census revealing that BAME representation has dropped at UK agencies, it does show a slight improvement in the representation of women at senior levels. Diversity and inclusion still matter, perhaps more so now than ever. Because, says James, diversity can help businesses solve other, seemingly bigger problems: “If we have more diversity within teams, we know that that gets to better answers.”

“I definitely think this will impact the way we work, finding different ways to come up with answers, realising that we don’t all need to be chained to our desks,” says James. Or perhaps even be in the same room. James sees this time to be one of learning, of examining the way our businesses are run but also what we both want and need personally and professionally.

James offers a moment of perspective for the industry, during a time of ongoing crisis and uncertainty. The creative industries has been saying for years that people are its most vital asset and now, that’s perhaps more crucial to remember than ever, says James: “It’s really important what we do but it’s also not as important as our lives; what we need to do [is] to look after each other.”

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