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Humanity, trust & transparency: Leadership in a pandemic

Melissa Robertson, CEO of Dark Horses asks, how do you maintain a workplace culture, care for your staff and motivate people when they haven't seen each other in the flesh for a year?

Melissa Robertson, Dark Horses

CEO

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A year is a long time in advertising. Given that the average stay at an agency is around the two-to-three-year mark and we’re talking about up to half their tenure working mostly from home. Having only started as CEO in September 2020, I still haven’t even physically met some of the people who work at Dark Horses, although somehow, during September and October, I managed to meet 90% of them, but most only once or twice.

This separation and distance has made it much harder than it usually would be to take the reins running a new business. Despite this, though, we have tried incredibly hard to build a strong culture at Dark Horses. It helps that our whole agency philosophy is built around a passion for sport, health and wellbeing. Whether footballers, kickboxers, iron men/women, climbers, netballers, hockey players, boxers, gym enthusiasts or just keen runners and walkers, we’re all just a little bit obsessive and it elevates the notion of ‘team’ in a way I have never quite experienced in previous agencies.

This unifying sense of purpose helps enormously in staving off some of the demons of lockdown, but it’s by no means the salve. The cold, the limbo of time without an end date, the monotony, the loneliness, and for some, the chaos; they take their toll, gently and almost subconsciously chipping away at the hardiest of souls.

‘Depression’ and ‘mental health’ are big words that bring with them a formality of diagnosis, treatment, doctors and so on. And whilst there are clearly some who are suffering in this formalised way, there are many others who will be struggling with a stealthier form of ‘micro depression’, a surreptitious and niggling sadness that is hard to define and unlikely to be officially diagnosed, but very much part of life right now. And it’s not going to magically go away when the shutters are lifted, whenever that might be.

It’s very easy to lose humanity in an online world, but now, more than ever, we need to make an effort to be more human, more empathetic.

Melissa Robertson

Be more human

So, it’s our responsibility as agency leaders to do our utmost to take care and look out for our teams; to keep them motivated and engaged, make them feel protected and cared for and remind them to look after themselves. It’s very easy to lose humanity in an online world, but now, more than ever, we need to make an effort to be more human, more empathetic.

Alongside all the formal things we have in place to help people feel valued including Vitality healthcare with all its benefits and discounts and access to Health Assured for 24/7 mental health support, we are also more actively involving the agency in our progress and being far more transparent with what goes on behind the scenes.

We have run all-agency workshops to help collectively determine what we stand for, and how we present ourselves to the world. We regularly share, and explain, our topline P&L and our new business discussions as well as taking people through presentations, pitches and the latest work, not just the ‘big stuff’.  In understanding more about the workings of the agency, the good and the bad, people feel more empowered, more respected and more engaged. 

Build up trust

We’ve also instigated a more informal process where I will try to speak to each and every person in the agency at least every couple of months. We have encouraged weekly check-ins with team members who aren’t really working together right now but have a good connection. We recommend ‘walking meetings’, where it’s ok to just use the phone, rather than be on video at a desk and ensure clear boundaries between work and personal time.

We know it’s still not enough, and we know that we can’t completely prevent people feeling down occasionally, or even regularly. But they know that we’re looking out for them, and will protect and support them where we can, and recognise their anguish.

Whilst the working world has changed forever, the trust that we have had to put in our people as they work remotely is a silver lining. No bums on seats, no obligation to be seen to be doing it, and instead a renewed focus on delivery. Flexibility has empowered people to behave differently, and more healthily, and that’s got to be a good thing for when we do get back together.

Guest Author

Melissa Robertson, Dark Horses

CEO,

About

Melissa Robertson is the CEO at creative agency Dark Horses. In her career Melissa has worked with some of the biggest and most recognisable names in the industry, starting at Grey London before joining Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy as Managing Director. She has worked on big campaigns, small campaigns, created brands from scratch and consulted on some of the UK's biggest businesses as well as running training and leadership workshops.

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