Interviews

“We’ve changed the rhythm of the agency quite significantly”

Emily Winterbourne, Managing Director at Impero on strength in agility, brands behaving differently and the importance of prioritising flexible working.

Izzy Ashton

Deputy Editor, BITE

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While employees grapple with Zoom-fatigue and that out of body sensation of their eyes drying up due to an excess of screen-time, technology has been an amazing enabler during this period of lockdown. It’s allowed families across the country to stay connected, friendship groups to exercise their quiz prowess and businesses to keep running somewhat, if not always perfectly, smoothly.

It has also enabled companies to stay connected, to keep employees engaged and, as Emily Winterbourne explains, to “stop people feeling lonely or disconnected.” This has meant that Winterbourne, Managing Director at Impero, has been prioritising communication within her team. As she explains: “We’ve changed the rhythm of the agency quite significantly.” 

The agency day now begins with a 9am stand-up meeting on Zoom to talk about the day ahead, kicking off with the good news, says Winterbourne. They also use the platform to host meditation classes, Friday quizzes as well as sharing the “badass cards” being given out that week. The agency designed the cards to recognise team members who have been doing something “above and beyond,” she adds.

It is the behaviour of the agency team “and the way they’ve dealt with this adversity” that, Winterbourne says, has been her biggest source of inspiration. She explains: “The way that our team’s adapted…the way they’ve pulled together, they’ve shown such great spirit, determination [and] support of each other; [they’ve] found new ways to work [and] been agile.”

Brands have truly been doing things in a different way.

Emily Winterbourne

Strength in agility

It is this powerful agility which Winterbourne believes has never been more important. And this current period of lockdown is testing companies’ ability to be truly agile as well as the makeup of their internal culture. Winterbourne believes that, “the agencies that are agile and that have great cultures are just going to shine through this.”

Because it’s the agency’s culture that Winterbourne believes has been so essential to uphold as the lockdown period continues to extend. This, alongside the brilliant work being made, is happening within agencies that are recognising the agility that has to happen. Long sign off processes and internal roadblocks are ineffective in a world in which communications moves faster than ever.

While Winterbourne acknowledges the unsustainability of the speed at which they’ve produced certain campaigns under lockdown, she says that it has afforded the agency the means to create, “a lot more proactive work for clients, trying to help them through this time.” She goes on to add that, “we’ve probably spoken to clients more in a way,” but acknowledges the lack of facetime is something the client teams are missing.

Brands behaving differently

“In some cases, brand purpose is something that’s created in order to simply attract consumers and it isn’t true to the brand,” says Winterbourne as she emphasises the test that brand purpose has been put under during this time. Particularly purposes that are inauthentic at their heart. 

What’s been happening, she believes is that, “brands have had to just work in a different way. Brands have had to show usefulness. Brands have had to show understanding towards their consumers. They’ve had to show empathy to what’s been going on in the world [and] more cultural relevance.”

There have been wins, she feels, with brands across sectors doing amazing things like alcohol companies creating hand sanitizer, luxury brands creating PPE or supermarkets collaborating with delivery services to help people get food. “Brands have truly been doing things in a different way,” she adds. “There’s been a lot of focus on creating something useful for consumers, and that I think will continue,” says Winterbourne, as consumers only expect it more from the brands they buy from.

One of the marked differences in brand behaviour during the ongoing crisis is the speed at which they have moved to collaborate with one another, to cast aside sector competitiveness. This competitive spirit, something that has perhaps been to the detriment of productiveness in the past, is being dismantled by the industry’s realisation that, by helping your fellow agency or business who would have typically been your competitor, you’re not doing yourself a disservice or hindering yourself in the process. You’re actually just lifting up the sector as a whole.

Agencies are going to have to become more flexible because talent will be making decisions based on that.

Emily Winterbourne

Shifting behaviour

The reality is however that we tend to overestimate just how much consumer habits will change after any given crisis, presuming that what has shifted now will stick. As Winterbourne says, the true impact of the COVID crisis, “will depend on how long this goes on and to be honest, how hard the recession hits.”

What we have seen more of is people leaning to support their local communities, shopping at the end of their street or in their village over ordering off faceless marketplaces. “Local community is more important as we worry about what’s going on, on our own doorstep rather than global events,” Winterbourne explains. 

She is intrigued to see what impact this move to community spirit will have on people’s buying behaviour: “Are they going to buy brands that have community credentials on purpose? People might shop with a smaller repertoire of brands. They might look more to familiarity and safe brands.” It’s something that the agency is exploring in more depth through a research-piece on post-COVID consumer behaviour.

But, as Winterbourne explains realistically, “When you’re in the middle of something you think everything might be different. Will things slip back? I haven’t got a crystal ball so I can’t tell you that.” 

A different structure moving forwards

While she doesn’t want to comment on the long-term impacts, believing that it’s simply too early to do so, Winterbourne does praise the power of technology which has allowed the agency, and industry, to work as well as it ever has. “Who’d have thought you’d be able to prepare for and deliver a pitch over Zoom?” she says, also noting that the virtual pitch processes are proving to be of great benefit to agencies as the lighter processes have reduced costs for agencies.

This technology has also lent itself to the shift more broadly in improving working practices to suit everyone, something that, as a working mum of two young children, Winterbourne is passionate about. She has been surprised, she says, on how behind both the UK and the creative industries are when it comes to flexible working policies. “We talk about it [but] we’ve never quite managed it,” she adds.

Within Impero, the agency has been steadily rolling out more flexible working, pushing work patterns that suit the individual needs of the staff. She notes that, “agencies are going to have to become more flexible because talent will be making decisions based on that. To attract talent, it’s going to have to be one of the things you offer.” Winterbourne acknowledges the fortune, in this case, of being a smaller, “agile agency so we can work with everybody to make sure it’s working for them. We can be flexible to make sure they’ve got what they need.”

She hopes that there will be an industry-wide shift taking place towards more flexible ways of working as the crisis has proved everybody who disparaged flexible working, wrong. Previous ways of working simply won’t be accepted by future talent. The presenteeism that has been so ingrained into this industry for years is slowly being dismantled by this crisis, something that Winterbourne says she is only supportive of.

Everybody is experiencing this in a different way.

Emily Winterbourne

Seeing the change

Winterbourne talks about how the flexibility of her working day has allowed her to be more involved in her children’s lives; “I guess I didn’t realise how removed I was from their everyday life until we got into this situation,” she says. It is also teaching her to create her own breaks, to step back from her desk and form her own moments of pause in the working day which might typically have been marked by a commute, grabbing something for lunch or a meeting in a different building. “I think you can’t be creative if you don’t step away from staring at your computer,” she says.

She is aware that every person’s situation is different, something the agency’s leadership team has been continually considerate of throughout the lockdown period. “You can’t get away from how different it is for everyone,” Winterbourne says. “Societally there’s been massive, massive divisions and different experiences, even within the agency; everybody is experiencing this in a different way,” she adds.

She talks about her hope that the shifts happening across society towards the Black Lives Matter movement will have an impact on the creative industries. “Diversity is something that we as an industry need to work so much harder at,” Winterbourne believes. Primarily, she feels, that has to be done by changing recruitment models to bring diverse talent into agencies. While there has been much talk within the industry, tangible action is what is now needed; “we need to see the change,” she adds.

What the current global crisis and continuing semi-lockdown is demonstrating is that people are starting to pay attention to conversations now that have always been happening but that were perhaps not always prioritised. Whether that’s around flexible working, brand purpose or bringing diverse voices into the creative industries. For Winterbourne, although she may not have a crystal ball to predict the future, her hope is that these changes will be sustained, and that it will result in an industry that is better for everyone, whatever level of seniority you sit at.