For Sir Martin Sorrell, the key quality for businesses in coping with the pandemic is agility. And, he says simply: “We have it.” Sorrell believes S4Capital’s philosophy, structure and staff meant it was well-placed to respond to the sudden changes of the last 18 months.
“Last March/April we were in a pretty frantic state, running all the disaster scenarios, but in fact we’ve surpassed even the most optimistic of them,” he says. “We were built for digital and going virtual has brought opportunities rather than problems. We were able to pivot very quickly to animation, robotic production and virtual revenue streams.
“Our people are digital natives. They tend to be younger, and most of them are used to working flexibly. That doesn’t necessarily mean working from home; they could have been embedded with a client or working on in-housing programs with clients. But for them, the pandemic was only a continuation of what went before.”
Sorrell believes that many companies are better run because of the changes forced on them by the pandemic, because they’ve had to push responsibility further down the organization. And he argues that much of the concern expressed about maintaining or developing company culture during lockdown is actually about managers’ fear of losing control.
“I’m no longer one of those old people that believe you have to see people in the office to know what they’re doing,” he says.
At the same time, he acknowledges company culture can be affected by dispersed working, and that it can be particularly difficult for people new to an organization.
“But there are ways of using and developing the new technologies to build connection,” he says. “Zoom can be tiresome, but on balance it has enabled us to become even more connected, aligned and unitary.”
In fact, Sorrell believes that another effect of the pandemic has been to make people use collaboration technology more efficiently and more imaginatively.
“Sitting at a screen all day is tiring, both mentally and physically, but it’s amazing what you can do if you use the technology in creative ways,” he says. “For example, MediaMonks in New York is using Fortnite to interact and engage with clients.”
And with all the big technology platforms racing to improve their collaboration products, he thinks we’re only scratching the surface of what these technologies will be able to do.
Back to the office, but not back to normal
Sorrell has been back in the office with a skeleton staff since the UK lockdown eased, and is now thinking about the next stage.
“We’re moving to people working three days a week in the office,” he says, “and if it makes sense and jobs allow it, people will be encouraged to work away from the office.”
He’s sceptical of suggestions that things will go back to the way they were before the pandemic, partly for business reasons. The example he gives is the industry’s prior propensity to travel “at the drop of a hat.” As he points out, in the past 18 months S4Capital has been appointed to projects and been made agency-of-record and partner-of-record over Zoom, as well as making acquisitions using the technology.
“There will be fewer trips, but they’ll be longer. I’m planning a trip to Asia, and I’ll go for two weeks, rather than three or four days,” he says. “We’ve learned that you can do what you do from a distance, so you don’t have to travel as extensively or as rapidly as before. We’ve all seen our margins improve during the pandemic, so people will be more selective and use technology more effectively.”
More generally, Sorrell believes people’s thinking and habits have changed too profoundly for them to go back to pre-pandemic ways.
“This experience has been so severe and so concentrated in such a short period of time that I think it has materially affected people’s habits and thinking, and they will be different in the long run,” he says. “We’ve educated our kids online, we’ve taken our financial services online, we’ve had our games and our entertainment at home; all that will continue.
“Meanwhile businesses of all sizes have recognized the importance of digital transformation and the need to accelerate that disruption and transformation. The disrupters and change-agents within companies are being given a lot more oxygen to accelerate the change