In this guest post from AKQA, managing directors Sam Sterling (left, pictured) and Alisia Muscat (right, pictured) discuss thought leadership and what the west can learn from China…
Whilst China was the first country to deal with COVID-19, it is now a global pathogen. The world’s response has been exceptionally varied – but one thing is for sure, the impact has been felt socially and economically, necessitating unprecedented, ever-evolving changes.
Today, our Chinese studio is once again at capacity (albeit with precautions). Whilst the circumstances in China are far removed from those in Australia (and other Western markets), it’s clear that there is life on the other side. Importantly, these difficult times can force us to tackle things that otherwise may have seemed too complex to overcome (mass remote working, for example).
It’s helped us to truly live our belief that limitations can indeed be fuel for creativity and innovation can come from anywhere. We thought now was an ideal time to share what we learned from the experience in China to fast track a stronger-than-ever return in our other studios.
Two of our managing directors used one of their regular calls to swap stories and strategies.
Alisia: Hey Sam! I can’t believe it’s only been weeks since our last call. It feels like months with everything that’s happening. Last time I saw you in person was just after the Lunar New Year when the Shanghai studio was still under compulsory closure. Given what is happening in Australia currently I have so much more empathy for you and your team and what you went through ahead of the rest of us. What’s the latest?
Sam: Can you believe that was just over a month ago?! That was really tough. We didn’t know what the Chinese government was going to decide. We hadn’t even gone to remote working then – the public holiday for the new year was just extended by the government. No one was allowed to work without penalty. But we’re back at full capacity now – just with precautions in place. How are the Australia studios going? Things look crazy from here.
A: On the whole it has certainly challenged us, pushed us all into positions we’ve never been before. Still very early with the impact, but I think it is going as well as it can. It’s been really interesting to see how there have been both unexpected highs and lows. The team has been incredibly creative in their approach to staying connected like creating WFH FM. The mental health of the team remains top of my mind though. Ensuring they are all supported, engaged and communicated to as effectively as we can right now. How did you keep the momentum going through the remote working period? I think it was four weeks in total for you?
S: That’s right. We had a transition period when we returned, too. We offered flexi time and covered taxis so people could avoid public transport during peak hours, took extra sanitisation steps for the studio, that kind of thing. I think you have it harder in Australia as the Chinese government has been pretty clear about the rules and they’re able to simply mandate them. In terms of momentum though, we held competitions like productivity challenges and gave prizes for the best video conference screen captures. I think overall one of our key tips is that it’s all about how you view this time. We took the position that if you let it, this uncertainty can be very distracting and distressing. This is the time for us to keep our eyes on the horizon line and avoid getting seasick! We chose to look to where we want to be and navigate towards that, so our decisions (like offering super relevant training to upskill the team) were made in that light. What’s your biggest concern for the next few weeks?
A: I think I have two: the impact this will have on clients / the wider economy, and helping stem people’s anxiety about the uncertainty of this time. Any ideas?!
S: Honestly, some of our clients have been hit, but others haven’t. Actually, cosmetics clients have been on par with last year, or even experienced growth! We’ve actually just finished a round up of all the growth categories and new developments we’ve seen on the ground here too. Anecdotally we saw a lot of small businesses struggle to a certain extent, but I think in China we took more of a ‘rip the bandaid off’ approach with the mandated closures. We’ve been working with clients like Nike on how they can provide value to their communities during this time – like creating at-home workouts. On the anxiety front it’s tough for me to help because culturally we’re so different. I’d say the more certainty you can give people the better though, which is tough when there is little to be had. What have you been doing?
A: Things like WFH FM are definitely helping keep people connected and our culture alive, but we’ve also been ensuring people know they have access to our EAP if they need support. Lunchtime yoga sessions by livestream have been pretty key, too. With the Nike stuff, how did you go about delivering the work when you were all in government-imposed lockdown?!
S: Ha! It’s a pretty crazy story. The whole thing was concepted, directed, filmed, edited and launched whilst everyone – the team, the client, the talent – were in isolation. Imagine asking your talent to redesign the set via FaceTime! But that’s what they did. The result was a first-of-its-kind. I’m sure you have some similar things planned?
A: That’s so inspiring! We do have some similar proactive things in the works – we’re talking to clients about how they can best serve their customers at this unconventional time and how their brand experiences need to flex and respond. It’s still really early days for us, but it’s already obvious that what happens on the other side won’t be the same as before. I’m sure some of our clients are as ambitious as those in China!
S: Yes, now isn’t the time to tread water. Victory favours the bold and all that. Good luck! Let’s check in next week?
A: I hope your present is our future! And yes, talk soon!