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CEOs during COVID-19: Aimee Buchanan on protecting 500 jobs, trusting her staff and missing the drive home

In this series, Mumbrella's Brittney Rigby asks media agency CEOs how they're leading their teams through a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic. First up is OMD's Aimee Buchanan on why she's worried about her family, clients, and colleagues, trusting 500 people with more information she's ever had to, and receiving the best work she's ever seen.

Aimee Buchanan is two months back from maternity leave, two months into leading a media agency through a global pandemic, and well over a month into answering the question: “Mum, did you forget to go to work today?”

Her four-year-old daughter is confused. How can mum be at work if she’s at home? Pretending to leave the house to go to ‘the office’, only to sneak back through the front door and up the stairs without getting caught, has become part of the OMD CEO’s daily routine.

So has hanging on for dear life as the “massive rollercoaster” of COVID-19 challenges her to remain mentally strong  and ramps up her worry for her family, team, and clients.

“I’m trying to be up for everyone, but you have those moments where you’re like, ‘I need to regroup,’” she says.

In this interview, edited for length, Buchanan explains how she’s navigating that responsibility (and its ripple effects) without precedent. As she puts it: “The rule book’s been ripped up, and we’re writing it as we go with a new edit every single day.”

‘Have I got enough time to do the job?’: Working from home

I came back two months ago [from maternity leave], which is not that long ago, feeling like ‘I hope I can do this, I hope I can manage having enough time at home with my kids and enough time to do this job and to be there for everyone else’. Everything that you could kind of perceive as separation has been massively disrupted and I’m now finding myself going, ‘Have I got enough time to do the job?’ versus enough time at home, because I’m doing the job at home.

The drive home was a really big transition and I really used that commute time. I’d check in with all my direct reports, I’d set up the next day and [now] the commute time’s downstairs and sometimes, I don’t get the commute time – my four-year-old comes in and says “Mum, mum, did you forget to go to work today?” And I’m like “No, I’m at work”. And then she wants to get on the video call that I’m inevitably doing and contribute something.

Buchanan’s four-year-old (top left) makes regular cameos in video calls

So I’m actually going out to the garage most days and then sneaking back in through the front door and going back upstairs to do work, because you can’t explain to a four-year-old that you’re home and working, it just doesn’t work.

‘Strategic thinkers are thriving’: Creating the clarity

Everything’s up in the air. You can either sit there and wait for clarity, or you can help create the clarity. That’s quite a unique position, you almost get a blank slate and new rules and new challenges to navigate that we’ve never ever had before. All the historical barriers and disruptors are gone and there’s new disruptors and there’s huge challenges, operationally and strategically, for these brands and businesses, but that is a clean slate.

I think strategists, in particular, are thriving in this environment, or strategic thinkers are thriving in this environment, because they’ve got headspace and that’s always a challenge in this industry.

We always run an Easter sale for BCF. Easter’s massive for boating, camping, fishing, that’s their business, [but we couldn’t] run an Easter sale [due to COVID-19 lockdowns]. And we’re seeing this weird trend of people camping in their back gardens because they can’t go away.

So we ran ‘Australia’s Biggest Camp Out’ … and their whole business got behind it. It was incredibly motivating for their team. Our whole business, within a week, had executed this and the Australian media, just because it was a positive story in a really tough time, got massively behind it.

It’s a real story of two halves. You’ve got on the spectrum a business like a Coles that’s very busy, and then you’ve got clients like a Qantas that are quiet and we’re looking forward to them coming back.

‘The pressure’s personal and professional’: The biggest challenge

There’s very few times in your career you have such a monumental event. In your normal set of circumstances, you have something big happen at work, you go home, and you’ve got this haven. Or you have something big happen at home, and you go to work.

Suddenly, your work is at home and you’re worried about your family. My brother lives in New York. I’m worried about him. I’m worried about his family. I’m worried about whether I should send my daughter to preschool, and I’m worried about 500 [OMD] people, and their safety and the responsibility of their jobs, which is always on your mind even outside of this, but is acutely compounded with the uncertainty that we have and the scale of pressure.

The pressure’s personal and professional.

‘We made surfboards out of cardboard’: The silver linings

The [best part is] getting back to basics. Pure, family, human connection. You sometimes get caught up in the speed of rushing from A to B to Z, prepping for the next activity and the next event that you have to go to.

Buchanan’s six-month-old is ready to work

There’s a lot of craft going on in our house. We made surfboards out of cardboard last week, set up a home cinema where my daughter got to set the lounge room up as she wanted for the movie and issue us tickets and snacks. We’re bushwalking. I love that stuff.

‘Show up and help our clients’: Trusting, protecting, and expecting a lot out of 500 people

We will be brutally honest with our people and we’re trusting them with information at a level I probably haven’t given to 500 people before. But I’m of the view that people need that right now. They need clarity, they need honesty.

This morning I’ve just done a live video stream to 400 staff. I’m doing that fortnightly. They submit any question they have anonymously, so I had 30-odd questions this morning. I’m doing a daily exec call with my team to ensure that we’re all on the same page, with the same voice, that we’re hitting these issues in real time, that we’re moving quickly for our clients, that we’re deploying resources where needed.

We’ve never experienced anything like this. So we need to be flexible as employers, but we need them [our employees] to be flexible as well. We’re asking them to work at a pace, and in an environment, they’ve never worked in ever before.

We could have spent a lot of time burdening the entire business with our operational pressures and realities, and I think that would have been our biggest risk. The operations is the job of a few people in our business to worry about. And we need to be really transparent in what’s happening there so they feel they can trust the stages and the actions we’re taking.

But the job of 90% of this business is to show up and to help our clients navigate what is personally and professionally probably the most challenging time we’ve ever experienced. How we show up in this period will be reflective, from this point onwards, of the relationship we have [with our clients].

And then my other ask, which is a really hard ask when you’re talking to a media assistant or a 22-year-old, is I need them to be brutally honest with us on how we can help and what we can do better. Now, I’m not expecting that every single one of them is going to ring me up and tell me ‘You’re doing a crap job’ or ‘You’re doing a good job’. So we’ve had to create a lot of forums for us to get that feedback.

I think that’s all we can do right now, to make people feel confident in our leadership and confident in the course that we’re taking. Really trusting people that we’re going to tell them everything, like everything, but that comes with a responsibility and a sense of trust that needs to stay within that environment, which is quite stressful sometimes.

You’ll be ‘either more or less valued as a partner’: Success in 2020

If you get through this, and think that returning just to normal is the right outcome, we’ve massively missed the point. You get very few opportunities to take a really good reflection on what the focus of the business is at a time where it can’t almost be just growth. For OMD, growth’s been something we’ve been very focused on, and for 10 years, we’ve had consecutive growth.

Even if you look at the ambition of the business around ‘performance with integrity’, it’s growth for our clients, growth for our people, which means growth for our business. It’s very inherent in us.

Buchanan’s home office

I think that the traction that we’re getting and the inspiration and momentum we’re getting in the business both from a morale point of view, but also from a traction with clients point of view, is coming from the contribution and the innovation and the work that we’re doing.

It’s always there, but because that slate’s been somewhat cleaned, it’s there more than ever. You have an opportunity to come through this either more or less valued as a partner, and I know which side of that I want to fall on.

That, to me, is what success is going to look like at the end of the year. What’s the work we’ve done? And where are the status of those partnerships in terms of our contribution?

‘There’s a lot of sleepless nights’: Getting through

I mean this with such sincerity. I’m so proud. I’m proud of how the team is navigating what’s just a really challenging time personally, but also how they’re helping our clients really navigate that strategically. They’re stepping up to that every single day.

I’m getting sent some of the best work I’ve ever seen going out, and I’m surprised and delighted by that … the care that they’re taking with these businesses and the rigour that they’re putting in to get to the right place and partnering with our clients in a way that I couldn’t have hoped for even in normal circumstances.

I’m working with probably one of the stablest and most experienced leadership teams in the country. Having them by my side in this has been quite reassuring. We all have ups and downs, I spoke about that rollercoaster, but I do really feel like the whole 10 people there have got my back and are helping me navigate it. And giving it to me honestly when I haven’t nailed the comms on something, or where there’s a gap in the way that we’re managing things, which I couldn’t be more appreciative of.

It’s tough, there’s a lot of sleepless nights and they’re not all because I’ve got a six-month-old who’s teething. You really feel the responsibility of 500 OMDers’ safety and livelihoods and that’s always there, it’s a part of the job I would say, but it’s massively accentuated in these times.

My role in this is to get us through, but to get us through as a team intact and proud of how we’ve navigated this. If I can do that, I think I’ve done my job.

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