CEOs during COVID-19: Sue Squillace on calming client panic, homeschooling three girls, and why 2020 isn’t a year for profits

In this series, Mumbrella's Brittney Rigby asks media agency CEOs how they're leading their teams through a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic. Here, Carat CEO Sue Squillace explains how she's responded to clients asking 'What can we cancel?', why she's missing connections with media owners, and how she's re-thinking culture to deliver it virtually.

Eight months ago, Sue Squillace walked out of Spark Foundry, turned right, and slid under a new desk next door. It’s barely a two minute walk from Publicis Groupe’s Walsh Bay offices to neighbour Dentsu Aegis Network, where Squillace was now CEO of media agency Carat.

That must feel like a lifetime ago. She was coming into an agency riddled by account losses – including Mondelēz InternationalSuper Retail GroupVirgin AustraliaAsahiAmartBegaDavid Jones, and Disney  – to rebuild Carat alongside DAN CEO Henry Tajer.

The agency was desperately trying to counteract those big losses with the retention of the $50m AHM and Medibank account (just before Squillace’s first day on the job), an extension of the L’Oreal contract (a few weeks after her arrival), and the addition of Hisense (in December).

And around her, the hires and fires (or ‘exits’) as part of Tajer’s holding group-wide restructure continued. But she wasn’t even three months into the role when he was ousted, and, suddenly, she had a new boss in Angela Tangas.

A couple of weeks later, DAN announced it was making 11% of jobs redundant, globally. It had already said there were “no green shoots of recovery” in the local market. Then: bushfires. Then (and now): COVID-19. September 2019 was eight months ago, but it feels a lot further away.

In this interview, edited for length, Squillace reveals how she’s navigating a global pandemic, the latest and biggest challenge: calming panicked clients, leading an agency from home among three homeschooling daughters and a working husband, and getting to know her isolated team even better than she did before.

‘I wonder what happens if there’s another wave’: Ping-ponging from worry to excitement

I feel really good. And I think it’s up and down. It’s gone from not knowing what’s going to happen, to managing a situation, and now worrying about your people and how we’re going to handle some of the measures that we’ve had to take, to being excited about rebuilding. It’s this roller coaster of emotions and I feel that that’s probably the same thing for a lot of people.

Squillace needed a temporary office set up in her bedroom, thanks to three homeschooling daughters and a working husband

[And then there’s] a sense of optimism when you see the restrictions are going to be lifted and what that’s going to mean and then you think about ‘I wonder what happens if there’s another wave?’ Yeah, up and down would be a really honest answer.

‘[Some colleagues] would love to hear or feel some of that hecticness’: Working from home with three children and a husband

I’ve been championing flexibility in the workplace for a long time.

What’s been really challenging for my personal lifestyle is having three children at home, my husband at home, both parents working, kids homeschooling.

Squillace and her daughters

I’m getting a lot done, we’ve reduced commute time, we’re working more efficiently from a technology point of view … and it’s really hectic, so it can be quite stressful.

And then I look at some of my colleagues, who are sitting at home alone and would love to hear or feel some of that hecticness.

Look, it’s been a really interesting experience and I’ve really loved some of it and I’ve not loved some of it.

The older girls have been helping to keep 4-year-old Bella occupied

‘That constant [media] negativity’: The biggest challenge

The biggest challenge is losing some personal connection in the workplace and that constant negativity that you’re hearing about in the media from a news point of view.

That worry of our people that work for us, who are at home and are probably thinking ‘What does this mean for my job?’ and they’ve got no one to talk to about it. That worries me the most about how everyone’s coping with the working from home situation.

Now, it’s about how do we rebuild? How do we bring everyone back? Are people happy or not happy about coming back? That’s the kind of work we’re doing at the moment. The biggest challenge is really managing people’s emotions and mental health.

‘I know everyone a lot better now’: Connecting at work and home

As a family, [we’ve] been forced to be together all the time in isolation. It’s enabled us to reconnect in lots of different ways, and I’ve really enjoyed that part. I’ve enjoyed not commuting. I live in the Northern Beaches [of Sydney]. It’s been lovely not having to commute to go to meetings.

And I think, interestingly enough, because Carat has five offices … and there’s a lot of us, I feel like I know everyone a lot better now. It’s like I’m in their homes, every time we’re having our national meetings or state meetings or we have coffee catch ups or whatever it is, you’re looking at people in their home environment.

I feel now that I have a better personal connection to them.

Zoom coffee conversations have allowed Squillace to get to know people on a more personal level

‘What can I cancel?’: Responding to client panic

When we first started, it was very much just managing and supporting the panic. The first thing that every client did was [say]: What can I cancel? Or what can I shift? What can I move? Because they weren’t aware what this meant.

From then on though, it’s been working really, really closely with them from a strategic and consulting capacity, where we’re really helping them understand their consumers, how they’re behaving, and how they’re consuming media so that we can work on their channels and communications moving forward.

‘We’ve worked out how to do in on Zoom, believe it or not’: Leading a remote team

It’s lots of communication and regular catch ups. Where [management meetings] used to be fortnightly, they’re now weekly. We will do state coffee catch up so that we can all just discuss and talk. It really is about making sure that everyone’s heard, you’re sharing as much information as possible.

Fun backgrounds to brighten up a national leadership meeting

The other great thing that I’ve seen, and we’ve been able to implement, is a bit of a borderless agency. What I’m asking my team to do is support each other, and operate like that.

Some of our clients are spending more than ever, busier than ever, and others are not. So therefore, it doesn’t matter where you live. You can be working on on these pieces of business and supporting each other and that’s been another really nice thing that I’ll take out of this situation and continue, because we’ve proven we can do it.

Our teams are still brainstorming and we’ve worked out how to do it on Zoom, believe it or not. And we can even workshop using this technology. So the funny thing is, all of these things we used to try and do in person are now becoming easier to do.

Socialising and media owner connections is ‘probably what’s been missing’: Culture and expectations

Agility. Maturity. That whole piece around collaboration and helping each other [is what I expect from my team]. Don’t look at just your own patch, think about everyone else’s and if we can help and work and share learnings. That’s really all I expect.

Support your clients and get through this as quickly and as easily as we can.

I think the social piece is probably what’s been missing a little bit. And also the connection with media owners, that’s probably lacking from what people in our industry are used to.

In fact, we’re hosting a bit of a day for our staff and for our clients [the virtual festival, Couch-ella, which occurred last week]. We’ve partnered with lots of our media partners, and we’re bringing them a day of entertainment … with a full schedule, from a DJ to a mental health coach to a dance class. So every media partner is putting a session on for our teams to just have a festival basically, and get back some of that fun they’ve been missing.

Carat Couch-ella was held last week

It’s just thinking differently, like our clients have had to think differently. Restaurants have had to become pantries. We just need to think differently about how we deliver culture to our people.

‘I don’t think it’s a year for profits’: Success in 2020

If we can protect the business to be able to rebuild with our clients, that would be success for me. You’ve been able to maintain your workforce as much as possible.

I don’t think it’s a year for profits. It’s a year for protecting your business so you’ve got a business to move forward with into the new year.

Squillace and her 4-year-old

A lot of agencies and media owners would be feeling the same. Whatever we need to do this year to get there, we just need to do it in a way that we can be able to rebuild as quickly as we need to.

‘I keep using the word hectic’: The reality of leading an agency through a once-in-a-lifetime crisis

It’s a really good question. What’s it like? You know what, I keep using the word hectic. I really like the word ‘hectic’ because it’s not negative and it’s fast and it’s moving and I really do think that that would be my word on what it’s like.

It’s hectic. It’s definitely interesting. It’s not a situation I’ve ever been in, none of us have ever been in something like this, and I’m hoping we’ll come out positive.

[There are] good days and bad days. Sometimes it’s just like, ‘This is so exciting, this is so interesting’. Other days it’s like… you don’t know what’s going to come.


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