Mark Coad on why he doesn’t regret moving to Mediabrands, even with the hindsight of COVID-19

After six months in the job, Mediabrands’ chief executive Mark Coad speaks with Mumbrella’s Brittney Rigby about handling a crisis in a new business, why pitching has become more humanised since 'ditch the pitch', and what media agencies and marketers should be thinking about. Here, in the second part of that interview, Coad explains why he thinks Mediabrands will emerge from 2020 'in better shape than we went into it', and addresses cramming six months worth of progress into the first six weeks.

Things were looking good for Mark Coad at the end of last year. He’d eventually resolved an insurance claim after a pipe burst in his holiday home months earlier, flooding the entire house. He’d finally sold his former house, which he’d been trying to sell all year. And, of course, he was heading into a three month stretch of uninterrupted gardening leave – the longest career break he’d ever had – after accepting, and announcing, a new job as chief executive of Mediabrands.

That was late December, though. By the end of the month, bushfires were ripping through the country, and Coad and his family, living on a property outside of Melbourne, were evacuated twice. Australia was still on fire throughout January: properties burning, half a billion animals incinerated, the death toll rising.

By February, it was time for Mediabrands to welcome in its new CEO.

“I remember feeling frustrated that I didn’t get a good run at that [the three months off], that it ended too quickly,” Coad tells Mumbrella.

But, still, he was rearing to go on 12 February, the day he started at Mediabrands after a six year run at Omnicom Media Group’s PHD.

“It was perfectly normal. I turned up to the office, I think it was a Tuesday from memory,” Coad recalls. In fact, it was a Wednesday, the first day after the expiration of his gardening leave.

“I think that afternoon we had an all staff meeting with everybody and [I] just basically introduced myself, nothing too formal. Rocked in there with a heap of energy and [was] ready to go. And so for the first five weeks, it felt very normal.”

Until it wasn’t.

Would navigating COVID-19 have been easier at PHD?

Coad spent most of those five weeks in the Sydney office. Then COVID-19 hit and Mediabrands, like many other businesses, was forced to send its workforce home. Coad realised he’d hardly spent any time in Melbourne, or the other offices, and had no idea of the extent of the lockdowns and restrictions still to come.

Does he regret taking on the job? Surely it would have been less daunting to navigate such a crisis in a business he knew deeply, like PHD.

“I certainly don’t,” he says, “and I’m not just saying that because I should, I genuinely don’t.

“I think it’s the energy that you bring into a new role that probably serves you well through these times. Because you are energised. I’m not saying I wasn’t at PHD, I think I always bring a level of energy with me, but I think having the energy to run at it, I think served me well.

Mediabrands’ Sydney offices

“The downside of that is you don’t have the history or the knowledge of the business in order to make some pretty big decisions along the way, which we had to do. Equally, that’s offset by a fresh set of eyes as well, a different perspective.

“I don’t look back through that period with any kind of regret or concern or ‘we should have it any other way’. We just got the cards dealt and we played them as best we could.”

Cramming six months into six weeks

COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on everything including the ad market – ad spend dropped more than 40% in May, and 28.4% in July, the most recent Standard Media Index figures. The compounded effect of this year’s bushfires and pandemic led to the industry’s “worst [financial] year in living memory“, down 14.7%.

But turmoil creates an urgent need for good leadership, meaning “it’s a good way to get to know a business”, in a way.

“When a business is in crisis and everyone’s pulling together and people are galvanising, it’s a pretty quick way to get to know a business,” Coad reaffirms.

“I probably covered some ground in six weeks that might’ve taken me six months. There’s definitely that. But at the same time, you’re relying on a lot of people that know the business better than I did for their input, which I think I’m always inclusive on that stuff as well.”

The speed at which decisions had to be made – Mediabrands implemented its ‘Resilience’ plan, which involved reduced hours and a pause on pay rises and discretionary spending, but no hiring freeze, according to Coad – has also had its benefits. As Coad puts it, “If a company had have embarked on a process of a work from home model on a permanent basis, that would have been six, 12 months in the making.

“We would have trialled it, we would have tested it … we initially did it in two days. It happened that quickly. We spoke about it on the Thursday. We decided that we’d see what next week brought. And literally, overnight, things changed that dramatically that we pulled stumps on Friday and that was it. We all grabbed our screens and computers and headed home. For a period that we didn’t know for how long, but I don’t think any of us thought it would be for this long.”

It has inevitably shifted his plans though.

“We’ve managed to get done some of the things we wanted to do. I mean, there were things that we had in mind to do that required physical space, the way we arranged ourselves, where we sat as people, how we arranged our businesses. And, physically, we haven’t been able to do that.

“But there’s certainly other projects that we’ve undertaken that we’ve forged ahead with. Is the degree of difficulty a little higher? Yeah probably. But we’re still getting it done.”

Building rapport from a distance

Coad’s reputation precedes him; he’s regularly referred to as one of the ‘nicest guys in media’, he’s feared on a pitch list, and he cares about his people. But that doesn’t solve the problem of getting to know a team of approximately 800 over Zoom.

“It’s times when things like this happen, that people look to their leaders. I genuinely believe that,” he says.

“People want leadership at times like this, and I think we were able to give it to them. I think the way we approached, how we were going to deal with this, what system we put in place, how are we going to work from home, I think it allowed us to do that. I’m not recommending it [but] in that regard, it probably made things a little bit easier.”

That’s not to say Coad is starting from scratch. The industry is a small enough web for those like him; taking on this job, for example, sees him reunited with friend and colleague Leigh Terry, Mediabrands’ APAC leader, who is now Coad’s boss again (he was chief executive of Omnicom Media Group while Coad was at the helm of PHD). But while there are those who are familiar, there are also “people that I’ve actually never met face to face”.

“It’s been harder because I do think I’m a people person,” Coad decides. “I do like being with people. And I think it’s harder to build a relationship when you lose a dimension of just presence. But at the same time … we made a deliberate decision very early to be really clear in our comms and really consistent in our comms. I think we’ve been very authentic and open with our guys in the way we’ve dealt with this. And I think, I don’t think, I know, that’s been appreciated. And that stuff builds rapport.”

However, there’s an ongoing “job to be done across Mediabrands in terms of how we all work together”. UM and Initiative are the company’s leading brands, engaging in pitches, managing client relationships, and supported by Mediabrands’ smaller agencies such as Magna, Reprise and Orion.

That arrangement of the business still needs to be bedded down. But the process is an enhancement, not an overhaul. Coad is quick to point out that UM and Initiative – led by Fiona Johnston and Melissa Fein, respectively – are healthy businesses. “They’re highly valued by their clients. They’re recognised by their clients as key partners through this [COVID-19].” In fact, the pandemic has only heightened the importance of agencies as “a source of guidance”, and Coad “know[s] our companies have done very well in that capacity”.

“This will sound self serving, it’s not meant to, but I’ve been lucky,” he elaborates.

“There’s some really good leaders at Mediabrands. The guys that run their respective parts of the business and the agencies, they’ve got great cultures, they’ve got great leadership teams and that’s helped enormously. It’s only through the strength of those leaders and the strength of the cultures that you can do this more effectively.

“It’s part of the reason I came over, these businesses are in really good shape. I think I can bring something to help these businesses in some regard, but they’re in very, very good shape.”

Ditch the pitch, and injecting humanity ‘back into the room’

Last June, Initiative’s global CEO, Mat Baxter, stood upon the Mumbrella360 stage and lambasted the pitch process as a “dog and pony show” tilted well in the favour of clients. His call to action, to ditch the pitch, rippled across the industry.

When asked if COVID-19 has affected the pitch pipeline, particularly in the context of Initiative’s public stance against participating in unreasonable pitch processes, Coad clarifies: “‘Ditch the pitch’ was about the conditions by which agencies were being asked to pitch. So it had nothing to do the number of them, or who they were. It had more to do with the conditions by which we were asked to.

“We haven’t had any of those this year, we haven’t walked into any pitch briefings going briefings going, ‘Oh my God, this is not what we want to be’.”

Baxter highlighted the impact pitching has on agency staff and clients

As for what pitching has looked like this year, it’s “been fairly consistent”, according to Coad. Initiative has won Goodman Fielder, Genuine Parts Company, Aussie Home Loans and Pernod Ricard. UM has been quieter, at least publicly, but Coad says activity is still humming across Mediabrands.

“I think the timelines have lengthened. And the number of them has reduced, but they’re [pitches] still happening,” he says.

“And if anything, and this isn’t just in pitching, but I have noticed it in pitching, if COVID’s brought anything to us, I think it’s brought a level of humanity back to our day that we’d lost somewhere along the way for a little while.

“In the height of ‘ditch the pitch’ where it was just hardcore procured supplier/provider relationships, I think we lost a little bit of that [humanity]. And I sense that some of that’s found its way back into the room.”

A shrinking industry means people are more important than ever

An industry attempting to weather a pandemic-induced recession means an industry emaciated: swathes of redundancies, slashed client budgets, and no guarantee the worst is over. In other words, 2020 has been a series of turbulent washes, each spitting out a market more shrunken than the version that existed before.

Coad is quietly optimistic, though. Media agencies had a 6% vacancy rate before this year.

“That’s alarming. Six out of every 100 desks in media agencies don’t get filled because we don’t attract and retain enough talent,” he wrote in an opinion piece for Mumbrella last year. “PHD certainly isn’t 6%. It’s closer to 0%. That means someone else out there must be 12%.”

Now, he says, “that’s certainly not the case”.

“If anything, it’s probably the other way around, there’s plenty of media folk out there who have lost their jobs through this and wondering when they’re going to get one back.

“But it will come back. I don’t think it will be this year. It could be late this year as agencies start to gear up for next year. But it will come back. Are we going to have a 6% industry vacancy rate next year? No, I don’t think we will. So we won’t be back to the numbers that we used to have quickly, but we’ll get there.”

Regardless of the number of empty seats in each media agency, and whether those empty seats even exist, focusing on culture and wellbeing is a bigger, and more important, job than ever. Coad is clear about what media agencies’ number one priority should be right now: “The only word I can think of is people. And I mean that on a couple of fronts. I think the wellbeing of our people is really important. There are people who’ve done this year pretty tough.

“If you get good people, if you look after them, if you provide them with the environment where they can do good work, they do good work, clients will feel it, and revenue and profit will follow.

“Now, more than ever, as we come out of this, focusing on the wellbeing of our people, and how we look after them … if you want to do business well, that’s the first thing I would do.”

As for how marketers are faring, he predicts CMOs will “come out of this pretty short-term focused on just restoration of sales and growth. We’re gonna see a lot more work in performance media channels, as opposed to say brand building”.

“Marketers have come under increasing pressure in recent years to demonstrate that marketing’s not an expense, it’s an investment,” he adds. “I think the ones that can demonstrate that and the ones that can show their companies and their boards that marketing is a key lever to pull when they’re restoring growth to their businesses, the better they can do that.

“And the more we can help them to do that, the better off we’re all going to be.”

Emerging from 2020 in ‘better shape’

Coad could point to a number of pitch wins as being the highlights of 2020. But he won’t; he “avoided the temptation”.

“I think our biggest win, if I think through it, has been the way we’ve dealt with this whole situation,” he says instead.

“I could easily talk about some of the clients we’ve gained or some of the projects we’ve won, but I think we’ll look back on this year, [and] our biggest achievement, I think, and I say this personally, will be how we’ve navigated through this year to come out of it. I still think we’ll come out of [2020] in better shape than we went into it, which sounds weird to say, but I genuinely think we will. I think we’re more resilient. I think we’ve worked on our skills. We’ve maintained our training programs.”

That doesn’t mean it’s been an easy year; he misses the way being together, physically, allows for the necessary pauses to properly soak up wins.

“I think one thing that media agencies do incredibly well is celebrate their successes. And if we’ve missed anything this year, it’s been the ability to do that. There’s an energy in media agencies … I think that’s the area we’ve had to work on.

“We’ve proven we can still do it and we keep doing it. But I think once we put this behind us, those successes will just feel a whole lot better again, I reckon.”

But while there’s plenty of in-office possibilities to look forward to – Perth, Canberra, and Brisbane’s offices are open; Sydney will slowly return with an opt-in rotation system; and Melbourne’s restrictions means there’s not yet a return plan for Victoria – there’s also lockdown lessons Coad wants to take back with him.

“It already feels ridiculous that we sit in a car for three quarters of an hour at the end of each day getting to work and back, or flying to Brisbane for a two hour meeting. That stuff already feels ridiculous,” he notes.

“We’ve got some people that will never come back to work. They feel happier and more productive working from home. They’re in roles that aren’t necessarily frontline.”

And he knows having “a bit of space” in which to tolerate Melbourne’s lengthy and wearying lockdowns – “I’d be doing a whole lot worse if I was locked up in a window- or a balcony-less apartment” – has also created space for family time.

“I mean, I’m having dinner with my family every night. I haven’t done that for years.”

2020 is not the year Coad expected to tackle last December. But some things are still good.

You can read the first part of this two part series on Mark Coad here.

Contact the journalist:

Have more information on the article? Want to share an opinion? Just want to reach out? Email Brittney on brittney@mumbrella.com.au or get in touch via LinkedIn.


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