Tony Bourached, CEO of Mindshare MENA, explains how not panicking was key in managing the pandemic and how this now helps retain talent.
How did Mindshare cope in 2020 and how is it doing now?
Mindshare is doing well. We’re one of the very few agencies that have not made any drastic salary cuts or let people go because of COVID, which was quite a feat. We have only asked our senior management – managing directors and above – to take a voluntary salary cut for three months in case anything went wrong, and it didn’t. Out of the 17 people that we asked, 11 agreed, and as soon as we closed our year, we found out that we had actually reached our revised numbers and everyone was given their salary sacrifice back.
How did you manage to avoid these measures that most agencies had to take?
It was a combination of things.
First of all, everyone in the market panicked, and we didn’t. We took our time, deciding instead to adjust for a couple of months and then review.
Secondly, 2019/2020 was a record year for us in terms of new business and even during COVID, we won a number of new clients – we were literally pitching on video – and the team was proactive. So, we had a good mix of clients that didn’t necessarily stop or slash their budgets, even though we had quite a number of budget cuts to deal with.
Thirdly, everyone worked extremely hard, doing a lot in terms of products; for example, within three weeks of lockdown, we set up e-commerce platforms for clients that weren’t very online before.
Fourthly, the offices that had downtime or had an issue with staff – Kuwait, for example, really suffered – deployed all their surplus to the markets that were busy – the UAE, KSA, and Egypt to a certain extent. The salaries were paid by the offices where everyone was working.
How do you think this crisis changed the way agencies operate today?
Everyone is reviewing the way we do business, be it in person or from home. However, my honest opinion is that the work-from-home experience during the pandemic was not truly something we can completely rely on. People had no other option but to work that way; it didn’t prove that it is a sustainable, long-term option where people have a choice. So, for now, it’s still applicable across most of our offices and we’re trying to find a hybrid model. But in the long term, I truly believe we need more data.
For me, the big lesson of the pandemic was not to panic. It taught me that, going through something that unpredictable, we shouldn’t panic and start letting people go left, right, and center. I believe that our region is, generally, quite resilient. We’re used to instability; we’re used to mini wars; we’re used to blockades; we’re used to financial crises. Personally, I’ve gained a ton of experience that I don’t think I would have gotten if it were plain sailing.
Secondly, agility always has been part of Mindshare’s philosophy and culture. Our diversification and ability to adapt the way we conduct business really was felt through the pandemic.
Lastly, the agency/client relationship is usually difficult and I think that, during the pandemic, some walls were broken. It truly brought us and the clients together and showed the power of partnership, because neither of us knew what the future held.
The pandemic has driven people to rethink their work/life, values, and priorities, including with their employer. At a time when agencies already face difficulties retaining their staff due to the competition from tech companies, what steps are you taking to attract and keep talent?
My simple answer is that whatever I do from a culture and environment perspective, I can never, as an agency, compete with the tech companies on the monetary level. With the agency model under pressure globally, there’s a limit to what I can do when it comes to remuneration. And we shouldn’t forget that the GCC region is an expat market where people come for the package and the lifestyle.
Yes, in terms of culture, it’s amazing what being a network that operates across countries, time zones, clients, and needs, from Morocco to the UAE, gives us. Also, being a family is important. You’re not just a number in a company; you’re someone that we care about. Trust me, the feedback that I got from the employees because we did not let anyone go and we did not force a salary cut during the pandemic, was amazing. Besides, we invested in people’s careers. As I mentioned, people in Morocco worked for the UAE for the first time and were exposed to things that they had never worked on before; for them, it was a lot of fun and they’ve learned so much from it. We also have a dedicated mobility department across the globe, where we actively help anyone who, for any reason, needs to look for a position somewhere else. These are all things you can work on and that will make a difference in loyalty.
But I still believe that the package is as important as all of this, unfortunately, just because of the nature of the market. This is something that I, and I think the industry as well, have made my peace with.
Yet, some agencies and networks are arguing for new, innovative strategies and remuneration models.
We, at Mindshare, have always had a flexible approach when it comes to work. We’ve always adapted the working hours and days to the needs of an employee. But the difficulty of being a multinational is that we cannot implement changes on a regional basis; it has to follow through from a global approach. Currently, [the group] is working hard to find different approaches that they can apply globally – shared remuneration, shared jobs, working from one country for another, etc.
But, again, we need to assess those in normal conditions and not during a pandemic.
What do you think your employees would want?
It’s a combination. We’ve conducted many surveys during the pandemic and throughout the last year, and some of the answers were quite strange. For example, in one of the markets, people were not happy about work from home; they all wanted to come back to the office. Then, three months back in the office, they said they were happier working from home.
So, for me, we need to look at three key points: job security, which was always important and even more so during the pandemic; remuneration; and, especially for the younger generation, a clear and dynamic career path. The rest is just perks.
Are you recruiting today the same way that you were recruiting in 2019?
Unfortunately, yes, and let me tell you why. Until the new decisions are cleared at the group level and implemented agency-wide, I don’t think it’s fair to offer any new recruits something different than what we offer our current employees. If any decision needs to be made, obviously that is going to affect every single person, which means looking at everyone’s contracts, structure, and so on. This is why, for now, we consciously made that decision, until we figure out a way to offer every single employee the same.
This article was published in Communicate's latest issue.