Strategic marketing leadership in the wake of COVID-19

Ashley O’Neill MCIM, CIM Yorkshire Board Member (Events and Communications Ambassador) and UK Marketing Manager, Proactis

The disruption brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic has been swift and unprecedented, and, as strategic marketing leaders, we need to demonstrate our ability to flex and adapt when faced with long periods of uncertainty.  

Empathy, flexibility and support

People have been placed into a situation where they are working from home every day – a home they are also confined to, even when the working day finishes. Normal collaboration and face-to-face meetings have become a distant memory and it’s easy to feel detached and isolated, coupled with anxiety about finances, health and those close to you.    

As a leader, your team’s physical and mental health need to be a priority. Now is not the time to expect people to be working harder, it’s a time for trusting them to work smarter, efficiently and more effectively in a way that suits them and their families, whilst continuing to function as a valuable team member. Expecting people to be at their desks 5 days a week from 9-5 is already becoming an outdated concept, and this is clearly evident now more than ever. As work transitions into the home, employers need to be mindful that their employees will need that breathing space to adjust to the way they work. This transition will take time to get used to, especially for those who are not used to remote working.

Communication is also incredibly important right now. My team has daily catchups via Microsoft Teams and mindfully tries to communicate with each other throughout the day, for example, sending a quick message on our Teams’ instant chat function or choosing a call over an email. We also try to have our webcams on during longer meetings, where seeing facial expressions really makes a difference – a good example being 1-2-1 meetings. Actually, ‘seeing’ a person whilst you speak to them helps mitigate disconnect and our ability to read each other’s body language is not lost. My wider business is also doing similar things and internal communications are more regular and focused on keeping us all connected, informed and positive.

Campaign asked several agency leaders how they are keeping their teams motivated:

Adam Gerhart, U.S. CEO, Mindshare: “It’s about support, empowerment, and empathy. People want to know that we’re in their corner, and that we’re in it together. Everything else—motivation, smart ideas for clients, provocative thinking—it all comes out of that. The biggest component of that is having a steady stream of communication, both from myself and our other leaders, to not only keep people updated on what’s going on, but to drive more virtual connectivity and culture. […] As a leader, teams want to hear from you but, more importantly, they want to feel heard. So that’s what we’re working to do; making sure that people feel heard, that they feel trusted and supported to do their job (especially as we have many with loved ones at home, which sometimes means accepting different hours to accommodate their situation), and that they can still have fun and do great work - despite the uncertainty.”

Greg March, CEO, Noble People: “Motivating my employees isn’t my highest priority right now. I’ve got a great team. I tell them the truth about where things stand, what we’re doing in the best interest of this business I believe in, and why. My hope is that they believe in the values and ambition of this business [and] frankly, right now I’m more concerned about their health and burnout from over-work and stress than I am about them being motivated. I encourage breaks and taking the time off they are entitled to. I talk about that. As a result, I think they believe in our mission and know exactly what’s at stake.”

Leadership hasn’t changed, but the focus has shifted. The reason leaders are struggling right now is that traditional expectations of a ‘strong leader’ are already flawed. They are flawed because they are rooted in the idea of a leader who takes tough decisions during crises for the organisation, makes a rapid impact and maintains control.” 

Right now, leadership is less about making decisions and more about asking questions to understand the situation of your team and empowering them to work flexibly in ways which support their situations and prioritise self-care. It’s also about encouraging your team to be open with you if they are struggling, then working together to find practical solutions. Of course, motivation remains important, and businesses need output to stay afloat, but they also need healthy and engaged employees to do this – people truly are the most important asset a company has. 

Don’t forget to take care of yourself too. "Just as we re-purpose our organisations by asking what the world would lose if we didn't exist, it is a great time to do the same thing for yourself.”

Revisit your marketing strategy

  1. It’s more vital than ever right now to listen to how your customers and target audiences feel and what they need/want right now – use this to structure how you respond.
  2. Reassure customers that you continue to add value and are there to support them and their new circumstances.
  3. Utilise this way of thinking when positioning your business to your prospects. Look at what your business offers and how you can provide value.
  4. Make sure you’re honest – don’t promise that your product or service will provide an immediate fix to a challenge if they won’t.
  5. Focus on the need for transformation that the crisis has highlighted and how you can help kick-start that. As Gartner says: “Be careful about taking actions that provide short-term stability (or gain) for the firm at the expense of customer trust.”

It is essential that your offering is seen to be supporting people or organisations by addressing their challenges or needs. Many companies seem to be inappropriately using the situation as ‘click bait’ and risk reputational damage – so be careful of your approach. Consider how you add value and use this to establish your brand position, then make sure that everybody is on the same page – this includes your sales team, account management team, support team, as well as your marketing team.

You can make a difference

The current situation has transitioned the entire world into a reality that none of us are familiar with and which we’re all learning to navigate through. As a strategic marketing leader, there is no blueprint to follow and no textbook answer. These difficult times will reveal and test your values as a leader like nothing you have ever encountered before. Your willingness to adapt and your leadership style in order to support your team, your customers and your prospects, is vitally important to keeping your business relevant and successful.

For more information on how CIM can advise and support members during these times, please visit our coronavirus (COVID -19) advice and support page:

From local networking and support in these current times, find out how you can join CIM’s Yorkshire’s regional community, by visiting: