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In conversation with… Pat Stephenson

This article first appeared on the Marketing Institute of Ireland blog in May 2020.

In uncertain times, it is more important than ever to share experience, insights and advice with your peers so we can all learn from one another. With this in mind, we are having conversations with members across various sectors to understand how themselves and their teams have been coping with the COVID-19 pandemic, what they have learned from it and how they continue helping their customers.

For this week’s instalment in the series we’ve chatted to Pat Stephenson, Chief Relationship Officer + Founder at Boys+Girls.

MII: Hi Pat, can you tell us about how have you been adapting your marketing activities during the COVID-19 outbreak?

Fundamentally our business is our clients business. We are successful together. We share disappointment together. We dealt with this crisis together.

We’ve been living with the realities of COVID on business for over two months now. Its effects have been immediate and will be long lasting – especially in terms of consumer behaviour.

Firstly we needed to understand the effect on each of our clients business.

For some, their business practically disappeared overnight. For others, they were experiencing extraordinary growth. I’ve been in two conversations where the words COVID and Christmas were collated in terms of sales.

For every client their media had to be reconsidered. Creative rethought, reworked or created again. Experiential, long planned and mostly in production was no longer feasible in a physical sense. Rather we had to think about how digital could offer a means to bring a similar brand experience to life.

Then we quickly moved into thinking about how we could best help them pivot to either make the most of opportunities – or to make the most of resource. Pivoting to create meaningful work that works for our clients business and the new consumer landscape.

Now we’re working with them to ensure that they are absolutely match fit as the world prepares for this new normal. From practical considerations through to ensuring we keep them on top of the latest Irish and Global consumer trends.

Now is when you can see the true nature of partnership between an agency and client. Supportive, flexible, commercial and creative. So whilst we are all adapting various ‘what’s’ and ‘how’s’ the fundamentals have remained the same.

How have you been engaging with your team?

Google Chat. Zoom. Teams. WhatsApp. And the good old fashioned telephone.

We’re doing at least one all agency meeting a week focusing on various topics – from Creative Reviews, walk through a hot-off-the-press pitch winning deck, to our own ‘COVID x Consumer’ behaviour reports – they are a great way of feeling like we are all together.

We’ve tried to keep all the stuff that makes Boys+Girls the agency it is. Embarrassing Birthday Party celebrations. Ever so slightly too early Friday drinks. Break making cook-along classes. Music parties.

It all helps. And whilst it’s been amazing how the work has kept going and the quality is as sky high as ever, we definitely miss the buzz of being together IRL.

What have you learned from a marketing perspective from COVID-19?

That the world can throw a spanner in the works of any carefully laid out plan.

That a great brand platform or advertising idea is robust enough to adapt to whatever format it needs to.

That a lot of questions we never thought of before are being answered.

Are cars transport any more? Or are they personalised mobile safety boxes?

How does a season ticket holding football fan support a team they can’t physically see any more?

If the pubs are closed how can people get a delicious pint safely into their hands?

It’s been an incredibly stimulating time as we work with our clients to try and grasp the realities and the opportunities together.

How have your work practices changed? What will you do differently going forward?

Pre COVID there was a strongly held view that creativity needs physicality. People together in a room bouncing ideas off each other. But since lockdown we’ve delivered great work for our clients and also pitched and won one of the biggest accounts we’ve ever worked with.

So whilst we all want to get back into the office, remote working – at least some of the time – is here to stay.

Has your brand purpose been challenged by COVID-19? How?

We create entertaining work for ambitious brands.

Right now there is a lot of terrible, cliché ridden, inappropriate work being schlocked into the world by badly advised clients.

‘Now, more than ever, in these unprecedented times’… lazy creative is still lazy creative. Being sensitive to a situation is not a license to bore. Commercially focused, consumer minded entertaining work is rarer and therefore even more valuable.

What brands or businesses have you admired through this crisis?

I could pick out almost all of our clients on this front. Diageo pivoting to making hand gel for those in need. ŠKODA using their dealerships for helping to deliver for those who need it. Three removing all their data usages so people can stay connected. They have all been brilliant.

Internationally I love how IKEA has managed to stay useful and on brand. Producing ads as instructional leaflets to show how to make play fortresses out of their sofas. Brilliant.