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Leo Rayman: What we can learn from our Italian ad agency during the Coronavirus pandemic

By Leo Rayman, Global chief executive officer

March 16, 2020 | 6 min read

As we all consider the new world we find ourselves in and how to adapt our working practices, I decided to share some advice from Marta Di Girolamo, Grey Group chief executive in Italy, who is currently under quarantine in Milan. She is a brilliant leader, was open about her insights and gave some practical advice.

Milan duomo

Leo Rayman: What I’ve learned from our Italian ad agency during the Coronavirus pandemic/ image by Matteo Raimondi via Unsplash

Based not on guesswork, but on the experiences of our colleagues, here are the collective learnings on what is working and what works less well, to help us all prepare for what comes next. This isn’t about VPNs and Zoom accounts - but about the culture of working remotely.

Rethink how you communicate

If 80% of communication is body language and you can’t be present with colleagues, partners or clients, then the way you handle communications needs to adapt. Most of the time screens are being shared or the bandwidth is under pressure which means we can’t see each other easily. Our Italian teams have been rethinking the way they structure presentations, the way they present information and how creative work is presented.

Build-in more time so that everyone’s voice can be heard. Talk as a team about what is working and not working. Ask people on the other end of the call to playback what they’re understanding.

Keep in touch

Keep connected with clients and colleagues. Clients may be dealing with greater challenges than their agency partners, so think ahead about how you can support them. For example, the [Grey Milan] team prepared for the potential closure of all retail stores by developing a series of clear informational communications for social posts, website updates and emails.

The same is true for colleagues, regular morning and evening status calls to discuss the day’s events helps keep the team together and ensures you’re on the pulse of what’s happening with the work and the mood. It also stops people from feeling lonely. We’re much stronger together.

Take time to pause and assess

When working entirely remotely it is easy to get overwhelmed by the volume of emails, calls, messages and notifications across platforms. So take time to stand back and reflect. We have prepared by shifting wholeheartedly to Microsoft Teams so that we all know the one place where most work chats and documents will be available. Marta writes, “The strong culture and the spirit of the agency has surfaced very clearly. Observe it, get a feel for it from your managers, talk with your teams. You’ll get a different sense of culture, work ethic and social dynamics than you can ever get from an office desk.”

Reinvest your travel time

Many of us spend more than five hours a week commuting. What will you do with that extra time? One good suggestion is that you do some of the personal development and reading you’ve been meaning to get around to. My plan for this newfound time will be to finish the damn book I’ve been writing on how we can break free of the hidden assumptions that limit our thinking. It’s rare to be given time back in life and I’m grabbing it.

Be additive to your culture

Necessity is the mother of invention. Challenge your teams to be creative. Try new things and you’ll be amazed at your resourcefulness. Organize an all-staff meeting on video call, it might not work but it’ll give people something to laugh about and to remember. Find alternative ways to celebrate a win, the delivery of a project or positive feedback from a client. These experiments will help strengthen team spirit and it may well become the new normal later. Already, new ideas and projects are popping up as they always do.

Act sooner rather than later

I was struck by Marta’s firsthand experience of the situation in Italy. She asks us all please to prepare and adopt sensible preventive measures now. WPP, in keeping with many firms, has been providing excellent and detailed guidance on what to do in any number of potential scenarios. This has made it easier for us all to prepare. Make sure you’re getting that advice from your HQ. For example, today, many of our operating companies are doing a test run of work from home and this has meant we’ve ensured we all have the right software, we all have the right equipment, we all know our logins and our documents are accessible in the cloud. We can all build resilience in these difficult times and come out on top when the pandemic leaves us, as it inevitably will.

Go beyond your business

Our communities and countries need help, our clients need help. This isn’t the time to be pushing a footfall generating promotion. Instead, how can we use our creativity and resourcefulness to help develop fast and useful ways to help the collective. This has meant facilitating donations to health organizations, supporting the Italian government in convincing people to stay at home and change their habits. Developing useful solutions like free delivery, or by supporting parents whose time is now dedicated to caring for kids at home.

People are already thinking about how the world will be different after the virus. Let’s use the time now on making a better future after it.

Leo Rayman is the founder and CEO of Grey Consulting. Since sharing this piece WPP has asked all staff to work from home although it will keep offices open subject to local policy.

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