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How culture protects organisations in times of crisis

By Chris Freeland



The Drum Network article

This content is produced by The Drum Network, a paid-for membership club for CEOs and their agencies who want to share their expertise and grow their business.

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April 27, 2020 | 4 min read

No one was prepared for this crisis. We couldn’t possibly have seen it coming, and at Rapp, just like everywhere else, we have had no choice but to adapt and re-evaluate our responses to the evolving challenges on a daily basis.


Trying to maintain our BAU, client service and creative output is clearly crucial, but any leader will tell you that right now our people and their wellbeing remain our number one priority. Maintaining our people’s energy levels, innovative thinking, efficiency and of course their wellbeing is the lifeblood of any agency.

We’ve all had to get used to the volatility, and in my role as chief executive officer I’ve had to get comfortable with not knowing all the answers but what I have learned over the last six weeks is that the culture within the business has been critical to keeping it ticking.

Adapting to individuals

As an agency we champion individuality and this focus has certainly helped the business continue to operate at pace and successfully. We have encouraged our teams to respect their roots and their personal needs. But in times of crisis, the need to recognise individual needs is more important than ever. Some will be thriving in isolation and working from home, others will be finding the same four walls more of a struggle.

For me, empathy is key to weathering this storm, alongside fostering individuality – asking the time to get to know the different personalities who make up our business, and trusting in people’s strengths while accepting all our vulnerabilities. That way we get the best from them, while giving them the tools to make the best of their own situations and environments.

Maximising your community

In this shared experience, our sense of community has taken on a new significance – street WhatsApp groups ensure the old and vulnerable don’t feel isolated, and on Thursday evenings, when we clap for carers, we take time to connect with neighbours.

This same impulse is also being felt in business. As employees feel the strain of uncertainty at work, we need to motivate our teams to build a strong sense of community and support for each other. The Edelman Trust Barometer’s Covid-19 report found that 90% of consumers want to see brands protect their employees at all costs, and this is just as relevant for agency brands.

That’s why many of us accepted the Easter challenge to make sculptures out of marshmallow and Rice Krispies. It’s also our reason for the “interiors and intrigue” challenge to identify each others’ home offices. And the reason we still celebrate birthdays, bad haircuts, and blooming gardens, as well as online yoga, Sanctus mental health coaching, and regular team check-ins.

Keeping up that momentum requires a big community effort right now, but luckily, we had already laid the groundwork. Culture can’t be engineered, it can’t be invented in a hurry, and it won’t magically embed itself into the organisation just because you’ve scrawled some “values” on the wall or put them in an all-staff email.

Culture comes from leaders modelling the behaviours we hope to see across the agency, which means supporting innovative ideas and the brave individuals who bring them to light, putting people first no matter what, and never being afraid to be ourselves.

We’ve always encouraged our colleagues, clients and customers to have a voice, and now more than ever we must make space to hear them, whether they are shouting loudly or whispering softly. Between us, we are doing our best to foster a credible hope that keeps us all going – but that’s only going to work if we are prepared to combine it with brutal honesty.

Chris Freeland, chief executive officer, Rapp


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