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As they recover from the pandemic, marketing businesses must find a growth culture

Scott Carter, chief human resources officer, Kantar

As agencies look beyond the recovery from the pandemic, Scott Carter of Kantar argues growth plans must prioritize staff, not just the bottom line.

As we’ve started to return to some form of new normality at Kantar, I’ve been reflecting on the changing behaviors and strategies that are enabling us to bounce back. As a business we have returned to pre-pandemic trading levels; something we’re proud of, and for which I credit our great people enormously. Employees across the board have had to adapt, not just to new ways of working, but market conditions unlike anything we’ve seen before. The response of our people to the pandemic has been remarkable and is proving to be transformative for how we run our business.

The nature of the pandemic has been such that a one-size-fits-all HR strategy couldn’t work. My colleagues in China are much more used to being in the office than teams in Europe, for example. Similarly, our customers’ needs have varied dramatically. While the broader economic picture has been challenging, some brands have thrived thanks to innovative thinking and positioning. Key to our success in supporting our customers has been a focus on embracing flexibility as part of our growth-led culture. Three things in particular have been a focus across our teams and offices: embracing hybrid working, encouraging entrepreneurial mindsets and rewarding high performance.

Making hybrid working work

We’ve all seen differing perspectives on working from home. The marketing industry is a creative one – for creativity to thrive there must be a level of comfort and tension that is much easier to achieve face-to-face.

Those two minutes before or after a meeting, for example, as everyone grabs a coffee or chats informally, can often lead to innovation that would be lost on a video call. We very much support getting our teams back together in the office environment, but we are also much more appreciative of the benefits that come from home working – both to productivity and personal wellbeing. In-person meetings must be more thoughtful and purposeful – for example, we don’t need to travel long distances for a quick catch-up, but we do need to get back some cadence of being in the office. Face-to-face contact remains invaluable, especially for our younger team members who value the development and mentoring that comes with working side-by-side with more experienced colleagues.

Our global policy from a management perspective in this environment is focused on flexibility. Regional leadership and offices can set local policies for individual teams that align to both the business needs and the health and wellbeing environment in which they operate.

At a macro-level, hybrid working means no one answer exists for every individual, team or country. Our teams have worked incredibly hard to deliver value throughout the pandemic; so hard, in fact, that our client satisfaction scores went up. So during the transition back into offices we have reflected hard on the trust generated by our teams and their performances. Working from home is a valuable part of our future. We have also been very deliberate in our language. We have returned to the workplace, not returned to work, and are overtly making staff safety, wellbeing and business success equal priorities in our decision-making.

Rewarding high performance and entrepreneurial mindsets

The pandemic came at an interesting time for Kantar. Our ownership changed in 2019, and with that came myriad new opportunities within the company. A key part of our culture is growth mindset. That culture has intersected with our growth and transformation plan in the cascading of decision-making further down the organization and closer to the client. This allows us to be more streamlined and move faster for clients, and at the same time create more opportunities for personal growth and promotion. Our people have embraced the additional responsibilities placed in their hands. The experience and growth garnered in having more freedom to operate makes progression on to the next level of seniority more seamless.

By putting decision-making in the hands of those closer to implementation, we believe we will maximize creativity and output, and deliver more space and opportunity for employees to grow in their roles. Similarly, our more senior leaders have been made more accountable to performance targets and given the responsibility to manage their teams the way they think success can be achieved. This approach is delivering for our colleagues. In the first half of 2021, we promoted one in eight employees. Three quarters of those promotions happened in our junior ranks, reflecting the progression that growth opportunities can create.

Ultimately, we can only generate more growth opportunities if we’re generating business value. Important to achieving this has been creating a clearer line of sight between contribution and compensation, and simplifying approvals of pay rises and promotions.

Delivering the growth-led environment also means evolving how people get financially rewarded for great work. All our staff received 50% of their annual bonus early this year. It was our way of recognizing their remarkable performance and saying thank you for the strong 2021 results so far. We are also transforming how and when pay rises are awarded more broadly.

In addition to our annual review process, we have introduced a new dynamic process that allows managers to reflect on performance and circumstances, and reward within their P&L framework. Recognition is no longer an annual occurrence. Earlier in the summer we launched a recognition platform that saw 8,000 posts in just a few weeks. We want our staff to see Kantar as a great place to work; to build a career in research, analytics and consultancy, where they’ll be recognized for that work.

The changes forced on us by the pandemic encouraged us to innovate, adapt and find new boundaries for what growth mindset really means. We are now focused on making sure those lessons we learned are embedded in the future of the company. Fostering a growth culture is still hard and a forever project for any organization. What we’ve established over the past year, though, is that living up to the idea of a growth mindset is essential to our business vitality.

Scott Carter is chief human resources officer, Kantar.

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