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Five minutes with VaynerMedia's UK boss, Sarah Baumann

18 Sep 2020  |  Mike Fletcher 
Five minutes with VaynerMedia's UK boss, Sarah Baumann

Sarah Baumann, MD at VaynerMedia, tells Mediatel News about becoming 'mummy at home', her current thoughts on Brexit as the former marketing director of People's Vote UK, and why she thinks digital advertising beats big broadcast campaigns right now

It’s been just over a year since you joined VaynerMedia as its London managing director. How has the digital agency’s culture changed during this time, especially around its response to the UK lockdown?

One of the reasons I joined VaynerMedia was because of its culture. It’s unique and strong and held very dear from our founder and CEO, Gary Vaynerchuk, all the way down. So that culture hasn’t really changed – if anything, we’ve become more open, more proudly Vayner, avoiding conforming to agency norms and holding on tight to the things that make us Vayner.

It’s a very Vayner thing to adapt fluidly to a new context but even so, it’s tough. But everyone’s been amazing at being positive; they have put their heart and soul into helping our clients, and carrying on doing great work. Empathy is one of our core values and I think everyone has become closer to their colleagues and to our clients, as personal realities have become more visible.

How have you personally had to adapt to the Covid crisis and lockdown?

It’s been huge and life changing. At the beginning, I was struck by how weirdly unifying and utterly unique the experience was for us all. Terrifying as it was, I think it was actually very sobering and important that we could no longer get our hands on whatever we wanted, when we wanted and for us all to be sharing the same experience regardless of wealth, status or identity.

I didn’t experience the same confinement most people did as my mother was very ill in hospital, so we were visiting – but I did see the NHS go into crisis management mode, which made the severity very visceral.

And of course, the strangeness of having to explain to your kids what was going on. I have a nine-year-old and four-year-old. It was very difficult being ‘mummy at home, who can’t talk or play with you when you’re off school because we’re all working like mad to avoid furloughing and cuts’.

But I am grateful for being able to spend so much more time with them that I wouldn’t normally have had. We’ve been through this crisis together and good has come out of it. I also learnt to be at peace with a lot of screen time and their dubious YouTube habits.

At the time of your appointment, you said that VaynerMedia is an agency that truly understands where consumer attention is. Where is consumer attention currently? For example, are we still environmentally conscious or has the pandemic made us all self- preservationists?

This is a fascinating question and one we’ve been tracking throughout lockdown. Obviously at the height of lockdown there were bigger, unified trends around consumer attention when there was mass panic about bread-making or home-haircuts.

As lockdown went on, we started to see how the population settled into different cohorts, affected in different ways – by illness, economics, geography, life stage, lifestyle and values – and their behaviour changed.

Overall, we found that the issues people cared about before Covid weren’t eradicated, just displaced; and their significance returned as fear and anxiety dissipated. The pandemic has re-focused consumer attention. For example, for all the progress we made environmentally, the pandemic justifies a big increase in single use plastic, disposable masks, PPE, increased private car use vs. public transport – so there are a new set of issues we need to recognise and adapt to.

How important is empathy for delivering great client work currently? Has its importance grown over the past few months?

Yes, empathy is everything. Marketers and advertisers have always talked about ‘consumer understanding’, but empathy goes far deeper. Empathy means recognising diversity – that different people have different needs, interests and behaviours, and treating all of those as equally valid.

The past few months have shown how we can be empathetic at scale, and most of all, be kind in our dealings – personal, professional and in the work we make. As we head towards a difficult winter, and traditionally the most consumerist period of the year, if brands don’t show empathy for their customers’ lives, they will fall on their faces.

What are your thoughts on the physical workplace? Do you think agency culture will evolve the working from home model or do you believe there’s a need for office-based working?

I think it’s exciting this has forced a re-evaluation of the physical workplace and expectations. For an industry that has generally only paid lip-service to flexibility and stubbornly resisted any genuine evolution of the agency model, it’s enlightened and empowered a lot of people.

But we must recognise the differences and varying needs of our staff. At Vayner, some people have come into their own through home-working and the headspace it’s given them, but there are others who are desperate to get back to the office because they need people around them.

We will definitely go back to an office at some point, but the purpose of our office will have changed. It will be for collaboration; ideas and I hope meetings with our clients and partners at some point. But we won’t be rushing back. We can adapt brilliantly to working from home in the short term and resilience is certainly a core trait of agency people.

However, we are better when we can be together – we need to talk, argue, laugh, challenge and while we can do that on Zoom, we prefer to be in the same room.

With UK marketing budgets slashed to their lowest levels for 20 years, how do you see an adspend recovery taking shape? Are you already seeing signs of renewed spend or will it take longer?

We are seeing spend pick up, particularly in digital. The first few weeks and months were all about pausing and pivoting, which our clients did incredibly well and we all worked hard and fast to create pragmatic and essential responses to the crisis.

Now, brands are starting to plan within the context of Covid. This is why digital is so important. The effectiveness of messages and content aimed at different cohorts - that gives value and understands how they’ve been affected by lockdown - beats big broadcast campaigns right now. But it will undoubtedly take longer for the economy and the industry to feel healthy again. We are all predicting a tough few months ahead and a very rocky 2021.

In a previous life you co-founded VivaWomen to help promote positive changes for women in the Publicis workplace. How does the agency landscape currently look from a woman’s perspective? Have financial, cultural and workplace supports made a considerable difference or is there still disparity over pay, equality and unconscious bias?

We launched VivaWomen in 2012 which, unbelievably, was pre #metoo. There was such energy and determination to make a big change, which was then turbo charged by the #metoo movement. It was genuinely one of the best things I’ve been involved in.

I’d love to say that it was all solved and job done. But, while advertising has come on a lot and there are many more amazing women running agencies and in senior positions, and (I hope) younger women, mums, and older women feel they have more of a role and a career path, it’s still far from equitable. In addition, the Black Lives Matter movement and recent realisations of racism and unconscious bias have shown we are far from eradicating disparity over pay, equality and unconscious (or conscious) bias.

We are simply not acting quickly or decisively enough as an industry. We shouldn’t be treating women, people of colour, LGBTQ+, or people with disabilities as a list of ‘minorities’ to include, acting one by one when it becomes high profile and there’s pressure to release a policy. We need a wholesale shift to change the make-up of our agencies and the work we do.

You were previously marketing director of People’s Vote UK, the campaign for a second Brexit referendum. With newspapers reporting that trade talks are on the verge of collapse, how do you currently feel about Britain’s future outside the European Union?

How long do I have? Covid allowed the fury people felt about Brexit on all sides to subside and after 18 months of unbearable debate about the deal, people (as the government had) could just kick that can down the road. But it was displaced rather than eradicated, and the temperature is now rising swiftly as all the issues once again rear their ugly, insoluble head.

I’d love to say I’m shocked by the backtracking, lies and breaches of international law being sanctioned, but sadly very little about the arrogance and recklessness of our government surprises me anymore.

What really rankles though is that a no-deal Brexit would be destructive enough on its own, but now it will come on the back of nine months of Covid-driven economic, physical and emotional hardship. I think that puts an untenable burden on industries and businesses. I struggle to see how this will have a positive outcome in 2021 when we are still dealing with Covid. And those responsible will use the pandemic as their ‘get out of jail’ free card.

What is your biggest hope for the future of the media and advertising industry?

That the industry at large has the guts to shake itself up and transform – that we finally see that we do better work when our agencies reflect the people we are talking to, and the way people live and engage with media.

I really hope that one day soon we stop having to explain that you can build brands and drive business results on digital platforms and – dare I say it – without TV.

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