Tony Whittingstall is Global COO at FirmDecisions, the marketing contract compliance specialist. With so much upheaval amongst budgets and planning, we found out what auditing looks like now.
Please describe your job: What do you do?
FirmDecisions is the largest independent global marketing contract compliance specialist. I’ve been with the business for more than 14 years now, and my role has grown and changed as the firm has developed its footprint and influence.
From the start of this year, I’ve been Global COO, effectively FirmDecisions’ global technical lead. While I do work closely with a few, senior clients, my overall responsibility is to ensure that our service offering is consistent – and of a consistently high standard – across all markets and regions. As an integral part of our contract compliance auditing service, we advise our clients on the commercial implications of the contracts they have with their agency partners.
How has your typical day been impacted in the short term by the pandemic?
In some ways quite a lot – like everyone else in the knowledge economy, I’m working from home, for now. But in other ways not so much. Our Audit Directors have traditionally lived life on the road, spending time in agency offices around the world. We were never all in an office 9-5, and I’m used to switching from talking to one team in Athens and then another in Mumbai. We’re well used to dealing with time differences and managing remote-working teams to deliver consistent levels of service, and that is the same as it ever was.
The difference is more pronounced for our Audit Directors, who are working from home and not in agency offices. That change has had more of an impact on my working day, as I’m spending more time keeping the morale of our team strong, keeping them busy, and working together to adapt our services so we can deliver them seamlessly but remotely.
Our clients’ agency partners have obligations to our mutual clients, and I’ve observed a real sense of partnership on all sides to overcome the challenges of everyone working remotely. It’s true that there have been some paper trail issues in the audits we’re carrying out – gaining access to final, approved media plans, for instance, and getting sight of commercially-sensitive documentation that historically we viewed when on site with the agencies. But we’re working together in a coordinated fashion to work out how to best serve our clients, finding work-arounds for the barriers that being unable to be in the office have thrown up.
What are your favourite tools and techniques to help you get your work done at the moment?
The ubiquitous Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Skype meetings are of course helpful – but it’s fair to say they present their challenges, too. It’s great to be able to continue interacting with colleagues, clients and agency partners “in-person”, but the challenge is, meetings often run back to back to back, all day, every day. And what before might have been a more informal, ten-minute chat often now takes at least half an hour in the form of a more structured online meeting.
Which companies have impressed you since the outbreak?
I’ve been most impressed with those companies that turned their production lines around to help produce PPE and equipment needed in hospitals, rather than those who produced an empathetic slogan to show they cared. Dyson making ventilators, Burberry making gowns for medical staff, LVMH and BrewDog making hand sanitizer gel. When the pandemic is over, people will remember those companies who actually did something about it over those who simply supported the cause.
What changes are you making to help your brand connect with how people are feeling and experiencing the pandemic?
With social contact ruled out for months, we quickly instituted a Friday Zoom drinks session for our team, a chance for them to meet and socialise and talk about work but also things other than work. Social interaction is important to our business, between colleagues who often become friends by dint of working closely together while travelling on audit projects. With lockdown easing and our team able to meet small groups of other friends and family, things are changing and there’s less need for these sessions. But I’m sure we’ll keep running them. They’ve been helpful and supportive.
With our clients, we’ve started to share simple, practical advice on what they can and should be doing as a result of altered trading conditions. We’ve run a series of webinars that have proved popular, covering the implications of Covid-19 on agency relationships, rebates, and fee negotiations. For instance, if a contract stipulates a fixed fee for multi-channel media planning but all media is now online, advertisers need to talk to their agencies about what this means for the fee.
What trends have you seen in the last few weeks in your sector?
A lot of our clients are now focused on their cash position. With budgets frozen or cut, many advertisers are now focused on recovering the monies our audits have shown they’re owed – including rebates and unbilled media from past years – as quickly as possible. And many are using these monies to shore up or bolster their ad spend for the rest of this year. Historically, securing the return of these monies was less time-sensitive. Now it’s much more so, particularly for big clients with multi-market programmes. Where there are disagreements on who owes what, a dispute might have taken weeks or months to resolve with an email trail; now, all parties get together on a video conference and often resolve it in a matter for 30 minutes. That’s a really positive, productive development.
What advice would you give a marketer right now?
Agency-client relationships are typically set and reviewed annually, so when they put their 2020 plans in place, no advertisers could have had any idea of how the year would play out. That’s why the biggest single piece of advice we’re giving all of our clients now is to talk regularly with their agency partners to actively reset their plans for the second half of the year. Where fees are based on a full year’s activity and much of that activity has been postponed or cancelled, advertisers need to renegotiate now and not wait until the year is done.
What does long term planning and strategy look like now at your brand?
As lockdown eases, there will be some important learnings we’ll want to take with us into the post-pandemic world, what some are calling “the next normal”. We’ve pressure-tested tech and remote working, and it’s proved itself to be resilient. Agencies appreciate working with us remotely; data transfer is often easier electronically than finding a physical copy of the right file and sharing it in an office during an audit. We’ll clearly travel much less and spend less time in agency offices, when it’s clear a lot of what we do can be fulfilled remotely, provided all parties are happy to work in this way. And this will have significant cost and timing benefits for our clients.
This has been a difficult time for us, our clients, and agencies. But we’ve proved ourselves – individually and collectively – to be resourceful and able to do almost all of what we used to do in person, sometimes more efficiently than before. We should carry that spirit of adaptability with us as we move into the new ways of working.