Chris Skinner is President EMEA of media agency UM, which delivers media campaigns across channels for brands including Spotify and Coca Cola.

I recently caught up with Chris to chat about his role and achievements at UM, the ad sector’s so-called ‘great resignation’, and the importance of building strong agency culture.

Chris Skinner

Tell us about your role. What does a typical day look like for you?

My days always start early, recently that’s particularly been the case given I’ve been collaborating on a project with our APAC team. That said, they used to start even earlier pre-pandemic when I did a lot more travelling to stay connected with teams and clients around the world. Although that had to change, I still love the daily connectivity and bustle of working across lots of international markets, even in digital form.

Whenever possible, I like to start the day by clearing my head with a run. That used to be around Richmond Park, but since moving to Cambridge I’m still looking for the ideal route – any suggestions are welcomed!

I typically spend some time every day with the client teams and direct reports around EMEA, making sure they have the right support. We’ve all had to change how we work over the last few years and this has seen benefits too: UM has transitioned to hybrid working, and in a sense we’ve formalised this new model with the launch of our new European and UK headquarters, The Bailey.

The thinking behind the design is to break down any barriers between teams; to bring people together no matter where they’re physically based, and to build cross-functional teams around the direct needs of clients rather than expecting them to fit around how we work. The new set-up will also give me more one-to-one time with people face to face, whether that’s the weekly team huddles, or reconnecting with clients and media owners.

Taking our client strategy from concept to reality has defined much of my time recently, but it will certainly be worth the effort. I’m looking forward to seeing how this will change the shape of my ‘typical day’ as the new office makes it that much easier to put the concept into standard practice.

What has been the greatest achievement during your time at UM so far?

I’m proud of so much, but helping build a strong culture stands out; I think it’s a big differentiator for UM. We’ve always had a good reputation for looking after our people, but what’s important is building a working environment in which everyone feels confident enough to share their ideas, aspirations and concerns. There’s no doubt it’s this mentality that ensured UM was able to adapt to the challenges of the last 18 months.

I’m also very proud to have led the team that won the European Honda account at the start of the year. It brought together so many parts of the business and so much talent. For me, this represented UM at its best; brilliant, highly skilled people supported by truly innovative tech.

UM works with big brands including Spotify and Just Eat – what differentiates you as an agency? Additionally, what makes a great pitch?

As I’ve already alluded to, flexibility and agility are hardwired into our agency. This means we’re able to shape and transform ourselves on a case-by-case, and indeed a campaign-by-campaign basis for our clients –  and crucially – to do so quickly.

We’re always thinking about how we can best future-proof UM to make sure we’re able to keep delivering what clients want. I can’t think of a period in recent memory in which this has been more important; there are just so many complex challenges linked to media, audiences and tech at the moment. It does help that we like challenges, of course, but it’s our defining attributes that allow us to take them on across multiple markets.

As for pitching, it’s always been a deeply complex affair, but running pitches remotely or on a hybrid basis actually takes even more time and commitment. At heart, things haven’t changed fundamentally though, we’ve always believed in putting a lot of energy into getting to the crux of client challenges to understand exactly what they need, whether that’s at a comms or a deeper business level. From here, we’re able to create tailored solutions to match those needs.

When it comes to the pitch itself, chemistry is still all-important. We work hard to find exactly the right team, identifying expertise, attitudes and the people with unique perspectives.

The ad sector has been hit hard by the so-called ‘great resignation’ – what is the key to overcoming this?

Churn has certainly been a challenge for the entire industry, and its causes are multiple and complex. However, we should all view this as an opportunity to evaluate how we recruit, train and nurture people. As a sector, we also need to consider how we create an industry-wide culture that can deliver sustainable career growth.

Prioritising your working and business culture is the first place to start, but it makes sense to look beyond traditional talent pools. The types of skills required within adland are changing, and bringing in people that approach challenges with a different set of experiences can be hugely beneficial.

It’s also critical to give your people the right professional support structures to help them grow, because no-one wants to feel they’re treading water. This isn’t necessarily an easy thing to do, nor indeed cheap. It requires a few different types of investment, but get it right, and you’ll quickly see the results.

From UM’s perspective, our ‘futureproof model’ requires that we build an environment in which our talent can see a meaningful longer-term future with the agency, a culture that evolves around them as much as the other way around. If our people are thriving, then so too is the business.

What excites you – about your company or wider industry – when thinking about the next 18 months?

Reconnecting with people in person, something I’ve really missed and now cherish more than ever. I personally find creativity and collaboration just works better when I’m sharing a room with people.

I’m also excited about our drive to diversify our talent and bring in new ideas and perspectives to the business. We’ve joined forces with Spotify and TikTok here to launch the Futureproof Academy, a modular course for secondary schools that provides an introduction to the world of media and creativity. It’s designed to develop core employability skills and raise aspirations to demonstrate that a career in media is not restricted to graduate intake. It’s a great opportunity for everyone involved, and something I really want to push and see grow.

What advice would you give to a marketer right now?

I’ve got two pieces of advice. Firstly, step back and reevaluate how you are approaching your KPIs for success. Currently, there’s a potentially dangerous tendency to focus on short-term gains at the expense of long-term brand value. Make sure you get the balance right and know how to measure and calibrate that.

And second, for those recruiting and growing businesses, don’t hire in your own image. Embracing new perspectives and tapping less obvious talent pools is going to make a huge difference to your work output. Employ people who will challenge you, empower them, and marvel at the new ideas that come from that.