AMV's Sarah Douglas on changing workplaces and being more maverick

Next up in Campaign’s “Leadership in lockdown” series is Sarah Douglas, the chief executive of Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO. Like many leaders at this time, Douglas has had to come to terms with making hard business decisions that were not even on the horizon a couple of months ago. At AMV, that has meant furloughing 15% of staff and considering the possibility of redundancies.

Working from her garden in south-west London, Douglas shares what she has learned so far about leadership, helping clients plan for the future and gaining inspiration from her children and their love for musicals. 

Where are you spending quarantine and how do you run your day?

I’m at home in leafy south-west London with the family and an assortment of animals. I get up early and use the first hour of the day to ground myself with a run, some yoga in the garden, usually interpretatively interrupted by our four-legged friends, and quiet time with a cup of tea. I’m grateful for my faith every day of my life but ever more so in tectonic-plate-shift moments like this.

After a family breakfast, we settle down to work/schoolwork until we meet back in the kitchen for a half-hour pre-lunch grit cardio class – the clue is in the word “grit”, as in gritted-teeth emoji. Then it’s lunchtime (I’m a feeder and love the ceremony and emotional nourishment that food brings), followed by the daily post-lunch table tennis battle before dispersing again.

I try to do walking calls in the afternoon to keep myself moving and then at 5pm we get out for a family bike ride before nestling down for a triple billing of our family-lockdown viewing at 6pm – currently Arrow. The inbox doesn’t stop, of course, so I try not to drive everyone mad losing the storyline. We are diehard Marvel and DC fans, not least because they are masterclasses in leadership dos and don’ts.

What were the biggest adjustments that you had to make in the first few weeks in terms of your work, your team and your clients/ external partners? 

It’s a testament to the strength of our wonderful AMV community that we went remote from day one without breaking stride. Everyone stayed focused on delivering creativity for clients at speed and finding smart ways to get things made as production socially distanced. 

The biggest adjustment came in week two with the closure of schools, which of course now continues for the summer term. I felt my role then and now was to free everyone to find the cadence which worked best for them to be the professional, the parent, the neighbour, the carer and the anything else they needed to be. This crisis is as much about conscientious citizenship as it is anything else, so helping our people find a happy sustainable path for themselves and their families’ well-being was a primary adjustment priority. 

How has your business made savings and why have you chosen certain routes, eg pay cuts versus furloughing versus redundancies? 

We predicted a gentle drop-off of activity in quarter two early, so we were quick to explore all the options and have deployed furlough where possible. It’s a job retention scheme, so it’s a no-brainer. The senior executives have taken paycuts to support the business and our clients through this time. As I have explained to the agency, I think it is unlikely the sector will recover without the need for permanent reductions, but we are still working through this, given our primary focus right now is supporting our clients through lockdown and helping to prepare them for the best possible recession emergence.

What has been the hardest part and the most uplifting part of lockdown?

The hardest part is definitely making peace with business decisions that were not even on the horizon two months ago but have become necessity very quickly, because this is so much bigger than any of us. But, at the end of the day, that’s leadership.

I miss the good people of AMV very much, but there is enormous generosity, kindness and creativity in our community. There are lots of connections happening beyond Webex in ways that are at turns humbling, encouraging or downright bonkers, all of which is incredibly uplifting.

What are you working on?

My main focus right now is on the future. Lockdown will end eventually and when it does we will be facing a world that looks as familiar as a lunar landscape. So I’m working on getting ahead of that in order to advise clients well. 

We know creativity deployed correctly can be a key driver of growth and, as a creative agency, we are best-positioned to help our clients capitalise on using it to drive competitive advantage and get back to growth, part of which will undoubtedly be exploring new ways our brands behave. There won’t be a switch that returns us to normal. We will emerge into a new chapter of empathetic, sustainable humanity and the brands that will win will be the ones which can adapt to those codes, connect via those behaviours and use the power of creativity to express and amplify them.

How do you find inspiration?

I find it in my children. They are much like their mother: 50% swot and 50% maverick. They do their schoolwork at speed (swot) and then rewrite their own timetable (maverick), which usually involves playing guitar and piano, and filling the house with the strains of their lockdown repertoire. Last week, it was You’ll Be Back from Hamilton and I Dreamed a Dream from Les Misérables – not bad considering prior to lockdown they were only technically trained in flute and clarinet. All of this reminds me that leading through a crisis is about gathering as much knowledge as you can at speed (swot) and blending it with the right amount of rebellion (maverick).

Has the experience taught you something that you’ll change when you get back to working from an office? 

I said at the start of lockdown that if we grasp the nettle of this moment in history correctly, we will change the way we work for good. We have proven that presenteeism does not equal contribution. We have proven that if you have talent you can be creative anywhere. We have all got over our reservations about whether a camera can create a connection as well as shared oxygen. It’s done and we should not look back. We should use this forced opportunity to achieve the goal the technological revolution promised but never quite delivered; with our brains turned on, we can work brilliantly anywhere. That’s what a modern creative company looks like.

What change do you expect to see in the industry when this is over? 

I hope this will shake out a lot of mediocrity. With the recessionary pressure on budgets, it simply won’t be good enough to put work out into the world that isn’t interesting, useful, shareable, resonating, inspiring or creative enough. No-one will notice and no-one will care. So I hope the industry is far tougher on itself about what good looks like.


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