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MRM's Nicky Bullard on the keys to building successful agencies even in testing times

Nicky Bullard, chairwoman and chief creative officer, MRM, and chair of The Drum Awards for agency business, discusses her predictions for agencies for the next 24 months and how the industry is moving in the right direction with equality and inclusivity.

What do you think will be the priority for agencies over the next year, and how do you think that will impact the work we see next year?

I've got three Ps. The first is our people. Keeping them safe physically and mentally. We don't know what's going to happen with the pandemic. We want people to be able to be themselves. We want people to be able to say 'I don't feel okay'. It's OK not to be OK. And we want that feeling of safety because it means you can be yourself. When you can be yourself and feel safe that's when creativity happens. Also, keeping people motivated. They've been hearing it from different agency leaders as well. As an industry, our people have been so amazing at adapting. We do it all the time. We're used to tight deadlines, we're used to change requests. And we've really shown it in the last year. We need to keep that motivation and dedication. Keeping people motivated, keeping them safe, mentally and physically.

We also need to stay creative. When budgets are cut, it's hard to be creative, but there's nothing like the freedom of a tight brief. If you haven't got much money, you are restricted, but sometimes that's when you can be the most creative.

The second P is progress. Keep pushing forward, keep making progress and most importantly, keep sharing that progress, because that in turn, will keep people motivated. There's so much bad news over the industry press, there's a lot of doom and gloom. Redundancies, clients leaving, senior leadership suddenly disappearing and you don't know where they've gone. It all feels quite unstable, but actually we're seeing the strength of those agencies. When we are winning, when when great stuff's happening, great work is being produced, we should celebrate it and show that progress.

And finally, passion. As an industry, we're pretty good at beating ourselves up, which is why we're good at what we do. A little bit of self-flagellation is good. Let's just stop, take a deep breath, look at what we are doing. And we want to make the world better and want to make things better. Keeping that passion to change is really important.

Your passions are direct and digital – what innovation has happened in those areas over the past 12 months?

Commerce is really exciting. It has always been the workhorse end of what we do but it's actually one of the most important parts. If you get to that point, you can do the best campaign in the world but if that experience isn't great you're not going to convert those sales, which as we know, is where the effectiveness comes in.

A great example is the Do Black card from Doconomy, a carbon limit credit card. It was a stroke of genius. It's just a brilliant invention where you can set your own carbon limits so you literally can't spend on your credit card if you've bought too many products with too much of a high count.

Another I absolutely loved is Banksy and his gross domestic product website. He launched his shop and it's absolutely anti-best practice for e- commerce. I love it. It's so him. It's anti e-commerce establishment. It's mad. You go on it and it's badly designed right to start with. But obviously the products are absolutely wonderful. There was a rat clock on it, with a rat running when the clock is ticking. I went to go and buy it, but you had to answer qualifying question to qualify as a possible purchaser. Talk about putting barriers in a way to buying things. The question was, why is art important? And I thought, right, I'm going to do something really anti-establishment. I put, it's not and I never qualified as a purchaser. So I could never buy my clock, which just makes me want to even more. There's a wonderful psychology in there.

Learning from that thinking that best practice is important. But if everything's best practice, everything can feel the same and remembering that the brand has to be at the heart of creativity. That was so on Banksy's brand, not giving a toss on annoying people.

MRM is a champion for equality and inclusivity. To what extent do you think the industry is moving in the right direction, and what else needs to happen to improve it?

Like I mentioned, we're really good at beating ourselves up. But actually, in the last few weeks, I've been able to see some of my friends who work in different industries, and talking to them about some of the things that we're all doing and how far ahead our industry might be compared to others. There's a lot of stuff we're doing, but it's never enough. We're all sitting here thinking there's so much I need to do.

There's three things. One is learn, learn, learn. Understand people, people's backgrounds that aren't the same as your own and understand that and learn about it. That was something that particularly came through after George Floyd murder, about black history for example. How those of us who don't have life experience had to just learn about it and realise just how little we knew. That's my personal point of view.

The other bit is talk, talk, talk. We're very good at saying what we want to do but everything becomes a bit sanitised. Because people are so worried about saying the wrong thing. And I think it's only when we say the wrong thing that we can be corrected that we're saying the wrong thing and understand the same thing. It's one of these vicious circles. But if we just accept that we're not going to get it right all the time and call it out.

The most important one is that do do do bit. We can learn, we can talk, but we have to do something to make positive change. We've just put together our sounding board. Which is a board of a mixture of people, from different backgrounds. Everybody had to apply and then they were voted for. It's going to join our board meetings and hold us to account. Likewise, we're going to challenge them, if they hold us count, they weigh something to do something about it. Sometimes when you're at an executive level, you hope you know exactly what's going on in the ground but you don't always. You have to listen.

Action is everything. Because until we do stuff, nothing changes. We can talk about it but let's do some stuff. Take Hidden for example. They're a brilliant recruitment company. They will put somebody within your business so that person becomes an extension of your team rather than hidden as an employee and understand your culture. They'll also bring you a richer, more diverse bunch of people to interview in first instance.

We also work with Jolt. They do eight weekly placements of junior creatives from different backgrounds. We've been really lucky with our first team. We kept rotating them, kept them in, and then we hired them. It's one of those things where, I call it the fear, the fear that we are missing out on talent because we don't come across it.

What are you looking forward to with the entries this year?

It's about this sort of game of two halves. It's the pre-Covid and in-Covid. Seeing what happened, and what people have learned. What the first six months were like, what the second six months are like, how the agencies have pivoted and how their teams have responded. That tells you so much about the culture of an agency on how quickly they can turn stuff around and how strong their relationships with their clients. Looking at who's kept their clients, whose clients are still investing. That's difficult, it just depends on industry and their own personal businesses. But also, what positive change if they seen and what are they most looking forward to in the future. This has been the biggest moment in all of our careers and our lives, the biggest thing that we've all shared together. So are those experiences going to be consistent or are they gonna be slightly different.

The deadline for The Drum Awards for experience is Wednesday 16 September. Make sure you enter now and visit the dedicated website.

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