The art of creating a team has been put to the sternest of tests in recent months. Organisations have been forced to carefully construct internal structures from a distance, weighing up delicate checks and balances over a Zoom call, or trying to test merging functions via Teams.

It’s a challenge the three participants in a panel discussion, held on the final day (10 June) of the Festival of Marketing: Fast Forward, have all had to grapple with over the past year. And it’s notable that all of them are able to look to the future positively, despite the traumas of lockdown.

The wellbeing of staff, an issue prompted in part by online meetings held in front rooms and kitchens where home and work life became increasingly dissolved, was one key takeaway during the conversation.

“The big driver around all the decisions I made last year was how people were feeling, not what they were doing,” said Benefit Cosmetics marketing director Lou Bennett.

That in turn led to looking at colleagues in a new light and, in many cases, discovering other capabilities and interests.

“We’ve actually made some really interesting changes, we found new skillsets in people,” Bennett added. “You manage the whole person and a lot of changes that came out of that have been very future-focused.”

How that has gone on to find an external expression has been an intriguing learning process for HSBC UK’s CMO Becky Moffat. She pointed to the break down of structures and spirit of collaboration as key pivots to have occurred over the past 18 months.

“The level of collaboration has been rising and really starting to drive some creative and different approaches across the marketing team as people come together more,” Moffat explained.

Making those sort of wholesale internal changes is never easy, not least when staff are working from home. Moffat stressed the importance of transparency in such cases, not just about the process taking place, but also the unprecedented situation that has ultimately caused them.

I’m not good at mindreading at the best of times, but it’s even more difficult when you’re sat at a screen at home.

Becky Moffat, HSBC

“The key thing has always been to be very clear about the why,” she said. “A lot of people might not agree with it, but at least we can be honest about why there’s been change. And you have to be very honest about not having all the answers and that we’re looking to invent new ways of working.”

That works both ways, crucially. “I’m not good at mindreading at the best of times, but it’s even more difficult when you’re sat behind a screen at home,” Moffat added.

“It’s really about having those lines of communication genuinely open, but also trying to acknowledge that you might not have all the answers and that we need to navigate this together.”

Bennett echoed that sentiment, adding that restructuring remotely can easily breed anxiety and disquiet among staff. One way to work around that is to help people to focus on short-term goals, to reassure them that the pressures of working from home need to be addressed a day or week at a time.

“Our culture is built on transparency, trust and honesty, and all of a sudden colleagues were no longer turning up, so it was really important to be here and to be accessible, for any questions, to be upfront in any communication,” said Bennett. “You have to help people to take control of their wellness.”

Decentralising power

Zoopla CMO Gary Bramall picked up on Bennett’s point about the importance of always owning up to a knowledge gap. Importantly, this is not just when it comes to enforced structural changes but also, on a wider level, having the confidence to delegate and place your trust in colleagues.

“I’ve been trying to build the organisation so I can build myself out of a job for a few years now, so hopefully when you stop hearing about me then I’ll have succeeded,” he smiled.

“My organisation was basically built around trying to empower more people to make more decisions more quickly and I am not the font of knowledge, I don’t know everything. We wanted to decentralise power when it came to involving people in organisational change and to push power as low down into the organisation as possible. That’s what good modern CMOs need to do.”

He may, by his own admission, have an increasingly old school skillset, but Bramall’s ability to recruit younger marketers with the necessary drive and curiosity is part of Zoopla’s shift towards a more fluid, squad-based structure.

I’ve been trying to build the organisation so I can build myself out of a job for a few years now.

Gary Bramall, Zoopla

“I’d encourage anyone to try and have a look at agile structures that are less channel-based and more audience-focused,” he added. “In a world where there aren’t many silver bullets, it’s probably the closest thing that I’ve come to that has really helped.”

The digital shift has seen a significant increase in teams merging and collaborating, as much as individuals. That has presented more challenges, increasingly around tone of voice and consistency.

“From a customer and a brand point of view, that experience and tone of voice has to be the same,” said Bennett. “Whether the customer is shopping at home in their pyjamas or they’re engaging with us on our social channels, it’s got to be the same brand that they’re dealing with all the time.

“Digital’s a really important part of that. We’ve always been fairly experiential, very physical, with lots of disruptive activity. What does that look like going forward? It’s a really interesting time.”

Moffat cautioned against the temptation to create too many specific teams for digital offerings, which can cause confusion for the consumer.

“It’s how you organise squads around key journeys and key problems so you can almost bring the expertise together to solve across and through a funnel,” she said.

“Every organisation is doing things differently, but for us the key thing is that you’ve got to have fluidity and collaboration, so that you don’t show your silos to your customers.”

Meet the marketers building teams fit for volatile times

Bramall agreed, adding that as Zoopla is predominantly a digital platform it has meant having to address potential issues around data competence and confidence.

“Every marketer needs to have that to be able to succeed,” he said. “That for me is the anchor around digital.”

Creating a structure that mirrors your audience is also key. “We have a consumer team that’s confident, curious and we empower them to do things and that’s when magic happens,” Bramall added. “Those are the little delights in this little grey period, you feel proud. It’s about the art of possible.”

Successful team-building is, ultimately, about finding a balance. For Moffat, that means a blend of generalists and specialists, finding different personalities, capabilities and levels of experience that can work alongside one another. Whereas, for Bennett it’s about aptitude as much as technological knowhow, having that curiosity and drive.

And for Bramall? “I’m just amazed when you look at some of the people coming through and the level of confidence and competence. It makes you feel really excited,” he enthused. “One of our values is around hiring people who like to run up escalators. Find those and hire them.”

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