Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Rupert McPetrie, CEO MediaCom China – coming out of COVID-19 stronger than we went in

In our Reasons to be Cheerful series, NDA has been talking to leaders throughout the industry to find out what positive impacts the pandemic may have. We now wanted to get a point of view from China, where the virus first emerged, to discover what lessons could be learnt, so we talked to Rupert McPetrie, CEO MediaCom China.

 What, if any, positive long-term impact on the digital industry will coronavirus have?

The digital industry will benefit in the long term, as there has been an accelerated development in the space of 3 months, and an even greater acceleration of adoption and usage.  If you consider the consumer media consumption, digital platforms have performed strongly in China, if you look at gaming, if you look at ecommerce – all have grown fast and this will endure. 

If you look at the digital ecosystem from the client business perspective, in China we have seen fantastic innovation and acceleration in areas such livestreaming – we had car launches via livestreaming, we have car clients who have now built livestreaming centres to complement dealers and their existing marketing efforts. 

In China we have also seen traditionally conservative categories and clients move faster into digital – at a time when physical retail is limited, and when at-home media is so important, many more traditional clients have taken big strides into the digital ecosystem.  Now they have proof of concept, much of that investment will be for the long term, and as more categories and clients are in the ecosystem, we are seeing even more innovation, which is great for the consumers, the client businesses, and for the industry.

 What positive impacts on long term consumer behaviour shifts will it have?

It may be premature to define the long-term consumer behavior shifts as we remain in a transition period of recovery in China and are not yet fully settled into a new normal.  The research that we have points to some long term and enduring concerns around health and wellbeing that will continue to impact areas such as travel. 

But we also see a high level of pent up consumer demand that is only starting to be satisfied in the recovery period. 

So we do see a return to high levels of consumption, although some of that we remain online rather than offline, and whilst our research shows that Chinese consumers are keen to get back into a usual routine of working, eating out, and shopping, it is not yet at pre-COVID-19 levels and varies a lot by city and province.  This may be due to ongoing fears of a wave 2 of COVID-19 in China, a lack of certainty and confidence in the future, and also some financial concerns

 What positive impacts have you seen on how your business operates?

We have seen a number of genuine positives around the versatility of our talent, and the with the extensive use of technology for communications and virtual meetings, we have become even more agile and able to operate at a higher cadence. 

This has allowed us to stay connected with each other throughout the lockdown in China, connected across our businesses in Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou, connected with HQ in London, and importantly, very closely connected with our clients. 

China was already a country recognized for technology and the pace of business, and this has now moved on to even higher levels. In working in partnership with our clients during this challenging period, we have built even closer relationships, demonstrated again the importance and the value of the agency.

Despite major challenges for the business, with clients reducing media investment across February and March, we came out of COVID-19 stronger than we went in.

What have you been most heartened about in how your staff, partners, customers or clients have reacted to the new normal?

Our philosophy at MediaCom is People First Better Results, and what was most heartening through COVID-19 was the real-world application of this philosophy across our business – at a time of challenge this was very important.  We took care of all our people, who in turn took care of each other, who took care of clients, and sought to take care of the wider community. 

It was inspiring to see that in addition to the efforts of the company to support our communities – through charitable support, through sourcing free inventory for public service messaging – many of our people took the initiative to support also at the personal and individual level.  This was an incredible spirit of togetherness – at a time we were apart – and was not isolated to certain people, to certain clients or categories. 

We genuinely stood together, and as we get more encouraging signs in China and enter a new normal, it has been very powerful to see that togetherness endure.  Our teams work more closely than before, our offices collaborate more, we have become a stronger collective, and I include our client partners in that also. 

The speed at which we move information around and make business recommendations has increased – reflective of the urgency to find new solutions to new challenges.  We have recently had our regular client satisfaction survey results back, with the research having been in field during the really challenging weeks of COVID-19 in China, and the results are the best in APAC, have improved versus the previous round, and the client feedback is very much focused on the value and importance of partnership as we navigate change together

What technologies have you been most impressed with during this new situation?

We have all become experts in the various video conferencing systems, which have now become fully mainstream and are now used to their full potential.  I imagine that many people have found much greater functionality on the video conferencing system that they use, and that they now feel more confident in using that technology as a genuine business enabler.  The greater use of technology has accelerated what was already a rapid cadence of business operations, and this will endure beyond COVID-19, but we will also see a phased return to a more limited use of face-to-face meetings. 

At the same time that we have leant heavily on technology and have used it to the maximum, there is also a strong feeling about the value and importance of the human connection.  One small example here would be the excitement and joy across our teams when we re-opened the office – the atmosphere was electric

The technology that has impressed most, and has been so valuable, is an AI-driven talent management platform that we invested in 18 months ago.  This tech allows us to get real-time feedback from our people across China, and this has really proven its worth during COVID-19. 

This enabled us to evaluate the company morale and feelings all the way through the working from home period and the return to work.  This data allowed us to understand peoples’ concerns, priorities, aspirations, and informed our decision making and actions.  This in turn allowed us to better support our people. 

The data showed that during the initial period of working from home, people were starting to feel more positive about work – life balance, but company culture scores declined a little.  As our communication and wellbeing efforts kicked in fast, the scores for company vision, leadership, team work, role satisfaction and talent development grew.