Acceleration not Transformation: Unpacking the Trends of Global Digital Marketing with ForwardPMX CEO James Townsend

October 11, 2020

This interview originally appeared on Medium, authored by The Stagwell Group.

As part of their Back to the Future webinar series, The Stagwell Group is hosting a series of monthly webinars, roundtables, and written analysis aimed at connecting leaders in the marketing industry for transformational discussions about what is happening across the business ecosystem.

Following their first webinar and roundtable of the fall, Alexis Williams, EVP of Marketing, sat down with James Townsend, Global Chief Executive Officer of ForwardPMX to discuss September’s theme of “Digital as the Global Connector,” and learn what he is seeing across the global marketing landscape.

Q: What is the biggest transformation you’ve seen your clients make in relation to how they engage with consumers?

JT: I would classify this moment more as acceleration than transformation. There’s been a big shift where many companies saw e-commerce as a smaller base, fast growth element of their businesses that have now reacted to the pandemic by making e-commerce a priority as the only guaranteed route to market. An aspect of this is the connection of digital and physical service. One example of that is the surge in the number and variety of retail outlets offering curbside pickup and drop off solutions. With fewer customers heading into stores, businesses have adapted and started to offer curbside pickup so that customers can now buy online and pickup anything from groceries and medical supplies to a new pair of jeans.

In the past few months, we’ve also seen great changes in purchasing behavior during the traditional back to school season, forcing marketers to reconsider their approaches and look at traditional buying patterns differently than in the past. With homeschooling continuing for many, interest in computers, desks and electronics rose; sales of casualwear staples like hoodies and sneakers trended up; and online searches for kids’ masks skyrocketed. So retailers with broad portfolios of products are needing to react quickly to sudden trends or demand using data to connect marketing with strong inventory management and delivery.

We expect changes in purchasing behavior to continue through the holiday season with momentum in the weeks leading up to Black Friday and Cyber Monday starting to build earlier than in previous years and holiday spending stretching longer than usual. Holiday 2020 will certainly look different, but gift-giving is how many consumers will connect with loved ones who are unable or unwilling to travel and celebrate in person this year. The Holiday season will be facilitated by Ecommerce like never before.

Q: How have you and your team adapted your products and services to meet the needs of your customers/consumers?

JT: Our primary duty is to help our clients grow. We do that by identifying and implementing changes, that fuel growth and we harness data and technology to enable much of this as it helps our clients connect all areas of the organization. We are striving to work as a true partner and to see this difficult time as also a time to jolt and pivot where required. The impact of Covid provides real jeopardy that can focus and prioritize and provoke businesses. In some cases, that means helping them pivot to a new digital platform, increasing the role first-party data plays in their mix while in others, it’s ensuring existing e-commerce sites are running as well as possible from maximizing site speeds on mobile to SEO development.

Q: How has your team or employee relations practices evolved from or adapted to changes brought on by COVID? How has your team and the way you work changed and what changes do you see lasting after the pandemic?

JT: Its counter intuitive, but I feel we have been brought closer together. Our team of 1,000 people in 20-plus locations has turned into 1,000 people in 1,000 locations. While we have always been extremely flexible in how we interact with our teams, today’s new reality has provided us with the backdrop to formalize flexible solutions to ensure our staff can manage their daily lives in the ways most suited to their needs. The shift to output-focused not input forms of management will remain post-COVID and this will drive meritocracy over presenteeism which is a gift for ambitious businesses and team members alike.

Ultimately, today’s crisis has provided us with a need to accelerate innovation through our business. I doubt we would have done so much to innovate ways of working or push automation or scale certain offices had we not had the impact of the pandemic to react to. The situation has also flattened the agency with everyone accessible in the same way, so communications have become more informal, more direct and we think, more human.

Q: With countries around the world moving at different paces because of the pandemic, what can you tell us about your customers’ behaviors over the last seven months that may be a predictor of what sales in your sector may look like in a post-pandemic economy?

JT: E-commerce will enjoy the benefits of increased existing behavior and also the acquisition of new customers in older age groups or previously less tech-led groups. We also expect to see a humanizing, empathy-driven effect on consumer sentiment to maintain some form of legacy after the pandemic. That is to say consumers are more conscious, empathetic and connected to brands being “good” businesses. Today, we are all seeking stability and direction and are turning to companies with a clear role, value and demonstrable ethics. Like ACE hardware being helpful; a simple but clear brief to staff and promise to customers.

Q: With the disruption of platforms that we’ve seen throughout this year, how are you working with your team to build a strategy that is flexible and able to quickly pivot in this constantly evolving environment?

JT: Today’s new reality is resulting in less formal presentations, more discussions, working meetings, huddles and sprints — and the inclusion of client partners throughout the process. The days of the big reveal are over. The speed and volatility of the market and the wider world demands that we react and formulate in close to real time and drives us to embrace the value of tactics when placed with medium term goals. It’s hard to get beyond the answer being 100% access and transparency of relevant context and data all the time for both client and agency. There is a huge opportunity for clients that deliver value to customers if they listen and act fast. The challenges we all face right now provide brands with a chance to add real value be that convenience, support, entertainment or reward.

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