In Conversation with… Kay McCarthy

By Gemma Creagh - Last update

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MII: Hi Kay, can you tell us about how have you been adapting your activities during the COVID-19 outbreak?

Kay McCarthy: At MCCP, pretty much like everyone else, we left the office in mid-March and set-up working from home during lock down. We quickly put in train a set of daily updates – morning check-in calls and a separate daily up-dates on Covid. I had regular one-to-ones with the team as everyone adapts differently. I am proud of what the team achieved in our restricted operating environment. We had been using Zoom since January, so that was an easy adapt.


Has your brand purpose been challenged by COVID 19? How?

Kay McCarthy: We started by listening deeply. Listening to everyone, including clients and the team, I could see that everyone was battling with their own inner Covid-esque world compounding in the uncertainty of almost everything that was once a given.

I then realised what we all needed was a focus point that would give us meaning amidst the ongoing stream of negative stories coming from China, Italy and moving towards us. Given the type of work we do, we have lots of interesting avenues to find meaning. Many of our clients found themselves not just in lockdown but in a large marketplace deep-freeze. We were called in to facilitate team sessions, workshop possible scenarios. A lot of it felt very reactionary and to some extent futile even though necessary at the time. We volunteered a lot of our time and gestured value.

Doing is more powerful than saying

We next turned to our own purpose to test its muster in a worldwide humanitarian type of crisis of which we had become a participant. Our purpose is to ‘partner clients to make business better’. I thought that it was certainly time to test it, but not by saying it, but by doing it. It meant we start with ourselves – how can I/we do better? So, we turned to doing it by firstly listening to people. These people were our colleagues, clients and their consumers.

The gap for many was ‘what to do’ and the answer was different was most. We were amongst the first agency on March 23rd to conduct nationwide qualitative research to understand how people of all ages across the island were feeling, doing and what they expected brands and businesses to do. The team got fully involved and we all listened deeply to how real people were feeling, missing and coping.

We heard stories of how grandparents missed their grandchildren; key life rituals, such as milestone birthdays, christening and weddings were put on hold. People turned to upping their adventures in home-cooking, home DIY, fitness and round table family pursuits that filled the voids found in our many endless days and weekends, once filled by our intense lifestyles. Business and brands had a new role to play, where they could, but the start point was empathy and purpose.

We accessed global brand speakers and businesses via our network partners including the Timoney Leadership Institute, IESE Business community, Campaign Global conferences and many more.

We analysed it and repeated this over 3 waves across April to May, sharing it with over 700 viewers free of charge on various webinars via our own channels, our marketing and professional membership bodies including Marketing Institute Ireland and IAPI. This kept clients and peers up-to-date with real people’s feelings and emergent behaviours. We got great reviews including media coverage for the quality of the work and we all felt that we were helping people understand it even if they could not act immediately it, we narrated the story of what we were also feeling in our cocoons. Since then we have been doing research with people all over Ireland and accessing global data and brand strategies to share in a new series called ‘Navigate with Clarity’ starting this month. So check out our LinkedIn page to sign up as there will be really action oriented insights and strategy frameworks on here.

Go beyond empathy

Being generous is part of helping people and the community do better. We also learned a lot and evolved our thinking too; we fast became experts in how people were coping, what they underlying needs were, what were local and global examples of good practise.

This expertise meant we also secured work from many clients who wanted a partner who understood this first-hand so we became the selected partner to the Dept of Health, Enterprise Ireland and the Irish pub trade bodies for their tremendous work on Covid communications to enable better behaviours and business. Our contribution was starting to matter and impact again as people wanted to find solutions for themselves over time.

As part of our adapted ways of working we developed agile teams working with clients and consumers to get continuous access to understanding that was actionable to iterate communications and strategies. We will be continuing many of our ways of working including agile teams, am scrum style meetings, and using Zoom to access local and international insights and partners.

Focus is a daily activity 

I have learned that in these harshest times for humankind, people are resilient but equally fragile. It is a case of mindset over matter. Everyone has a different context to navigate through and will have great days and bad days and both can be ok; one follows the other and if we manage each day to be our best the weeks and months will take care of themselves. It is about developing great daily practise and a set of behaviours that culminate in a better outcome down the road and staying focussed on that.

As leaders and business owners we must listen first. We must help people find their own way to cope with the situation and give them clarity and support to help them overcome it even if we can’t fix the problem.

Agility matters over size

It is also a case of agility over size. We must be adaptive in very new ways as many of the old paradigms don’t apply. Fixed, large and siloed did not work pre-Covid and now it can’t work. It’s not a time for lofty ideals, while hope and dreams still matter it more of a time for coming together and doing brilliant in the moment and in each day as it comes

We have tweaked our approach to consumer closeness and understanding so it is truly agile, deep yet adaptive. I don’t believe in all the new hype in revamping and resetting – it is time instead of real clarity, a time for simplicity and a time for agility to develop a practical recovery path. Think customer insight first and then what you can do to help them with where they are at now, first.

Brands must carefully map their way forward 

The curve might be flat for now but Covid is here a little longer so we must evolve our practises and we must not lose sight of what matters, and start by understand who you are, what you stand for and most critically what that looks like in the now to enable value for consumers. Brands are important – good ones mean trust, this is what people want but they need action not words and this must come from who you are  and what your role is in the world you operate (purpose) and you must now deliver this to the new mindset and wallet of today’s consumer.

Brands and leaders like, Dr Tony Holohan and the Department of Health, RTE, An Post, Davy, O’Neills, and some of the retailers all stepped forward over the past few months. Brands and businesses must now map their path carefully over the rest of the year and into 2021 to either keep the customers they gained or to win share as their markets become unlocked with a consumer who has a different set of priorities and a different shaped wallet.

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Gemma Creagh

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