Robert Pepper, Strategy Partner & MD
This week I sat down with Robert Pepper, Partner and Strategist behind psLondon.
Robert wears two hats—he’s both a strategist and a business owner—and our conversation reflected that. We talked about how an uncertain future should be tackled head on and the unprecedented changes we’ve seen in the last twelve months.
We started with his learnings from 2020.
RP: As a strategist, the number one thing I learned is the importance of going back to basics—not in terms of stepping back from more ambitious projects, but rather questioning the fundamentals that support what we do and making sure we get those things right. So, for example, do not ever make assumptions about your target audience without properly talking to them.
I think 2020 demonstrated just how fast the views, opinions, needs, and wants of those target audiences can change as a result of what’s going on around them—assuming that we knew what they needed or wanted was incorrect, and would always be incorrect. Those wants and needs are always changing quickly.
Along those same lines I think, as a business owner, this last year emphasised the importance of focusing on people as people, whether that be the team, our clients, our families, or ourselves. It’s quite similar to my strategist answer: assume nothing.
"Ask, listen, talk, I would say those are my number one (two and three…) learnings from 2020."
How do you weather the uncertainty that a year like 2020 brings, especially since it seems 2021 is continuing in the same vein?
RP: I think all of the things that we did in 2020—be that hiring Alex, who’s now heading up our Higher Education business, or acquiring Studio Hansa to collaborate on video production—they were about trying to move forward, whether that had an immediate return or not. I sensed that most businesses were panicking and I really, really didn’t want to panic; I wanted to try and set a positive course for the future. If you look at IBM in the 1920s and ‘30s, during the Great Depression in the States, they made a strategic decision to retain all of their sales people, when all of their competitors were laying off people left, right and centre. So when the depression ended, they came out flying. And I think there's a lesson in there about the importance of long-termism, one which I want us to follow.
“Critically, we have a direction. We have a plan.”
However, when it comes to ways of working, there is no denying that the process of adjustment has been a trying one. I asked Robert how he felt about the “new normal”.
RP: I don’t want to sound like I’m happy with this new world. I’m not. What this has demonstrated to me is that we can be successful in the current normal, but I’m not satisfied that that is good enough long term. So, I think the future needs to be appropriately blended between remote working and face to face interaction for us, for our clients—for human beings. I don’t think it’s an either or.
Equally, we need to take on the learnings around staff mental health and awareness of our own mental health issues. That’s something that needs more attention than ever. So, I would say it’s about having positivity, but hopefully not blind positivity.
Next, I asked Robert what this all meant for marketing more broadly. What does the current climate mean for people, and in turn how businesses look to communicate with them?
RP: I think that when the dust settles, we’re going to spot an awful lot of people who have been left behind. There’ll be a huge number of people who have been disenfranchised in 2020, for all sorts of reasons: from lack of financial support during the pandemic, from poor living conditions, mental health issues, self-isolating, and issues associated with Brexit on the back of it. I think we're going to find a more polarised society.
“The warm fuzziness of ‘everyone’s here to help each other’ that we had in April and May feels like a distant memory.”
It’s fascinating to try and unpick why we have lost that generous spirit that seemed so prevalent nine months ago, because we have. And marketers have been receptive to this. The way that businesses have tried to engage people over the past year has changed: there was a time when the majority of ads were soft music and people saying “we’re all in this together”, but there’s been a noticeable shift away from that now. This comes back to listening, to treating people as human beings rather than making assumptions about how they feel.
I asked Robert to summarise his outlook moving forward. How can we as an agency, as people, make the most out of 2021?
RP: We’re all better off if we focus on the things we can affect, rather than worrying too much about things we can’t; if ever there’s been a year to remind ourselves of that, it’s this one. And that goes everything from “when am I going to get the vaccine?”, through to running a business—focus on the things that we can add value to, knowing we can’t control everything.
Robert was amused to hear that he had echoed what Speighty (his business partner) said in his interview last week—that we should focus on the things we can control.
RP: We're joined at the hip, Kendra! You know what, though? I think it’s because psLondon is a business of like-minded people. And it’s a demonstration that-like minded doesn’t have to mean the same—I’m sure Speighty and I had totally different things to say on a range of subjects—but actually the principles and values that drive us forward are shared.
“We’re coming from the same place, and that’s why it works.”