Worldwide Partners Chooses “Prudence Over Panic” – Interview with CEO John Harris

April 8, 2020

Winmo CEO Dave Currie talked with John Harris, President and CEO of Worldwide Partners, an independent agency network with agencies across 40 countries, about the ways in which they are adapting amidst the global pandemic. Harris, coming off the heels of round table discussions the shops had on a regional basis the previous week, says that the general theme that has emerged is “prudence over panic.”

“I think that everybody is realizing that a crisis represents an opportunity for transformation and so you’re seeing agencies take, in some cases, some dramatic steps that we’ll talk a little bit about. Some are realizing there are small steps that they can take to enhance their overall proposition to their clients and to businesses. But everybody’s acting.”

He discussed the industries he’s seen impacted most, the opportunities emerging, and how agencies can pivot to adjust to a socially distanced world.

Who’s Been Impacted Most? Where Are the Challenges, and the Opportunities?

“Everyone has been impacted to some extent. Not surprisingly, travel and tourism is probably taking the biggest hit,” said Harris. “Retail and restaurants are obviously navigating a really challenging environment but at the same time, financial services are doing very well. Business to business software and tech seems to be doing extremely well. Healthcare, obviously.”

On the flip side, “CPG brands that are leaning into the opportunity as consumers are trying new things that may be out of stock from their loyal brands. Direct to consumer and eCommerce are all doing pretty well.”

Who is Poised to Win New Business?

“I think that the agencies who are identifying what’s a position of strength that they have that they can lean off of and going into other categories. For example, anybody who has experience with multi-unit retail, whether that’s franchise space, whether that’s restaurants, anybody who has that experience can offer the council for those brands who are now having to really amplify and optimize their online presence.”

“If you are really good at working with any type of retail brands, there’s an opportunity to lean into how we can help you make that transition or optimize the eCommerce presence you already had because we know that’s a really, really important piece. Anybody who has great capabilities in lead gen or marketing automation, that is a relevant offering for anybody right now. Then it’s going to be much more compelling of an offering now than having a conversation about rebranding or having a conversation about AR/VR capabilities.”

“Anybody who has a strong PR capability in the area of crisis management or in new product launches, we’re seeing a lot of that happen in the healthcare space. If you’ve got strong PR capability, they’re seeing several new launches for healthcare brands and DTC brands. I think that’s one that I would lean into.”

Those are all obviously positions of strength, for agencies struggling to find that position, Harris advocates getting creative and thinking strategically. “If you’re an experiential agency and you all of a sudden want to go focus on health care, that’s probably not a logical place to go. Find the positions of strength that are scalable into other parallel categories, adjacent categories, that I think you can leverage.

What Should Agencies Do With this “Downtime”

“One of the councils that I’ve given agencies is lean into your existing clients pretty aggressively,” said Harris. “It’s a tremendous opportunity to work with those clients who have in house teams to refine processes, to help them because one of the challenges for the in house groups is that they’re isolated and working within their own confines. As an agency, we have the opportunity to bring fresh thinking from other categories in how they’re responding to this. I think one thing is don’t see this as downtime. See this as an opportunity to really forge relationships with existing clients in demonstrating your value beyond just providing creative solutions or media solutions or production solutions, but really providing that thought leadership and business leadership that gives us that seat at the table that we’re looking for.”

Have the Difficult Discussions

Many business service providers are being asked about extended payment terms, and agencies are no exception there. While Harris understands the need to be gracious and accommodating, he also knows that in order to keep employees working, agencies need to have payment conversations with clients.

“I think as a service industry and as agencies, we’re notoriously bad at asking for money. We don’t want to rock the boat. We don’t want to lose the client. But I think, given the current state of affairs, we have permission to look at renegotiating payment terms, especially if you’re a smaller independent agency or you’re a smaller production company. You can’t play the role of the bank and it can’t be incumbent on just the agencies to carry the weight of all this,” said Harris. “If social distancing becomes financial distancing, the infrastructure of our system, our industry, is going to fall apart.”

“I think we have the opportunity and the permission and, quite honestly, the obligation to our employees and to our businesses to be having those conversations with the clients.  Don’t be afraid to have the conversations. We’ve seen some agencies who are actually offering clients some incentives to prepay fees. Many of them are now, who weren’t already, asking for at least 50% of production costs on media buys upfront. That’s dependent on the client and the client history and the category that they’re competing with. But I would say do not be afraid to ask and hopefully, you won’t be in a situation where you have to say, “If we don’t get paid, then we’re going to have to stop work,” because that’s not good for anybody.”

How is the Pitch Process Changing

There is a definite downside to the “virtual pitch,” which might be lacking some of the chemistry that in-person meetings have, Currie notes, but Harris has observed that there are some unexpected ways that the process has emerged better, in some cases.

“The process is expedited. The rules aren’t as rigid. We don’t have to do a five-minute cultural video. We’re doing a living, breathing cultural video of what our agency is like. You’re seeing a more efficient process, a high level of collaboration that’s going on, and no waste of time. It’s like, “Let’s get to the point.” I guess what I would end it is many of these things that we’re talking about are outcomes of this crisis. But if you take a step back and look at them, perhaps these are things we should’ve been doing all along: new business outreach that’s helpful versus interruptive, focusing on positions of strength, shorter level of engagements to build chemistry in a pitch process that is becoming much more efficient for everybody. Man, these are the things we should’ve been doing all along. And work from home.

What’s the Prognosis for the Future?

“If I look on the optimist in me and where we’re we going to come out of this, I think as an industry, it may be a tough couple of quarters ahead of this, but I think there is some learnings and some practices that hopefully will stick that we’ll all be stronger coming out of this than we were before. I guess I would say, guys, there’s been such a high level of just support that I’ve had, that our agencies are having, that everybody in the industry is really wrapping their arms around each other right now, figuratively speaking. I think it says a great thing about us. I just think let’s keep this alive because we work in the greatest industry in the world and we’re going to come out of this just fine.”

See Harris’s full interview here:

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