Meeting notes from the days before ‘sorry, I was on mute’

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Back when I was in an ad agency, face to face meetings were common. In the 90s, there were periodic meetings scheduled for reviewing job lists, financial status of accounts and brand plans. The job list meeting would usually be held every week and would go over status and next steps of key projects at hand.

The finance meeting – a monthly affair in most agencies was dreaded by AEs as they would be grilled about outstanding payments and some seniors would even check status of every invoice which was overdue. Those were the days when agencies were still paid on the basis of media commission and not just the retainer fee. Hence timely payment to media houses was critical for the financial health of the agency.

The brand review was an annual affair, which took months to prepare and was usually led by the Planning team.

Aside from these there were ad hoc internal or client meetings to present creatives, review campaigns or discuss the production of an ad film – the PPM (pre-production meeting). Those were days when one did not need a calendar invite to schedule a meeting -one had to pencil in the timing on to a diary (often gifted by the agency itself). Today, I find it surprising that people miss scheduled meetings because it was not in their calendar as an email invite was not sent.

The meeting accessories have changed from note pads, Filofaxes (do look up what they are), laptops and smart phones to Zoom backgrounds. The presentation aids have changed from acetate sheets, 35mm slide carousels, laptops hooked up to projectors (which messed up the colours almost always) and now simply sharing screens.

I was fortunate to witness the visionary founder and CEO of Trikaya Advertising discuss communication strategies with the CEOs of Ambuja Cement and Parle Beverages. There was more learning packed in these meetings than many books on marketing & management.

I have also seen the art of persuasion at play in several meetings where peers and leaders argued and presented their cases brilliantly. During the early 2000s, we had pitched for a confectionary brand. I shared the gist of the brief, research and our strategy on the way to the client meeting to my CEO. He then went on to present the entire body of work as if he was personally involved in the project for 3 months and we won the business.

Anyway, I digress.

Here are some observations from meetings over the years, from the days of presenting layouts and artworks across the table into the digital era.

Do we need to meet?

The basic question to ask is ‘do we really need a meeting?’. Very often what could be accomplished over an email exchange or a phone conversation is needlessly converted into a meeting. It’s another matter that this approach has a lot of dependencies. Team members should do what is expected of them without follow up. Email etiquette should be practiced. This includes the art of communication – conveying what is expected of others in clear terms. It also involves time & email management – teams reading and acting upon relevant emails in time.

Meetings are not the place where actual work gets done. Scheduling far too many meetings in a day leaves very little time for executing work which then has a cascading effect. It forces people to work late and on weekends – which leads to frustration and affects mental health. We’ve seen reports of death due to over work in the advertising industry. While the industry plays an important role in commerce, we need to step back and ask ourselves if the profession is so critical that one puts one’s life at risk? I may be simplistically drawing inferences from poorly managed meetings but there’s no denying that everything is interconnected.

What is the outcome expected?

Setting the agenda and expected outcome is another key pre-meeting phase which is often skipped. Without this and the time management that goes with it, meetings can and often do meander into meaningless discussions for hours on end – even when the presentation title is specific like ‘Way forward for Q3’. It may not always be possible but sending pre-reads and the attendees reading such prior to the meeting may help discussions and move things forward.

Presentations anchored around statistics, charts, insights and any form of research feedback are great candidates for analysis-paralysis. We’ve seen that even with the pre- and post-match shows during cricket on TV – every bit of statistic can be analysed threadbare till the viewers get bored out of their skulls. Advertising & marketing many opportunities for such. Any observation can be seen as an insight and a debate woven around it. The team driving the meeting should be aware of such pitfalls and steer the discussion into meaningful territory with actionable outcomes.

A major reason for meetings going directionless, especially when it comes to creative development is lack of clarity and a written brief on the objective of the work to be created and the message it needs to convey. Verbal discussions or initiation with a vague ‘let’s do a summer campaign’ leads to re-work and more re-work. Such meetings, often taken by the brand team who are usually influencers and not decision makers were a major reason for poor productivity during my time in advertising. Even with the CMO involved, it wasn’t uncommon for 70-80 scripts to be presented before one was approved…wait for this, not production, but research. I am not sure if things have changed today, when turnaround times are expected to be fast, but I hope they have for the better.

Sometimes, the junior team second-guesses what the CXO wants and waits till the very last minute to involve the decision maker. I have heard of CMOs being briefed about a film to be made, on the day of the PPM only to question the basic premise or the need for the film itself. I have been part of meetings where 3-4 rounds of packaging have already been presented and ‘approved’ – only to be questioned on the basic direction on the day of the ‘final presentation’.

In one instance a CMO’s innocuous question, ‘do we respond to consumer comments about our product on Facebook?’ was interpreted by the brand team as ‘let’s call for a full digital review’ lining up their digital agencies for a full day of review.

In diversified corporations operating owning several brands across categories, brand meetings can be a nightmare with segments devoted to a category or brand, stretching into free-wheeling and fairly pointless discussions, draining out everybody in the room.

We once shared a script with a famous film director from the South. We got word from his team that he is excited about the script and wants to share some ideas on it. We flew into Chennai to hear him out only to be greeted with a ‘who are you all and why are you here?’ expression. We merely shared the same script which was already mailed to him and left.

I wish I had practiced half of what I am preaching now. With the benefit of hindsight, I realise that the success of a meeting depends on pre-planning, setting expectations and outcomes and controlling the discussions keeping mind the time factor and objectives.

Who should attend? What are their roles?

The famous two-pizza rule of Amazon – every internal team should be small enough that it can be fed with two pizzas, is a good benchmark to follow for meetings too. Smaller teams which can take decisions and get things done is best for meetings. If what is being discussed and decided upon has to wait for several layers of discussions again and approvals, it is simply a waste of time.

It is not unusual for agency-client meetings to involve the junior most person in the team (unfortunately tasked with taking minutes or ordering coffee for all in the room, mostly) in client meetings. The conference room will be packed with 15-20 people and I don’t see how it aids fruitful discussions. Sure, juniors should be exposed to ‘big meetings’ so that they can observe & learn how arguments are framed, ideas are structured and sold, objections handled and so on. I’ve heard this story about a meeting with large B2B conglomerate where the client asked the agency if they need to advertise at all citing the growth of Google without advertising. The agency lead then asked the team to pack up and leave with the acerbic comment that the client thinks they have a Google-like product.

But such ‘learning on the job’ opportunities and formal training should be part of an agency’s internal process. Taking people along for large meetings and not giving them an opportunity to participate and value add to the discussion is not the best strategy for motivation.

Valuing each others’ time: what’s that?

Back in the days, I recall at least two instances of arriving at the client’s office for a new business pitch presentation only to see the agency ahead of us in the time slot, yet to go into the conference room to present. In such situations the client too is so drained out that it was common for them to request the pitching agency to skip the presentation and just ‘show the creatives’. Imagine all the effort reduced to that.

Making the agency wait was also common in routine meetings. Blessed are the clients who valued the agency’s time. We had a pact with GSK in Sri Lanka – we both were free to give each other 15 minutes grace period, then decide to cancel the meeting and leave.

The blame partly lies with the agencies themselves. One can see how CMOs and CXOs behave differently with consultants in strategy, brand consulting or design and financial advisors or VCs. Advertising has also come out of the purview of the CEO and limited largely to the CMO and brand teams. So the industry’s presence at the Board level has been taken by the consultants.

Ultimately, making the customer see value in what you bring to the table (and hence value your inputs and time) lies with the service provider. Without that, clients would not think much about having to make you wait till 8pm after giving you a 5pm slot.

Whatever be the technological change, the basics have remained the same: the continued need for planning in our work lives, the importance of time management, respecting other people’s time & effort, viewing meetings as an opportunity to sell ideas and a means to getting things done. Most importantly, we must all work towards making meetings ‘worth it’, to borrow a tag line from L’Oreal.

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