For most of us, receiving a phone call from the CEO of our company would spell trouble. For Monique L. Nelson, it spells compassion. When the Covid-19 pandemic hit in early March, the Chair and CEO of UWG, the longest-standing multicultural advertising firm in the world, literally picked up the phone and went down the company’s directory, dialing employees for one simple reason: To ask them how they were doing.
Nelson, who describes herself as “a very human leader,” is the second profile in our series focusing on Black women business leaders and how they’re moving their companies forward while looking out for colleagues, clients, and consumers in the midst of coronavirus and its many layered effects on our world. Check out the Q&A below as Nelson talks about what she foresees for the advertising world going forward and her hope that this pandemic brings us back to our humanity.
Right now, more than anything, people are looking for leadership. As Chair and CEO of UWG, what has leading looked like for you over the past few weeks in terms of your employees?
It’s been stressful. I’m not going to lie to you about that. This is a level of consistency that I don’t think I ever imagined I’d ever be working through. It’s one of those things where you can’t help but wake up in the morning and think about it and you can’t help but go to sleep thinking about it. It’s just a different level of managing that kind of consistent stress whereas before you could decrescendo and this just isn’t allowing us to decrescendo, there’s kind of this consistent bubble that we are now having to adapt to. Certainly as a leader, the stress right now is making sure my people are okay. This is so unusual; this is such an unprecedented type of event, that I really just want to make sure people are okay and that they know they have the ability to say “No I’m not okay” or “I’m okay with these kinds of accommodations.”
One of the things that I’ve been doing is calling everybody. I’ve literally been going down the list of employees at UWG and I am calling them. If they don’t answer, I leave them a message. If they do, sometimes we talk for 20 minutes; sometimes we talk for five or seven; some people can’t believe I’m calling. All of the above is more than okay and I’m really thrilled to do it. It keeps my day full, of course, but it is part of the book ending of making sure that business continues to move forward in this time of crazy, as well as knowing that our business is about the people. It’s an important step that I’m happy to do.
In what ways do you think the current climate presents opportunities, particularly for a business that is already deeply embedded in the culture?
I think there’s a ton of opportunities. One of the things that we’re always adept at — and you should be with marketing and advertising — is moving where the culture moves, and this is a cultural moment. Covid is going to turn into a cultural moment and we’re all going to have to look really closely at what has fundamentally changed with regard to how our consumers shop, how they engage with a brand, and what are they now looking for? This is going to be a really important time for us to listen and be thoughtful about how people are consuming things and why. The other piece is we have to be careful not to lean on this being something that is forever, but knowing it might be something fleeting, there will be pieces of this that will change “forever.”
Knowing there is going to be social-distancing for a while, the question is how does that work with how a brand will engage in a person’s life? As things are going, it may be really important to get an appointment to get your stuff, like “Okay, it’s 5’o clock, you can come and pick up X” because there won’t be the ability to have mass. Black Friday could be over, right? When is the next time you’re going to go into a retailer with thousands of people? You probably won’t anymore, at least in the short term, so there’s a whole eco-system that we’re going to have to observe, dig into, and feed through an agile scenario because this will continue to evolve and technology will play a huge part. There is a tremendous opportunity for AR (augmented reality) and VR (virtual reality), and for us its gong to be important to make sure that those opportunities are diverse and that they take everyone into account and that they’re available because this could also be a point where we leave people out, as we’re already seeing.
Obviously most advertisers are cancelling or pausing campaigns right now, do you have any foresight on how soon we may see an increase in ad spend again?
I wish I had that crystal ball. That would be amazing, but I think just like everyone else we’re going to have measured understanding around what types of operations are going to make sense to open up at a certain place and time. I am always a proponent that if you can you should be engaged on some level because I think it’s going to be important if a brand is connected to a consumer group, just saying something is better than saying nothing. So I think there will be a point where brands will start to figure out what their identity looks like with this Covid lens, and when they do it would behoove them to start to have a conversation that would be beneficial to folks in that environment. I absolutely believe this is a time to be really thoughtful about what that messaging is and why. For a brand that’s shifting, it would be prudent to make sure that you are not tone deaf in this moment. It could be a detriment and it could ripple to the point that you can’t take it back.
In a podcast interview with Mixed Company, you were asked about the pressure of being a Black woman leader and demystifying perceptions of people of color and you simply said, “It’s the crown I wear.” Is that the same attitude you are taking to leading through Covid-19?
Absolutely. This is definitely one of those moments where you have to dig deep and know that if it’s meant, it will be. To be really honest, I’m probably at my most vulnerable when the pressure is on and I tell people, you know, I’m scared. This is a scary moment and if you’re not, you’re not human. So it’s really taking that fear and moving it into a space of action or taking that fear and moving it into a space of empowerment because to not do anything is a guaranteed loss. I’d rather try. I’d rather bring all these brilliant brains that work with me every day to figure it out and, lo and behold, they always do.
You have a family of your own, how are you balancing business concerns with caring for your husband and children?
I’m loving being able to walk downstairs and have lunch with my kids when I can. It’s nice to see learning for them up close and personal too. I will miss that actually, if and when things go back to how they were and I can get on a plane again. I’m looking at the bright side right now of being able to be a homemaker when I can because this is the most time I’ve spent with my children since I’ve had them.
What are your hopes for what the world will look like on the other side of this?
I so hope we believe in humans more. I really do. I am hoping that this brings back a lot more humanity. I love technology and technology is at my core, I love it, it really does make me very happy, but I was getting nervous that we were discounting the human factor. I’m looking forward to an expanded workforce. I think this is really going to show that people can do a whole lot more from home than we were given credit for. I look forward to seeing new people be able to come into the workforce. That where they happen to be or their position in the world will not now eliminate them from being able to be a part of an amazing team. I’m thinking about moms and folks that are differently abled, that this will really open up a world for them that wasn’t open before because we’re showing that we can do it.
I also think that the redefinition of this hero, the frontline worker that’s really putting their life on the line that we rarely think about or examine, I’m excited for that. I’m excited for people to really recognize how important teachers are and that they deserve to get paid so I really hope that the cost structure changes and people start to recognize their importance. I want the human back and I hope that this gives people a reason to get back to basics and know that money isn’t everything. Some things aren’t supposed to make money.