Q&A: McCann Worldgroup CEO Harris Diamond on Navigating a Global Organization in a Time of Crisis

From coronavirus to Cannes, a look inside the network's operations and action

McCann Worldgroup accepts their network of the year honor in Cannes last year.
McCann Worldgroup

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Last year, leading into 2020, McCann Worldgroup had all kinds of momentum. Most notably, the network was named Adweek’s 2019 Global Agency of the Year off the back of a stellar showing at creative awards like Cannes Lions and recovering well after the high-profile loss of the U.S. Army business after a 15-year run.

Like all agencies, McCann was facing external headwinds, but no one could have foreseen the upheaval that the coronavirus crisis has caused so far. In an internal memo seen by Adweek, McCann Worldgroup CEO Harris Diamond sought to assuage concerns, telling staff to “work from home wherever possible and as necessary.”

Yet, Diamond, like other agencies, especially in holding companies, pointed out that it was critical to “keep McCann Worldgroup up and running to help our clients execute their business strategies and plan for the future.”

With that as a backdrop, Adweek spoke with Diamond to get a sense of the effects of the pandemic internally and what it could signal for the industry now and in the future.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Adweek: There have been other global crises in the past. How are you approaching the coronavirus pandemic at this point, understanding that the situation is fluid and changes by the day?
Harris Diamond: We’re going through an unprecedented time. And we’ve gone through crises before… there was the financial crisis [in 2009], we went through the terrorism crisis in 2001, and we got through a business crisis like 2007. This is obviously different.

First and foremost of concern is our people and trying to make sure that our people are safe, answering all of their questions and making sure that we’re providing all the information we can. At the same time, as you would imagine, we’re also coming up with ideas and talking to clients about things that they should be doing. We got a head start on this with Asia because [that’s where the virus] started, and we’re so deep in China that it gave us some understanding of what the impact would be as it would travel around the world concerning how we do our work.

But we’re spending a lot of time frankly, coming up with ideas, talking to clients, about how they should handle themselves during this time, and obviously, what to do when the crisis begins to wane.

"We have had to adjust and recognize that the fast-changing information flow is having an impact on our clients, ourselves, and frankly, their consumers."
Harris Diamond, CEO, McCann Worldgroup

What have you learned that is informing the way you’re approaching this, especially pivoting with the output?
The main difference between [coronavirus] and others in the past is that the information changes every day. This is not just an event, and I’m not minimizing what happened after the other crises, but this one is an evolutionary event. There’s more information every day, and more issues are arising.

So we have had to adjust and recognize that the fast-changing information flow is having an impact on our clients, ourselves, and frankly, their consumers, the people who they are most responsible for. But the agency business model itself is still intact, it’s still the same, and it’s how well we can continue to create content and get it in the hands of consumers.

Right now, even with our folks at home—and we have quite a few countries in Europe, Italy is the best example, but obviously there are also issues in Spain and some of the others—we’re creating quite a lot of content. And we’re figuring out how to get the creation done. And this is at a time when not all the production houses are open. We still have 10 productions going on in the U.S. and four outside of the country.

We’ve lost some talent that have gotten sick or exposed to someone in a location, so we’ve had to make substitutions. In other cases, we’ve lost the ability to go to the country or site, but we’ve adjusted reasonably well to this point.

There is an issue with brands being opportunistic in times like this. On the one hand, businesses need to keep going, but there is a balance. How do you see that playing out?
That line is something that you’ve got to think about all the time in today’s world, and some brands have blown that. We’ve discussed this, the importance of being cautious. We like risk, especially creatively, and its a hallmark of McCann. We take advantage of a lot of ideas that push the envelope, some of which are uncomfortable sometimes. But there is a line, and opportunism would be devastating to any brand. I think you’re going to see a lot more caution concerning that.

"We’re responsible for helping clients continue to communicate, and that work is ongoing. COVID-19 can suck the oxygen out of the room, but in the healthcare arena, we want to make sure that we are still present, communicating to those who need the information."
Harris Diamond, McCann Worldgroup CEO on how the agency's healthcare practice is continuing to work with its clients

McCann has a robust health practice. What has been going on in that part of the business in light of the current situation?
Internally, we’ve spent a lot of time writing instructions on COVID-19, how to handle it, things you should think about when you’re home, and the like. But what you have to remember is that people are sick with other diseases like diabetes, shingles and the flu, for example.

We’re responsible for helping clients continue to communicate, and that work is ongoing. COVID-19 can suck the oxygen out of the room, but in the healthcare arena, we want to make sure that we are still present, communicating to those who need the information.

Coming out of this, however, I think we’re all going to look at public health. We may have been focused on crises in different areas, but we weren’t really focusing on a healthcare crisis [like this]. I suspect the Ad Council and I will push for this and will get very active in public health in a more significant way.

Switching to Cannes Lions, what are your thoughts on the festival and the possibility of a date change? And where do you think the festival goes from here?
Clearly, we are big supporters of Cannes. Over the years, we started to cut back on our business leaders and strategists and other folks going, recognizing that it’s more of a creative festival. And we’ve also tried to cut back because everybody is accepting the reality of the world today. Like everybody else, we’re hoping that we get an all-clear for June, but I think it will still be suppressed.

Even if we get permission to go forward in June, we will be less likely to send a large contingent. And I’m not sure if people will, at that point, be willing to travel. I think companies like ours are probably all considering how we want to participate.

It’s important to us. But do you have to participate in person? Is there judging online? Do you bring together people through video conferencing? I think one of the things that separate that show from some of the others is the diligence and competence of the judges. And I think the days that they’re locked in that room have made the quality of the work [better]. I like [McCann creatives] sitting in a room with other creatives, discussing what makes great work. If we lost that, it will have a significant impact.

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