Kathy Delaney of Publicis Health: “Difficulty Reading the Room”

Setting Boundaries: I already spoke a bit about this earlier, but I think it’s worth highlighting again because it’s one of the more profound struggles I’ve seen — in my own life and those on my team. There have been days where I’ve gotten out of bed to jump on a call and worked for 9 or […]

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Setting Boundaries: I already spoke a bit about this earlier, but I think it’s worth highlighting again because it’s one of the more profound struggles I’ve seen — in my own life and those on my team. There have been days where I’ve gotten out of bed to jump on a call and worked for 9 or 10 hours without a break — it’s just not healthy. Working remotely is going to be our reality for the foreseeable future and we have to get better at setting boundaries for ourselves and encouraging those on our teams to do the same.

As a part of our series about the five things you need to successfully manage a remote team, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kathy Delaney, Global Chief Creative Officer of Publicis Health and Saatchi & Saatchi Wellness.

Kathy’s passion for creating human-centric stories and overseeing integrated campaigns has influenced clients across industries including IKEA, Tommy Hilfiger, Johnson & Johnson, Revlon, Reebok, Pfizer, Novartis, Starwood Hotels, ConAgra, Kraft, and Unilever.​

​Kathy has served as a judge and “Health and Wellness” Jury President at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity. Named one of “The Most Creative Women in Advertising” by Business Insider, her work has been recognized by Clios, One Show, Effies, Graphis, MM&M’s, Communication Arts, W3s, Art Directors Club, Andy’s, and Cannes Lions. In 2018, Kathy was inducted into the MM&M Hall of Femme and named an HBA Luminary. In 2020, Kathy was named to the AdWeek Creative 100 Awards.​

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. What is your “backstory”

Thanks for having me! As far as my backstory, it’s always been about storytelling through details. I’m a lifelong New Yorker, born and raised in the Bronx. My grandmother was a first-generation immigrant from Ireland and a phenomenal storyteller. My dad was a private detective and weekend artist. I think growing up around them made me curious about human behavior and taught me how small details can have a big impact. And that you can’t craft an amazing story without a healthy dose of fact and imagination!

For much of my career, I found purpose in the executional detail of creative storytelling. As my career as a creative evolved, so did my projects. I’ve worked on a range of brands from clothing, to hotel chains, to consumer packaged goods. I immersed myself in the nuanced details of filmmaking, directing, writing and photography. Yet, it wasn’t until I was in my forties that I discovered my purpose working in the health and wellness space. Taking everything I had learned up until then, and applying it to truly change the trajectory of people’s lives. I’m grateful to currently serve as Global Chief Creative Officer of Publicis Health — the health and wellness vertical of Publicis Groupe.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

Any story I used to tell pales in comparison to the ones being written by the rollercoaster ride of 2020! The past nine months have been the most interesting and tumultuous of my career. Between COVID-19, pivoting to remote work and a range of other connected and unconnected stressors, this year has been fraught with challenges.

For me, 2020 has underscored in new ways the reality that we don’t “check ourselves at the door” — work, life, and the Pandora’s box of our world right now are all intimately interwoven. And it’s important as leaders that we do the work to have empathy for our colleagues and show grace to one another as the lines between work and life blur together.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Early in my career I was a junior art director at an agency with a large toy account. My boss, the executive creative director, saw that I needed some production experience under my belt and moved me onto this large toy account. I almost immediately felt out of my depth — there are all sorts of regulations and rules you need to understand when you’re marketing toys. I quickly became overwhelmed and wasn’t confident I could do the work. I went back to my boss and let him know I was struggling. His response was, “I hired you to solve problems, not make more of them.”

As an unabashedly thin-skinned creative, his comments stung at first, but they also taught me to always come with a solution. And, if I don’t have a solution, to be clear, direct, and specific about the kind of help I need.

What advice would you give to other chief creative leaders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?

Boundaries. Boundaries. Boundaries.

This year has felt like an eternity and the only measure of time passing is the cooler weather. Often my Saturday feels like a Wednesday. When you’re working from home, it’s easy to accept an 8 AM meeting because you don’t have a commute and I often find myself accepting calls at 7 PM or 8 PM because when your home is your office and your office is your home, boundaries can be difficult to establish and hard to keep.

I’m personally trying to treat my office more like an office and less as an extension of my living room and kitchen. Our industry has always been known as one where you “work hard and play hard,” but 2020 hasn’t given us much opportunity to play and an all-work lifestyle is simply not sustainable and will inevitably lead to burnout.

I’d encourage other chief creative leaders to set boundaries for themselves and for their teams. Encourage meeting-free mornings and work with your teams to give them the resources they need to avoid working into the night. We need to adhere more strictly to a schedule that commuting and working in brick-and-mortar offices once required.

Ok, let’s jump to the core of our interview. Some companies have many years of experience with managing a remote team. Others have just started this, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Can you tell us how many years of experience you have managing remote teams?

I’ve been managing global teams for more than a decade, so the concept of working remotely isn’t new. I’m used to collaborating across time zones and working with clients and creative counterparts in the U.K. and Western Europe. However, managing remotely has never been this extreme. So, while I’m used to taking Zoom calls from my colleagues across the Pond, the pandemic has forced remote collaboration with colleagues that might literally be around the block!

Managing a team remotely can be very different than managing a team that is in front of you. Can you articulate for our readers what the five main challenges are regarding managing a remote team (particularly creative teams)? Can you give a story or example for each?

I always say one of the wonderful things about being creative is being thin-skinned — highly sensitive to the world around you. It means you feel more, which allows your work to be more authentic and expressive. That said, being a thin-skinned creative in a year as tumultuous as 2020 hasn’t been easy. As someone who leads multiple creative teams, I’ve observed a handful of key challenges throughout the last few months:

  1. The Loss of Informal Chats: When you’re working from home and staring at a screen, you lose the organic connectivity across the company that has historically led to some pretty great solutions; it turns out those little hallway chats that don’t always feel significant actually are. To address this, we’ve started monthly meetings that are just for knowledge sharing — they are informal, small group conversations designed to be open-ended. I also highly encourage spontaneous calls and blocking time just to catch-up with colleagues — you never know what ideas might be sparked.
  2. Setting Boundaries: I already spoke a bit about this earlier, but I think it’s worth highlighting again because it’s one of the more profound struggles I’ve seen — in my own life and those on my team. There have been days where I’ve gotten out of bed to jump on a call and worked for 9 or 10 hours without a break — it’s just not healthy. Working remotely is going to be our reality for the foreseeable future and we have to get better at setting boundaries for ourselves and encouraging those on our teams to do the same.
  3. Difficulty Reading the Room: Nine months into COVID-19, I’ve delivered webinars, been in pitches, and presented to internal and external teams of hundreds and it always feels like I’m presenting into the void. It can be hard to understand the dynamics of a team, what the energy of the room is like, whether or not to read into those with their cameras turned off and good luck reading body language when you can only see someone’s face.
  4. Building a Virtual Culture & Celebrating: I know many of us don’t feel like celebrating this year, but I think that’s part of why it’s so important. Historically, when you win a pitch or someone on your team has a birthday you go out to dinner or drinks and now it’s just onto the next thing. I think it’s critically important that we find ways to pause and celebrate our people.
  5. Adapting to Changing Routines: You would have thought that this far into the pandemic that I would have developed a better routine, but I’m still trying to find my groove in this brave new world. Before lockdown I would go to the gym every morning, walk around my neighborhood, commute for half-an-hour — a totally productive, offline routine that made for a soft landing into whatever chaos the workday had in store. Now, I wake up, my gym is still closed, my commute is 30 seconds instead of 30 minutes, and between Teams, texting, Zoom, Slack, and all the other tools, I feel bombarded by chaos before I’ve even had a chance to get dressed and cold press a cup of coffee. I’ve had to think about how to redesign my self-care routine to ensure I’m at my best for myself and my teams.

Based on your experience, what can one do to address or redress each of those challenges?

I’ve found a handful of practical and tactical solutions that have helped me lead more effectively, but at the heart of all of it has to be empathy. Early on in the pandemic, Harvard Business Review published one of their most-read articles to date, called “That Discomfort You’re Feeling is Grief” where they unpack the fact we are all experiencing collectively — but in different, unique ways — trauma. Empathy has always been a hallmark of good leadership, but now, more than ever, leadership has to start with empathy.

  1. Give People Permission to Not Be Okay: I mentioned at the top that this year has underscored how interwoven our lives have become. The reality is our Black colleagues are coping with two pandemics — COVID-19 and systemic racism; our colleagues with kids are juggling Zoom preschool and their 9-to-5; many of our junior staff have moved back in with their families or are doing their best to combat loneliness from shoebox apartments in the city. Many of our people are not okay — and that’s okay.! As leaders, it’s our job to set an empathetic tone that gives our teams permission to be flexible and provides space for them to work how they need to during this tumultuous and dramatic year.
  2. Turn Off Your Camera: This might sound counterintuitive, but I believe there’s something to be said for not using video — at least not all of the time. There’s a performative aspect and accompanying pressure to be “on” when you’re on camera. Not to mention that art directing your background gets old! Some of the best, most honest conversations I’ve had have been 1:1’s over the phone. It’s on the leaders to put that out there — it’s okay to not be on video all the time.
  3. Find Ways to Celebrate: I know there haven’t been many reasons to celebrate this year, but when we have the opportunity, we need to take it. Next time your team wins a pitch, carve out an hour, send everyone a Seamless gift card or a bottle of bubby, and give kudos to everyone — most junior to most senior — for their contributions.
  4. Make Yourself Accessible: Since we won’t be bumping into one another at the water cooler or coffee machine anytime soon, I believe it’s important to find other ways to make sure we’re accessible (while keeping boundaries in mind!). At Publicis Health, I’ve done virtual coffee with several of our early careers team members and hosted Q&As at internal conferences and events. Accessibility requires intentionality — put yourself in environments where you can engage with folks you normally might not on a daily basis.

In my experience, one of the trickiest parts of managing a remote team is giving honest feedback, in a way that doesn’t come across as too harsh. If someone is in front of you much of the nuance can be picked up in facial expressions and body language. But not when someone is remote. Can you give a few suggestions about how to best give constructive criticism to a remote employee?

Emotional intelligence and situational awareness are more important than ever when working remotely. Effective leaders should strive to understand the individual’s context and circumstances before giving feedback. As an example, I recently had a manager who was concerned because one of his creatives didn’t have his camera on, and while his work was fine, it didn’t feel like he was being as engaged on the calls. Upon doing some digging, it turns out this employee had a child with a learning disability who was being homeschooled in the same room.

Especially now, empathy and understanding are where it has to start. People have families, introverts show up differently than extroverts in virtual environments, and we are all doing the best we can. Before giving feedback, ask questions to understand the employee’s circumstances.

Can you specifically address how to give constructive feedback over email? How do you prevent the email from sounding too critical or harsh?

I’ve always felt e-mail is an inappropriate place to give feedback to begin with. Especially for creatives, e-mail feedback can be easily misunderstood and it’s challenging to communicate nuance and empathy through Outlook. My advice is to pick up the phone or set up a video chat and have a conversation the old-fashioned way.

Can you share any suggestions for teams who are used to working together on location but are forced to work remotely due to the pandemic. Are there potential obstacles one should avoid with a team that is just getting used to working remotely?

I think it starts with viewing it as an opportunity for growth instead of an obstacle. Additionally, you have to level-set from the start that remote production isn’t the same as a physical shoot, but we’re finding that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The neat part about remote production is a lot more people get to participate and have the opportunity to be involved. Because we aren’t worried about travel expenses at the moment, we are able to involve more members of the team, using it as an opportunity to give rising talent exposure to clients, producers, directors, and senior creatives.

What do you suggest can be done to create a healthy and empowering work culture with a team that is remote and not physically together?

It continues to come back to empathy, which I firmly believe is the foundation for any healthy and empowering work culture — remote or otherwise. Leaders seeking to create a healthy remote culture should:

  • Lead with empathy
  • Set the tone
  • Have the team’s back
  • Cut some slack
  • Recognize everyone’s humanity
  • Be generous with time and resources

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Throughout my career it’s been important to look at the unmet needs of marginalized groups of people and find creative solutions to address them. For example, we looked at the deaf community and learned they struggle to communicate with 911 operators, so we built Deaf 911. In the LGBTQ+ community, we learned 40% of LGBTQ+ youth that come out are kicked out of their homes, so we designed the Thrown Out Flag campaign to raise awareness for queer youth.

If I could inspire a movement, it would be to encourage everyone to look within and beyond their communities to identify opportunities where their talents, gifts, and influence can address unmet needs and help others flourish.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote?” Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“You were hired to solve problems, not create them.”

It was definitely a harsh lesson in the moment, but now it’s the reason I get out of bed every morning. Pointing out problems is easy (just scroll through Twitter!) but solving them can be tremendously rewarding.

Instead of just identifying what’s wrong with the world, let’s work together to create a better, more empathetic one.

Thank you for these great insights!

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