Will the planet thank us for COVID-19?

It’s approaching the time of year where we offset Salt’s carbon emissions. Being a virtual agency our footprint has never been huge, but this year I am obviously expecting it to be lower than usual. The reduction in travel globally has clearly been good news for the planet, but it got me thinking about the wider environmental impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The early days of lockdown brought much needed good news of smog-free skies, wildlife running free in urban areas, the canals of Venice being the clearest they have been in 60 years, a reduction in intensive fishing and many other reported silver linings. They brought hope that our planet was getting a chance to come up for air, take a deep breath and go about its business without the incessant interference of human beings. It was heartening to believe that the pandemic, while clearly a disaster of great proportions for humanity, could become a trigger for more environmentally conscious behaviour after seeing what the world can do when the human race slows down for just a few months. Perhaps it could trigger the green movement to become more acutely urgent and motivating, encouraging everyone to treat the world with a little more care and consideration. I think most of us were left with the belief that at least the pandemic has been good for the environment.

But is it panning out this way? As the pandemic has progressed the environmental impact has already begun to shift. While a reduction in travel has been beneficial, now that restrictions are easing travel is rapidly creeping back up. Beyond travel, single-use plastic use has dramatically increased with gloves, masks, plastic screens and PPE, we are using more cleaning products (from harsh bleaches and household cleaners to laundry detergent and handwash), and of course with everyone at home domestic energy use is higher than usual. Illegal deforestation in the Amazon has been able to continue unchecked, and it’s likely that similar habitats around the world have suffered due to the lack of patrolling. Even areas where great progress had been made, like reusable coffee cups, have had to revert to single-use alternatives. For how long we can’t be sure, but possibly long enough to forget the habit of taking your own cup and re-learn the habit of using a disposable one.

It is well understood that behaviour change is likely to be more successful if the intervention is aligned to a moment when the existing behaviour is disrupted. In other words, being forced to break one habit is the perfect time to nudge us into establishing a new one. The average habit takes about 10 weeks to form, which makes lockdown the perfect opportunity for governments to intervene and encourage people to form new, lower carbon habits and prevent a default return to how things have always been. What we appear to be seeing, however, are economic recovery drives to get industries like construction and fossil fuels moving faster than ever, with payouts and the relaxing of regulations and royalties. To quote Tom Heap from BBC Radio 4’s Costing the Earth, we appear to be ‘taking the green handcuffs off business’.

The pandemic has clearly taken focus from the momentum the environmental movement was gaining. COVID-19 has naturally had to come first, but we need to make sure we don’t forget where we got to and can continue to move forward rather than taking a step back and starting again. It feels such a shame if we can’t at least grasp the opportunity to take stock and change our behaviour for the better. After all, our planet will be here a lot longer than we will.

But that’s exactly the problem. Environmental impact is a long-term issue, not urgent enough for us to change our behaviour now for the promise of a better future in the long-term. COVID-19 has given us the unique opportunity to see with our own eyes the impact our actions have on the planet, almost a brief window into a parallel world where the environment is higher up the agenda. It would be great if this realisation developed into a positive legacy of the pandemic, so at least some good comes of it.

“…As we recover, the decisions we make today will either lay the foundation for sound, sustainable and inclusive growth, or lock-in polluting emissions for decades, and in doing so make our society and the planet more vulnerable.”

Delivered by Justin Addison, Second Secretary at the UK Delegation to the OSCE, at the virtual OSCE Economic and Environmental Committee Meeting on 3 June 2020.

As we come out of lockdown (for now at least), maybe we should all consider which new habits we can keep, to be more conscious and mindful of our impact on the environment. Let’s celebrate re-gaining our freedom and being able to see friends and loved ones, but let’s not default to how things were just because that’s how they have always been.

A change in routine is a key opportunity to create lasting behaviour changing by forming new, long-lasting habits. Let’s make sure we take it.


covid19impact hashtagenvironment hashtagenvironmentalimpact hashtagcoronavirusimpact

I am not a vegan

I became a vegetarian back in the 1980s. In those days it was far from common, and it was hard to find vegetarian food when I was away from home. My friends’ parents didn’t know how to deal with it, and my Dad thought I was some kind of hippy weirdo who would get over it by the time I hit my teenage years. 30 years on, I am still vegetarian. But recently, and entirely out of my control, I am becoming more and more vegan. I am perfectly happy being vegetarian, and although I have reduced my dairy consumption, I have absolutely no plans to become vegan. But society disagrees. Since the recent rise of the vegan movement, vegetarians have been side-lined. It’s great that so many people are turning to veganism, but I don’t see why it should be assumed that I automatically want to join them. All of a sudden, most pubs and restaurants have few if any vegetarian options, instead proudly announcing their new vegan credentials and expecting me to be delighted.

There’s no doubt veganism is on the rise. The number of vegans in Britain quadrupled between 2014 and 2018, now standing at 1.16% of the population[1]. In contrast, 14% of the UK population is vegetarian[2]. In addition to these two figures, 21% of UK consumers currently identify as being ‘flexitarian’ – eating a largely plant-based diet that is supplemented occasionally with meat. Looking at these statistics, why is it that vegetarian dishes on the menu have been replaced with vegan ones? There are still more than 12 times as many vegetarians as vegans, so why should vegetarian options be struck off? Would it not be more representative of current dietary choices to reduce the number of meat-containing meals instead of sacrificing the vegetarian ones? Shouldn’t we be providing a greater range of options that reflect the spectrum of diet choices across the population?

There is a wild assumption that vegetarians will be happy to be vegan. Why is that so? I have chosen to cut meat and fish from my diet, but I don’t exclude eggs or dairy. The reaction to rising veganism has been to lump two customer groups together and assume everyone will be happy, rather than to understand the needs of each and catering (literally) to them accordingly. I’m about as delighted about being pushed into veganism as a meat eater who is suddenly told they have to be vegetarian.

I have experienced some hilarious assumptions as a vegetarian. Like the time I got a slightly smaller Mars bar than the non-vegetarians on an in-flight meal. Or last month when my meal at a Sofitel in France was a bowl of vegetables that looked identical to something I could have microwaved myself, straight from the freezer. For the bargain price of €22.

My point is that we shouldn’t be lumping people into buckets and going with the easy option. (Even when looking for stats on vegetarianism for this post the search results were largely about veganism, despite it not being in my search terms.) Instead we should be recognising different customer groups and their needs, and providing choices that reflect that. And also, I really love cheese…

  1. https://www.vegansociety.com/news/media/statistics
  2. https://www.comparethemarket.com/car-insurance/content/cars-against-humanity/
  3. https://www.theguardian.com/business/2018/nov/01/third-of-britons-have-stopped-or-reduced-meat-eating-vegan-vegetarian-report

Salt // two

The last 12 months have been amazing.

When we turned one we reflected on why we started Salt, saying ‘We wanted to feel free to enjoy what we do, put our experience to good use, make a difference, and to simplify and streamline the way we work so we can offer people more.’ We had certainly done some of that in year one, but looking back now on year two, we have done a whole lot more. Our second year has seen us doing even more exciting things, expand our client base, work with a growing team of wonderful associates and partners, travel more than we ever expected, deliver a global campaign and embark on a new EU launch. Aside from that we’ve built escape rooms, life-sized board games, VR experiences, art installations in Lyon’s Museum of Contemporary Art, created a hair salon on a congress booth, turned scientific data into art…and made sure we’ve always had time to enjoy it along the way.

We have continued to meet and be inspired by amazing people, grasp amazing opportunities and get far too carried away with our ideas on many an occasion. We have an excellent team of people we rely on to make Salt a reality, and we thank each and every one of them for helping us to complete our second year as a thriving business, doing work that really matters. Our clients have given us feedback that has made us blush and even cry (in a good way!), and we have seen the impact of some of our work out in the real world. That’s really what we want to achieve – creating positive change in people’s lives.

Please can we have more years like this one? We have honestly loved every minute.

How can this be okay?

Salt is now in its second year, and things are going well. We’re getting busier by the day, with lots of new clients coming on board and existing work expanding into new areas. So how come our cash surplus is disappearing before our eyes, and our bank balance is fast approaching zero?

It’s no surprise that cashflow is one of the biggest challenges for any business, especially a start-up. We started our business with nothing – no clients, no funding, no loans and no overdrafts – so we knew it would take a while to get things going. Once that started happening, thankfully only a few months in, we were able to play catch up and keep ourselves afloat. Small and midsized companies generally seem to understand and appreciate this situation, and manage their finances accordingly to honour their payment commitments to the letter. Unfortunately, we are seeing more and more cases where the larger, global organisations do not.

Large corporations, with annual revenues over $30bn, appear to have a systematic culture of late payment, and I am yet to work out why. Is it because those extra weeks keeping hold of your budget gives them an advantage? Is it just laziness or inefficiency? Is it that they simply don’t appreciate that withholding funds can put small businesses at risk? Or is it a power trip – they know they can get away with it? Who knows. An awful lot of time and energy is put into negotiating a contract, yet it seems to mean very little when one side can break it at will. Somehow dealings between two businesses don’t need to conform to the same principles we might put on a person-to-person interaction, and it makes it okay to break the rules without explanation, apology, accountability or consequences.

Being business to business can make the conversation, decisions, actions and principles less human, so it suddenly becomes okay not to pay people what you owe, blaming the system and the rules rather than seeing that it is clearly unfair and taking responsibility. I see no reason why commitments should be any less important in the commercial world than they are in the personal world, particularly if the relationship is valued. And that’s always a sticking point – the clients we work directly with do value the relationship, as do we, so inevitably it is the small businesses that have to compromise in order to maintain it. It is the small business that is asked to start work without a PO, deliver work with no idea of when they might be paid, and take on all the financial risk and burden associated with doing a good piece of work in the spirit of ‘partnership’. It’s totally out of balance, and plays on people’s good nature, willingness to do good work and not wanting to be the one who prevents something from happening. And clearly, a small business is never going to sue a global corporate entity for not fulfilling their contractual obligation to pay on time, so all is well.

Or is it? Is it okay for small business to bankroll gigantic corporate entities? Should we be taking all the risk, uncertainty and cost of bridging the gap? Should we accept that so many good small businesses go under because of these sorts of practices?

We operate our business fairly. That means we pay our associates and partners on time, and we respect their need to run a business as much as we do our own. Because for us, money committed is just that – a commitment, a promise, and fair remuneration for good work. Working this way leaves us exposed in the middle – honouring our payment commitments without being able to rely on the same for our income. Some people may say it’s naïve, but we feel good business is all about being true to your principles. Agencies don’t want to be in a relationship where all the power sits on one side. We choose to work with people who respect us for what we do, are excited to be a part of our journey, and are willing to push on our behalf. And there are plenty of those around.

Right, now I’m off to press refresh on our online banking…

Bad behaviour

Behaviour, ‘The way in which one acts or conducts oneself, especially towards others’

In other words, everything we do. The decisions we make, the way we act, the things that show people who we are.

There is so much talk about behaviour change, it’s become a buzz word. But how often do we really aim to understand behaviour, or are we really just tying to manipulate, influence and persuade someone to do something differently? Isn’t that what marketing and advertising are all about? Actually, I don’t think so.

Understanding someone’s behaviour isn’t about using it against them to hoodwink them into doing what we want them to do. It’s not about covert, subconscious ways of brainwashing people into buying what we have to sell, nor is about selling to people without them realising they are being sold to. It’s about understanding who people are and what makes them tick, so we know who we can be most relevant and meaningful for. Genuinely.

People aren’t defined by a set of demographics – I am not a a clone of every other woman in her 40s living in the London commuter belt. It is my behaviour that defines me as being me, not the facts and data about my age, where I live or what I had for dinner last night. That is equally true for an oncologist looking after people with cancer, an NHS commissioner trying to make the most out of limited resources, or a person coming to terms with a Type 2 diabetes diagnosis.

There are so many cases of behaviour impacting real-life situations in health. GPs are more likely to prescribe antibiotics just before lunch and at the end of the day, when they are weary from patients persistently demanding them. A break over lunch and they re-set their energy and resilience. People with asthma might take their inhaler diligently to start with, but gradually get complacent and feel they no longer need it, until the day they wake up finding they are struggling to breathe. I know, I am one of them, and I have given myself a stern talking to (as has the asthma nurse, who remained patient and supportive despite seeing people harming themselves like this through non-compliance every single day).

We are all people, and labels like ‘HCP’, ‘payer’ or ‘patient’ don’t help to give any understanding of who we really are. So we shouldn’t feel the need to label people like this, instead we should get to know people. Talk to them, understand what drives them, what scares them, why they do what they do. Treat them like human beings, not boxes in a survey. Then we can understand what makes them tick, what they are looking for and how we can help them with whatever it is they are looking to achieve.

Understanding people makes so much more sense than bucketing people. It’s better for them, and it’s better for us as we’re more likely to be heard. Understand people and we can talk to them in a way that suits what they need.

Behavioural insights are still largely considered to be unnecessary – not a core part of what we need to do. Why on earth not? The upfront investment can reap rewards and make everything else more efficient and effective, with proven ROI. Maybe people prefer to keep doing things the same old way, crossing their fingers that they’ll get something different and more effective out of the other end.

If we want communications to be more effective, and genuinely make a difference, we should stop thinking about how to convince and persuade, and instead start thinking about how we can listen and understand. It’s a win-win.

Why is pharma so antisocial?

My GP has a mug on his desk that says ‘please don’t confuse your Google search with my medical degree’. People are more information hungry than ever, and when faced with a health problem the first instinct is to google it, just like everything else. We are used to finding everything at our fingertips, and being able to converse on any topic at any time.

So there’s a huge health conversation online, but the pharma industry is still largely absent from it, with only a few cases of pharma companies using social channels well. Why? Primarily a lack of confidence in how to manage social media without getting into trouble. But social media isn’t about selling drugs, it’s about having conversations. So surely we can get over this by now?

In the time pharma has been twiddling its thumbs, the social media universe has become much more sophisticated. The longer they’ve been absent, the harder it is has become to jump on board. It’s not about throwing out the odd tweet here and there, a social presence needs to be well considered, and the goals and objectives need to be realistic and defined.

In the end, it’s about being human. Approachable and interested rather than aloof and unreachable. It’s about having a conversation and allowing people to get to know you, engage with you, and to engage with them in return. It means you need to understand who you are talking to, and what they want or need to hear. It definitely takes commitment – if you’re going to do it you need to be confident you’re going to do it properly – which, I suspect, is why so many still haven’t taken the plunge.

Creating a connection with people you’ve never met is normal now, and it’s easy to assume that anyone who isn’t ‘out there’ simply doesn’t care enough to bother. They’re antisocial. The pharma industry has played a significant but silent role in people’s lives for a very long time, and now we have the chance to strike up a conversation. Let’s take it.

Being social

Being social used to mean being just that. Now it means almost the opposite – being glued to a device and barely making meaningful contact with other human beings in the real world.

Now, I’m not in any way against social media (that would be ironic for a post shared through social channels), but has our obsession been at the expense of real-life interaction, instead of in addition to it? Research has shown that virtual interactions don’t produce the same responses in the brain as interactions face-to-face. Even simple things like making eye contact with someone can increase dopamine and oxytocin, and decrease cortisol, reducing stress, increasing trust and improving mood.

And it’s much more powerful than that – Professor Julianne Holt-Lunstad studied the impact of different lifestyle factors on how long we will live. She discovered that some of the physical factors we focus so much on, like being overweight or exercising regularly, only had a moderate impact on life expectancy, and the biggest predictors by far were whether or not people have close relationships and regular social interaction. Research by Prof Clive Ballard also showed that dementia patients spending just 10 minutes a day having a one-on-one social interaction can improve their quality of life, agitation levels and neuropsychiatric complications. That’s the kind of response we might only expect to achieve with hard drugs, not a simple chat.

Physical factors are obviously important, but the focus on physical vs psychological factors is clearly out of kilter. We could all improve our health and wellbeing, and expect to live longer as a result, if we preserve time in our busy lives for talking to people. For most of us that’s pretty easy, but not for everyone. In her recent TED talk, psychologist Susan Pinker stated that “social isolation is the public health risk of our time”.

Channel 4’s Old People’s Home for 4 Year Oldsrecently highlighted a beautiful example of how human interaction can improve our wellbeing. A group of 4-year-olds spent six weeks at an old people’s home, and in that time the senior volunteers showed dramatic improvements in their mental and physical health scores. People who felt they could only walk with a zimmer frame were seen chasing the little nippers around playfully, totally forgetting their physical inabilities. More anecdotally, the older participants said they felt more alive and that being with the children had been like having a shot of adrenalin. There it is again – human interaction having the impact we might only expect from a drug.

So, shouldn’t we be doing much more to recognise the power of human interaction in improving our mental and physical health? In the communications industry, everything we do is about having conversations with people, but it feels like we’re often so focused on how to talk to people, that we forget the importance of actually talking to people.

We need to make it happen. So go and find someone to have a chat with, and maybe you’ll both feel better for it.

Whose strategy is it anyway?

In this third episode our three contributors Kath, Richard and Haifa grapple with a question that repeats more frequently than a garlic vol-au-vent: Whose strategy is it? (strategy that is)

Let’s build a strategy!

All too often it feels like the strategy for any brand is recreated a million times over, because everyone who comes into contact with it wants to add their two pence, and show they understand the problem better than everyone else. This means the strategy ends up being a jumble of disconnected thoughts – a noisy mess that achieves little more than to bombard the target audience with meaningless stuff. Instead, the strategy should be something to build and grow, not to periodically scrap and start again. That means it’s hard work – it needs to be more considered from the outset, and more applicable to the endpoint.

Strategy doesn’t stop once the direction is set, we still need to get there. The commonly held belief that delivering against a strategy is somehow the poor cousin of developing one is frustratingly out-dated. What use is a strategy if it isn’t delivered? Delivering against a strategy is often harder than developing one, but so many people are so quick to say ‘that’s not my job’? It’s not about where one job stops and another job starts, it’s about creating seamless understanding and ownership.

For this reason, and because it makes damn good sense, developing the strategy should be much more inclusive, not left to the select few who have permission to be smart. No one has all the answers, but a lot of people have some of them. Then it needs to be focused down, and we need to be strict with it. Once it’s done, everyone needs to believe in it and make it happen. It’s a collaborative process, not a competition.

Of course, it needs to be clever in thought, genuinely well informed with insight, and big enough to cover the whole marketing mix. But it also needs to be meaningful, bringing with it a promise to change things rather than just communicate things. That way the strategy won’t be a piece of academic theory that never sees the light of day, it will readily translate into practice.

In the end, this allows the strategy to achieve what it set out to do in the first place – have a positive impact in the real world. Isn’t that what we’re doing this for?

What’s wrong with progress?

We all know that clients increasingly need to do more with less. Marketing budgets are being cut continually, and expectations of ROI and proof of impact are higher than ever. In parallel, communications agencies are looking for ways to do more; with more focused, intelligent thinking and stronger creative. But this expertise comes at a price.

Agencies are left in a difficult position. With revenues and hourly rates heading south, margins are squeezed and cuts are inevitable. Agencies have always worked a certain way, and it isn’t a structure that can support the same commitment and expertise for a tighter budget. So when faced with the challenge of budget cuts, the solution is usually two-fold – put a less experienced (ie. cheaper) team on the business, and increase the number of hours to protect the final revenue number. This will keep the agency hitting its own targets in the short-term, but it isn’t a great solution for the agency or the client in the long-run, and the cracks will very soon appear. The client will feel there is a lack of commitment and the agency will feel the client doesn’t value their expertise.

This isn’t sustainable, let alone enjoyable. It’s a lose-lose situation that doesn’t produce good work or value for money. Instead, we need to recognise and embrace that times have changed. The challenge to do more with less isn’t going to go away, so rather than continuing to work with the same old model, we need to rethink the whole set-up. Agencies have always had layers of people, rigid structures that aren’t able to bend and flex to suit different needs, and margins factored in to cover big offices and staff downtime. It’s ok to challenge these things – in fact it needs to be done. Rather than trim around the edges, the answer is to think more creatively about how an agency works. And it’s simple – it needs trimmed back and agile structures, with bespoke teams tailored to specific needs rather than static teams sitting on the books waiting for the right work to come along. This meets the need to do more with less without compromising on the good bits. So rather than cutting the experience, expertise and motivation of the team, you cut everything else instead. The bits that will make absolutely no difference to how great an idea is, how effective a campaign can be, or the expertise an agency can bring.

Change is nothing to be afraid of – quite the opposite – it’s progress.