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A day in the lockdown life of Publisher Research Council CEO Josephine Buys

"Having worked remotely for almost a decade while consulting and then in my role as the founding CEO of the IAB SA and now with the PRC, it's pretty much situation normal for me. I complete the (zero carbon footprint) commute to my home office in under two minutes with a cup of warm water, lemon and honey. I usually have several Zoom, Teams, GoToWebinars and now, more recently WebinarJam video conference meetings and presentations. I still don't drink enough water or take regular breaks, so again, it's really more of the same!" - CEO of the Publisher Research Council, Josephine Buys' account of work-life in the time of Covid-19.
Publisher Research Council CEO, Josephine Buys.
Publisher Research Council CEO, Josephine Buys.

BizcommunityWhat was your initial response to the crisis/lockdown and has your experience of it been different to what you expected?

My mother was visiting from Ireland when talk of a lockdown began, so our immediate priority was returning her safely home. The day after she left we were informed that a bride and several guests at a wedding we attended mid-March had tested positive, so my husband and I began self-isolation eight days before the government lockdown.

During that time, based on governmental restrictions on large groups, I started arrangements to pivot the eagerly awaited Publisher Audience Measurement Survey (Pams 2019) to a webinar launch instead of the planned national roadshow. So, thankfully, we were already prepared when the lockdown was announced.

I am comfortable with video conferencing, having hosted such meetings for several years, but this was the first time I hosted a webinar. Fortunately, people had been in lockdown for a week by the time we hosted our member preview, which means many more people had become used to this new normal. However, we faced quite a challenge guiding new users on how to mute their microphones, with myself and our research consultant Pete Langschmidt having to chatter over one unfortunate attendee (and clearly a new user) who audibly asked his wife: “What did the doctor say?”.

This prompted us to further pivot our public launch to include YouTube Live, thus being able to stream the launch via with the help of our hybrid marketing agency Twisted Toast, who has been remarkable in their own pivots to accommodate the pace of change required over the past five weeks.

We welcomed approximately 200 live virtual attendees for the launch and converted 24 into subscribers to our YouTube channel. For a re-cap of the Pams 2019 launch, see here:

BizcommunityComment on the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the publishing industry.

As everyone in our sector is keenly aware, there have already been casualties, not only with salary and job cuts at many of our members, but most recently, the closure of Associated Media Publishing and Caxton Magazines. This is partly due to the lockdown affecting copy sales and distribution (in the case of magazines, unlike newspapers, they are not considered essential industry) but more so because advertisers, spooked about this unchartered territory, either cancelled intended advertising altogether or blocked search topics such as ‘crisis’, ‘Covid-19’ and ‘coronavirus’, stripping media companies of desperately needed revenue from programmatic keyword ad placement on their digital platforms. Sadly, it has created a perfect storm in the publishing world.

BizcommunityHow is the publishing industry responding to the crisis and current lockdown?

Accelerated digitisation and in some cases, a move to digital-only publishing. In terms of research and audience measurement, we see this is a golden opportunity to innovate. We are re-evaluating current projects with the future in mind. For example, we’ve been aware that face-to-face surveys are becoming increasingly more difficult, particularly in our market due to gated communities and accessibility challenges in many areas. To future-proof our research studies, even before Covid-19, we had already decided to go online with our audience research, so we can seamlessly continue monitoring audiences during and post the lockdown world.

BizcommunityComment on the challenges and opportunities.

Naturally the pause or, in some cases, the cancellation of entire advertising campaigns — despite historical evidence that cutting ad budgets in times of crises is a high-risk strategy — has had the unintended consequence of further diminishing revenues and resulted in some of the aforementioned closures. The opportunity here is for the strongest publishers with a strengthened online presence to survive and thrive into the post-Covid-19 world of advertising.

I would like to see collaborations challenging the duopoly in wresting back some of the advertising income they have been hoovering up by sheer force of size and power. There has never been a more important time for people to seek and find trusted sources of news and information to keep families and communities safe. Trustworthy South African news brands deliver that.

Another advantage I see resulting from this chapter of our lives is that digital transformation (previously just a buzz-phrase in many business sectors), is happening as we speak. People who have never attended a video conference in their lives now know exactly how to use and even host one themselves. Companies have adopted software to allow employees to work remotely, giving them back time formerly spent in choking traffic jams (not to mention the significantly reduced carbon footprints and clearer skies throughout the world).

BizcommunitySpeaking of opportunities, the world has really turned to creativity during this time. Why do you think this is the case and what does this mean for the industry, agencies and their clients/brands?

Necessity will be the mother of innovation. Some industry sectors (such as our own), are being disrupted and there will be casualties. But at the same time people will innovate, especially here on the African continent. I believe it’s time for our light to shine, for entrepreneurship, start-up businesses and technological advances to lead the way into our next new normal.

BizcommunityHow has the lockdown affected your staff? What temporary HR policies have you put in place regarding remote working, health & safety, etc.?

It’s business as usual for our small staff complement, as we are experienced in working remotely.

BizcommunityHow are you navigating physical distancing while keeping your team close-knit and aligned and your clients happy?

I am using old-style personal phone calls and occasional WhatsApp messages to check in with colleagues and a wide range of other people. I’m also using a few precious minutes (which admittedly I didn’t necessarily do in the past) at the start and end of virtual meetings to check in on people’s wellbeing.
I’m particularly delighted that South Africans have stopped replying, “Fine thanks, and you?”. There seems to be a far more genuine, sincere wish to ask and hear about people’s true state of mind, as well as their physical health. It has become acceptable to ask and more importantly, to tell the truth. I’ve often found myself admitting that I’ve had a tough day, but on balance, more good than bad is, well... good.

BizcommunityWhat are you busy working on? Any initiatives/campaigns relating to the coronavirus?

We are currently analysing the exponential increase in the unique browsers audience metric of our publisher member websites since lockdown. While it’s true printed media circulation figures may be declining during the lockdown, readers have not gone away, they are simply using digital platforms more. We are working on evidence to prove this to advertising decision-makers as they start to plan for the next phase of a return to normality as lockdown levels become less restrictive.

BizcommunityHow have you had to change the way you work?

Fortunately, I am nimble and comfortable online. My strong work ethic and ability to multitask and pivot swiftly if and when required has equipped me well for this change.

BizcommunityHas the global crisis changed your view of the future of advertising/marketing in any way?

It certainly has. We, along with many other industry sectors will not be able to go back to business as usual. The world has changed forever, we will face a new market situation. I believe brands that are showing up now with empathy and care (no matter how they amplify or announce it), will be the ones we will support post-Covid-19. Purpose-driven marketing — another trend we’ve noticed these past few years — will now be a non-negotiable in the eyes of savvy consumers. Brands that have that in their DNA, who emotionally connect with consumers during this time of crisis will not only survive, they will thrive in the post-Covid-19 world.

BizcommunityAny other emerging trends you’ve noticed?

Human kindness has become a currency. I hope that remains so when this all fades into the rearview and becomes a distant memory.

BizcommunityYour key message to fellow industry folk?

I hope we will all remember this time when less was more. Rampant consumerism is not the holy grail. Health is the new wealth.


About Juanita Pienaar

Juanita is the editor of the marketing & media portal on the Bizcommunity website. She is also a contributing writer.

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