Archant excelled during pandemic with focus on its people, ad clients, newsroom

By Michelle Palmer Jones


Nashville, Tennessee, United States


Attention to brand and detail is what has helped make Archant able to enjoy successes big and small throughout the pandemic and no doubt into the future. In addition, Archant CEO Lorna Willis found opportunities to invest in journalism, like offering staffers pay raises despite the pandemic.

In an INMA members-only Webinar on Wednesday, Willis explained she looks at the business in two ways: the client side and the reader side.

In terms of the client side, Willis says they underwent more than just a digital transformation. It was an entire shift in the way the business thought. 

Archant CEO Lorna Willis and Chief People Officer Tom Kay shared with INMA members how they focused on employees and advertising clients during the pandemic.
Archant CEO Lorna Willis and Chief People Officer Tom Kay shared with INMA members how they focused on employees and advertising clients during the pandemic.

Customer-first approach

“Since 2019, we have put a strategy together which we call ‘counting every customer.’ The idea was to move the business away from focusing on revenues and really making sure they focus on customers,” Willis said. “The first thing was to ask, ‘How many customers can we effectively manage as an organisation?’ Forget about revenue for now. If we get this right, that will take care of itself.”

Willis also wanted answers to questions like: ‘What should we be doing for those customers? How can we help those customers in a way no one else can help those customers? What’s the definition of helping those customers?’

She realised if they went back to basics and looked at how Archant conducted itself over the last 170 years, the business had one job for advertisers and that was to be sure they could enter and succeed in their chosen local market. So Archant started asking itself how they could help 37,000 customers succeed in their chosen local market and how they could help another 10,000 enter their local market.

Archant CEO Lorna Willis said putting customers first has helped the company thrive.
Archant CEO Lorna Willis said putting customers first has helped the company thrive.

Archant knew to better serve its advertisers, it had to first better serve itself, she said: “Culturally, the shift we had was to stop trying to solve problems for Archant. If we focus on solving problems for our customers, everything else takes care of itself.”

The work of the chief people officer

Leaders at Archant knew a crucial element at play for this task was the role of its Chief People Officer Tom Kay and his team. The company stopped giving people bonuses based on revenue and instead gave them based on customer happiness.

“The digital transformation was a symptom of that as opposed to a deliberate ‘we’re going to absolutely change everything to digital.’ It was a symptom. We listened to our clients,” Willis said. “Therefore, what they needed was us to provide a fully rounded, multi-service, which we did.”

Whether clients needed help with social media, pay-per-click strategies, or creative, Archant could help solve their problems.

“We do all those things for them and we have an audience as well so we can put them in front of our audience, so that was another side of it in terms of transformation,” Willis said.

It also took some getting used to to change the mindset internally and with clients to ask things like where is our audience? and not is print or digital more important?

When Kay came on board with Archant, he asked the staff what their biggest challenge was. He expected them to say things like social media, radio, or TV. What they actually said? Themselves.

Kay realised there was no clearly defined strategy. And once Willis came in and started fixing that, he had to communicate the strategy to the staff. 

“PR is often thought about as external things,” Kay said. “It actually starts with your own staff. Internal communications are widely important.” 

Archant Chief People Officer Tom Kay said communication and trust were key during the early pandemic.
Archant Chief People Officer Tom Kay said communication and trust were key during the early pandemic.

The pandemic effect

Kay began bringing people along the way with the changes and transformations of doing the right things for the customers. It was good practice, too, he said, since as soon as the pandemic hit, he had to communicate frequently with staff in an honest and authentic way.

“Communication equals trust. If there’s no trust, then your business is built on shaky foundations,” Kay said.

This hybrid environment of some people working in the office and some people working at home is here to stay, Kay said. His team had to get creative with making sure everyone stayed engaged. They had pizza days in the office, with online games and surprise deliveries for at-home staff. They also conducted wellness and mindfulness sessions and linked up co-workers who maybe didn’t know each other with a game called Coffee Roulette.

“We’ve got some brilliantly robust people here. The best in the business,” Kay said. “So when we pressed the button on the e-mail that sent them home on that day, the first day of the pandemic, we thought, how are we going to get our newspapers out? And we did.”

Kay and his team have been trying hard to reinvent themselves and to bring in new talent they can learn from: “People still see organisations like ours as primarily print, and it’s up to us to really push now that innovative piece,” he said.

Willis said the company is not necessarily looking for new skill sets with new hires, but the real change has had to come with leadership teams.

“Leaders have to be far more aware and considerate of staff wellbeing,” Willis said. 

Willis called this a silver lining to the pandemic, saying it’s a priority for her to make sure the executive team is highly accessible: “I think they get a chance to listen to new ideas. I think what’s happened in the digital era is you have to learn from the people coming into the business.”

Investing in newsroom, sales, helpful content

When a new editor-in-chief came in, the editorial team changed a lot, Willis said.

“There has been a trend in the last decade to really cut costs and make the newsroom as efficient and effective as possible,” Willis said. “What we did is say, ‘OK, let’s blow that up and remember what we’re supposed to be doing and that’s put resources back into our community,’ so we created lots of community roles.”

Archant also became a creative agency. The pandemic allowed them to accelerate decisions like this.

“Instead of cutting costs, what happens if we invest?” Willis asked. “Instead of taking £300,000 out here, what if we put in £200,000 and can we turn that into a profit centre instead of a cost centre?”

Archant also revamped what its sales team was doing during the pandemic. They were told to go to all of their clients and ask how they could help their businesses. Together they came up with an advertising match programme of sorts. 

“They created vouchers where they could advertise, free of charge now, as long as when we came out of it, they remembered it,” Willis said. 

The companys people first mentality started paying off and people started noticing the change.

“Throughout COVID, (we received) hundreds of e-mails and letters thanking our business for helping save their business,” Willis said.

But Archant wasn’t done there.

“The other thing we did was create seminar programmes,” Willis said. “We worked with our customers when they were struggling to make a digital transition.”

Archant had 5,000 businesses attend these seminars, which were again focused on solving the problem of the customer. The seminars alone brought in £500,000 in new business, Willis said.

“So often when we sit down and think about, ‘OK if you take care of the customer, everything takes care of itself,’ the pandemic kind of proved that for us,” Willis said. “Suddenly everybody was an audience for local news or should have been able to identify that. That really helped resurgence in terms of the sentiment of local news.” 

About Michelle Palmer Jones

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