In the first quarter of 2020 the Covid 19 pandemic hit and giant swaths of the economy began grinding to a halt. On May 14th a group of five agency heads shared their insights about how it all began, how they adjusted and what is happening next. Below are some of my notes from that conversation.
- Anne Richardson and Brenda Brooks | Richardson Media Group
- Neal Quesnel | WhatArmy
- Trent Sanders and Pete DiGeronimo | 36creative
- MB Jarosik | kor group – brand identity, design, web
- Derek Edmonds | KoMarketing – B2B content, SEO, PPC
- Adam Flaherty | Anchor Line – Animation and video
- Graham Lubie | Accorin – e-commerce, digital innovation
Clients want a trusted advisor, especially during these unusual times. Client relationships are becoming more personal and stronger through the use of video and through the act of moving through uncharted territory together. In fact some clients we are seeing for the first time in a relationship that has been ongoing for years.
The playing field has leveled. Agency staff and clients are all at home. We all have kids and pets “crashing” our zoom meetings.
For many being at home means we have more time available. Recouping commuting time and the flexibility of shifting work hours has been helpful.
Uncertainty was the biggest factor when the stay at home orders began. This includes revenue uncertainty, duration of the stay-at-home order uncertainty, and so on. What will clients do?
Agencies proactively called and checked-in with clients, rather than waiting and reacting. Focus on pro-active communication rather than reacting. Ask first, even if unsure whether or not to ask. Planning weeks out. Being as empathetic as possible about everyone’s situation is more important than ever. By contrast, some global clients have contacted agencies to see how stable they are, asking if their capabilities have been impacted.
Leadership has been forced into conversations about working at home for weeks, and in one case permanently, rather than one more day each week.
- How can work be completed remotely?
- What services can be done remotely when you do video production?
- How will we maintain some revenue?
- How can we think through the six-year lease that is coming up for renewal in March?
- How can we be helpful to our clients?
Focus on the silver lining.
It was noted that the change happened overnight. Despite taking all by surprise, the hope is to keep everyone working and keep the company secure financially.
There was a determined focus on team members in the organization because they are core to completing tasks for clients. Expectations and timelines were adjusted to allow more flexibility.
One agency moved its daily breakfast online. While eating, team members can catch up, talk about personal situations, and mental health. Then once the chewing is done they review the work at hand. They also attended virtual auctions together in an effort to stay connected/together as much as possible.
A focus of the communication was to be very straightforward with the team and try to reduce uncertainty. Regular status and one on one meetings were retained in an effort to maintain some routine. One agency started a Slack channel to discuss the changes and how people were adjusting. Initially, it was heavily used. The usage of this has trailed off at this point. The trailing off is a good sign.
Hiring and Retaining Staff
Everyone paused hiring to wait and see how clients will react.
Each agency focused on not losing team members. Everyone very much wanted to keep the team together. That has been successful to date. They supported contractors as well.
Hiring freeze. Explained to contractors and freelancers what the future hours would look like so they could plan as well. Although not employees, they are still very important components of each agency.
In one case, an agency went online and shared the work of contractors and freelancers to help them get visibility during this time. For example, sharing a musician’s work with the agency’s social media audience.
Agencies are also happy to work with each other, even when there is skill overlap.
Reviewed redundant costs that could be scaled back now. For example software subscriptions that are not needed any more.
Need to remain versatile and flexible.
Switch to Internal Project Work
For some agencies the client work slowed and for others it nearly dried up. This provided the opportunity for agencies to focus more on internal projects. Maybe a wish list is brought forward. Or something in process that was due later in the year could be brought forward and completed right away.
This could include cleaning up templates or work methodologies. Internal projects. Things that were shoved off due to client work. Agency marketing projects are getting done. Luxury items that never got done. Review the paperwork, our own stuff.
Many are very grateful for more family time that has become available largely because they are home every day all day. This provides the flexibility of shifting work time to be with family. This may mean spending a few hours with the family in the daytime hours and shifting some work to the evening hours. The result is more quality family time.
We are witnessing attitudes shifting about working from home, especially from large global company employees. Everyone is now understanding. There is an appreciation of a better work-life balance. More empathy with personal needs.
Some are taking the time to think about the company and what they offer. The work from home shift has happened. Now we are planning how to bring folks back into the office in the future. One agency plans to go 100% work from home.
There are not a lot of other social activities available. This has made it easier to focus on the team. Supporting each other. Calling out when something doesn’t look right or someone is a little too quiet, in an effort to be supportive and ensure no one is overlooked or left behind.
People working at home, now have the entire family at home, not just working at home alone. Bandwidth and sound issues arise.
In general, the business owners are doing their best to spread the love and support each other, with free consultations, support, and greater empathy. Willingness to support people in any way. General good neighborliness is included like going to the grocery store for an elderly couple.
Seen a lot of free consultation on PPE, work-sharing environments, Financial Advisors. Everyone was gracious. The business community has been very gracious and not billing for their time.
Advice for College Graduates
Graduates – talk with people. Practice; have Zoom meetings and present your design work. People are not hiring, not sure when that will happen.
Tailor your resume to each firm that you apply to and be as specific as possible to what you are applying to. Focus.
Work with the Alumni that might be available. Do a portfolio revue or informational interview. Talk and ask who next to talk with.
Have breakfast with someone.
What is positive, what are you looking forward to?
Telling people that you are a distributed company is now more accepted.
There will be more sensitivity to others. People are more open to new ideas now than they were in the past. Being on video for one. Look forward to what those opportunities might look like. More patience, flexibility, acceptance of what folks are dealing with. Now clients have their kids with them on video conferences.
We talk more and give more thought to who we take on as a client. Who do we want to work with? Who is worth your time?
The added flexibility that we all have now, has allowed more access to known people. Allowed outside interests to get more time. More flexibility. For example, since everyone is at home, a podcaster was able to reach more famous people to be guests on the podcast.
There are glimmers of opening up. Some clients have called back to resume halted or reduced projects.
Still not sure when it will feel right to begin pro-actively selling to potential clients.
I have had the pleasure of attending at least six of these meetings in person when I lived in Boston. Looking back on my calendar, the first Managing An Agency Business meeting that I attended was on Feb 19th, 2014. It was their fifth meeting. Today was the 22nd.
Derek and Ross’s partner Isaiah have shared client work with BlogWranglers and my other company JBS Partners. So it was especially fun to see Ross and Derek on the panel. It is great to see they are both doing well.
I would love to read your comments on how your agency has handled the last three months.
We had one SEO client ready to drop or greatly reduce the scope of work. We walked him back to the table and all agreed to continue. Today his work volume is picking up again and he is grateful that we stayed the course. That is the value of a trusted advisor.