Business As Unusual.
I remember it felt like a bit of blur. Both because it now feels so long ago, and because the situation escalated so rapidly.
It went from following news of a virus on the other side of the world – like SARS or Swine Flu previously – to the sudden realisation that this wasn’t something remote and distant, but something with the potential to affect every government, business and person in the world.
At ilk, I remember it being only a matter of days between being business-as-usual and race-against-time crisis planning – and then the sort of company-wide sit down that you simply don’t want to have. But the team was amazing. They all recognised the gravity of the situation and understood that life and work were both going to be unpredictable and potentially difficult for the foreseeable.
Our strategy – which was in place a few weeks before the Government’s furlough scheme was announced – was based around analysis and anticipation. Aside from the obvious move that everybody would need to work from home, we took a careful look through our client roster in an attempt to forecast which of those businesses and sectors would likely be affected (both positively and negatively). We speculated that roughly 60% of our client base would be seriously affected in the short term. While we couldn’t be sure that our predictions were right, it did mean that, if and when the virus really hit the economy, we’d at least have braced ourselves for impact, and could begin to consider measures to offset the inevitable hit in revenue.
Fortunately, March was a strong month financially. It meant that we could keep the entire team working (from home) for the foreseeable, and also meant that we felt we were in a good place ahead of what promised to be some difficult months. But it was the furlough scheme that really eased some of the pressure – particularly around how to look after our staff. Essentially it allowed us to responsibly plan a temporarily scaled down version of the business.
Which is not to say doing so was easy. There was an awful lot to consider, and some very difficult decisions. Our approach to the furlough scheme was to make sure that it didn’t reflect any individual’s performance – that didn’t feel like the right approach to us. In much the same way in which we had already assessed our roster of clients in terms of expected impact, we simply looked at resourcing – making sure each of our accounts would be able to maintain the same level of servicing as we provided pre-virus. In that way, we hoped to reassure any of our staff being put on furlough as to their value to us, and to make sure that our remaining staff would not be overworked or under pressure. It’s a delicate balance, but one we have managed so far.
We also needed to ensure that we could still work with the same level of integration that we would offer our clients in more normal times. Not only does that mean ensuring that no part of our service offering is underrepresented, and that clients get the same service levels that they will have come to expect, but also that we found a way to ensure that working from home could be as similar as possible to working in the office, both technically and socially.
For the former we’ve used the same project management and comms tools we did before, but we also had to make sure that everyone was hooked up to our server through a VPN. Everything takes a little longer, and backing up work is more crucial than ever, but generally speaking, it’s not been a problem. In terms of the latter we, like the rest of the world, have been endlessly video conferencing. Within teams, between departments, but also with clients. And for all the times whereby the audio mysteriously cuts out, or the picture glitches, it’s mainly fine. In fact, when it comes to speaking to clients and potential clients, with everybody clearly doing the best they can to be professional from some corner of the house or flat they are locked down in – I actually find that it works as a bit of an icebreaker. Yes, occasionally my kids will interrupt, but if you can see the exact same thing is happening at the other end of the line, then oddly you sometimes end up feeling less distant to the person you are speaking to, rather than more.
Now the fun starts…
My wife is in the NHS, she’s out at work every day. I have two boys aged 11 and 8 who both need home schooling. As millions of others know it’s a challenge* to balance the needs of your children while trying to work.
However, as I’m sure is the case for parents across the country, it’s all about routine. Every Monday at 9.15 there is a studio catch up looking at the planner for the week ahead. While I’m on this the boys are doing the Joe Wicks’ workout (surely the knighthood is just a matter of time?). Then I have a PR team catch up at 9.30am each day. The boys read for half an hour ahead of their own working day starting.
And then the juggling act begins.
My older son is pretty self-sufficient and meets up online with a couple of his friends and they go through their work together. That usually takes until around lunchtime and then…well, that’s when the X-box comes in handy.
The younger one, however, needs far more support. So now it seems I work through fractions, percentages, and fronted adverbials while also attempting to review brand strategy for a new meat free concept, a comms plan for the re-opening strategy of a major housebuilder, keeping in touch with the team, and monitoring both P&L and the all important cash flow!
It’s not easy, but I don’t think it is for anyone at the moment.
*said with diplomacy.
Day to day work.
So, aside from juggling schooling and working, what is the reality of how we have had to change under lockdown for clients?
Well, as I said it depends on the client. Many just stopped – pure and simple with very limited notice. This is of course understandable, but that doesn’t stop it being scary – both for them and for us. But for those clients who we are still servicing (even on a reduced level) in a strange way our job is just the same. We need to deliver strategies, ideas and activity that are tailored to the needs and circumstances of their business and sector. It just so happens that circumstances have changed dramatically for everyone. From our side of things that means adaptability, flexibility and creativity. In other words, it’s a test of a good agency. So far we’ve done a good job of collaborating with our clients to turn challenges into opportunities.
To give a few examples, we have a gym client for whom the shift was to home workouts and maintaining connections with their customers when they physically couldn’t. Unlike many competitors, they chose not to charge for this service and I think they will see the benefit of this in the long term. We also work with a city centre shopping venue too that doubled up as an iconic landmark – our strategy here was to recast it as a place that could reflect what was going on in the city, a sort of architectural noticeboard that we hope, can also herald recovery in the near future, and cement itself at the heart of the city’s retail offering. By contrast, we have a food client for which the challenge is almost solely keeping up with demand. We’ve been working on new brands, new products and new packaging in order to ensure that they can keep pace with retailer requests.
Meetings, meetings, meetings.
I didn’t think it possible, but I’m probably having more than ever before. Whereas before we might just have walked a few metres to someone else’s desk, now those chats are video meetings too. But it’s all good: to me, us all staying in constant contact is critical to keeping the business ticking over smoothly.
What about new business?
Well you’d think that this would just stop. But it hasn’t.
Enquiries are still coming in, and we’re still working on our own new business strategies – albeit adapting them so that we can offer businesses value in terms of preparing for a future that is suddenly looking very different to what it did six months ago.
The video conferencing has been something we’ve had to throw ourselves into.
It’s not as good as pitching in person. It’s harder to impress, or read the reactions of those to whom you are pitching.
But that being said, it’s okay. So far we’ve done about six formal online pitches, winning three and losing three. It’s a record that we’d like to improve, but given that we’re still learning how best to showcase our work through a new medium, I know that it will.
And the internal pre-pitch process is much the same. Cross-company ideas followed by development through particular creative specialisms, punctuated by regular checkpoints. Then it’s just a matter of praying that the tech doesn’t fail you, and, god-forbid, there’s no nightmarish audio-lags.
And finally, long live beer o’clock.
Nothing can stop it. At 4pm on a Friday the whole team gets together, furloughed or not, to share the good of the week just gone.
It’s great. And it’s probably never been as important as it is right now.