Six Strategies to Immunize Your Agency Against A Pandemic

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The economic and societal impact of COVID-19 means brands and businesses around the world are having to adapt hard and fast to a ‘New Normal’. This raises tough questions for agencies and marketing service firms about how they future proof their own businesses, while also supporting their clients and their people.

To help marketing services companies steer a course through the crisis, Julianna Richter of leading growth and corporate advisory firm Waypoint Partners teamed up with Tamara Littleton of social media firm The Social Element, Stephen Maher of independent digital agency MBA, Drew Benvie of communications agency Battenhall, Chris Donnelly of Verb Brands and Kate Fenton of marketing communications agency Multiply. Here are their six survival strategies for agencies emerging into the Post Covid-19 economic landscape.

1. Shift from marketing to helping

The Covid-19 crisis has upended the normal rules for how brands communicate with customers; whether B2C or B2B, sales messages, or business development efforts which are overly commercial or self-serving risk landing badly. It’s not all doom and gloom however: Stephen Maher, CEO at MBA & Chair at DMA sees the current disruption as an opportunity for brands to reset. “The key to future success post-Covid is to approach any promotion during COVID with great empathy and a real understanding of a customer’s priorities. Brands like LVMH and Sainsbury’s that show their support and genuine concern for consumers now are the ones that will be rightly remembered after this crisis in the most positive light.”

2. Reimagine the business model

Businesses are finding new ways of working to provide stability in the coming months, says Julianna Richter, Partner, Waypoint Partners; and it’s an approach she thinks will still have salience post-crisis.

“As an example, one mid-sized design agency is working on a contract with a bigger agency for a long-standing client. This service ‘white labeling’ arrangement works for both businesses since it provides a stable source of revenue to the smaller firm, and expertise for the larger one without having to hire (or risking them losing the business to a competitor).

Businesses are also reimagining their business models and changing to adapt to the current environment. According to Richter, “Some firms are proactively altering their client portfolios, programs, and/or budgets. For some, this includes specifically targeting smaller, project-based work. For others, it means offering discounts, deferred payment options, or bundled services.

3. Revisit international strategy and be prepared to share risk

Chris Donnelly, Founder & CEO, Verb Brands believes brands need to be savvy about how to handle the recovery and take full advantage of the different markets that are recovering. “China, for example, is really starting to recover and the consumer is starting to ‘revenge spend’. Many western brands are looking to either launch in China or double down on what they are doing to replace revenue that has been lost in the West. This logic can be followed to ensure that when it comes to targeting, media and campaigns are focused first on the countries emerging first from Covid-19.”

Donnelly also identifies an appetite for shared risk: “Brands and agencies are suffering reduced demand, reduced operational capacity and reduced business confidence. A pivot we made in response is performance-based billing and shared risk/reward. Brands will be much more willing to take a risk if that risk is shared by the agency.”

4. Pivot decisively towards new priorities

Agencies and companies that service clients need to come up with flexible and imaginative alternatives that gain client buy-in. Drew Benvie, Founder and CEO, Battenhall, believes coping with change is all about flexibility and resilience. This means flexibility when it comes to when and where work can be done, how creativity can be managed, and the systems that bring teams together.

“At Battenhall we hold back 20% of all staff time for R&D and side projects. Since the virus outbreak, we have pivoted this resource and dedicated our 20% time to a number of global healthcare initiatives. This has the added side effect of helping to reinforce team unity.”

5. Reinvent the workplace – remove the formality

“Mass Zoom huddles have become our watering holes as we gather to see each other’s faces and share stories and laughs,” says Kate Fenton, Partner, Multiply. “To me, it feels like our working lives have irrevocably changed as we realize those pointless face to face meetings really were pointless and travel becomes less the norm and more the exception. Learning has taken a front seat as people use their downtime in lockdown creatively to learn a new skill or get fit. Our gamified learning tool Brainbox has become a focus as businesses use this time to retrain teams.”

6. Lead with empathy

Tamara Littleton, CEO, and founder, The Social Element says leaders need to dig deep into their reserves of empathy and be “looking after their people; checking that their teams are safe and are coping under their unique circumstances.” This nurturing approach also extends to clients. “Agencies must also be considerate with clients, who need us more than ever. For example, we are adapting clients’ social strategies to developing situations and helping them find the right empathetic and human tone and content for the current environment. Our job is ensuring clients have all the information and insights they need around sentiment and behavior, so we can hit the right notes.”


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