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How to grow your creative agency in the Covid-19 downturn

Alex Blyth

Editorial Director

How to grow your creative agency in the Covid-19 downturn

By Alex Blyth, Editorial Director

First and foremost COVID-19 is a medical disaster and a human tragedy. With each day that passes, lives are ended prematurely, loved ones are lost, medical professionals are traumatised and endangered, and we all suffer.

It is also an economic catastrophe. To save lives we’ve sacrificed livelihoods. It’s entirely right, but also entirely devastating. On the 14th April the UK’s Office for Budget Responsibility predicted a 35% fall in real GDP in the second quarter. It’s worse than either World War, and right across the world the impact will be the same if not worse.

Creative agencies have not been spared. We never are in a downturn.

The question we all face is how to react. Do we withdraw, retaining the revenue we can, cutting back spending across the board, and wait to see how things turn out? Or do we increase our focus on marketing and communications, so that we keep our voice during the downturn and are front of mind when spending returns? Is it even – dare to say it – possible to grow your agency during the COVID-19 downturn?

There is an overwhelming body of evidence to suggest that brands, including agencies, that invest in marketing and communications during a downturn emerge from it far stronger.

But there’s no work out there

Given this overwhelming evidence, why are some agencies withdrawing?

Some don’t believe there is work to be won. They’re wrong. This is a downturn of historical standards, but there’s still economic activity out there if you know where to look. We know agencies who have picked up major new projects related to the crisis, others who have had briefs come in for the strategy and brand work brand teams struggle to find time for in normal periods, others who have simply picked up the phone to old clients and been handed 11 new projects in a week.

Sure, there are sectors where there’s no work. This isn’t a great time to be an agency specialising in the hospitality sector, but this is the ideal time to pivot away from a sector into one that was already becoming increasingly low margin and insecure into one with more longer-term potential. After all, alongside its gloomy Q2 forecasts the OBR is also projecting a 28% GDP increase in Q3, and 20% in Q4.

Others think the world is too absorbed in COVID-19 to hear what they have to say. Again, it’s simply not the case. While we can’t travel and sit in meetings, we can still read, listen to podcasts, and attend webinars. And people are: a global survey conducted in March 2020 revealed that the coronavirus has had a direct impact on media consumption around the world, with a 16% increase in magazine readership and 12% uptick in podcast listeners.

Time to act

This is not the moment for pessimism; it’s the time for clear-headed thinking. There are decision-makers out there who want to hear about solutions to the issues they’re facing – partly issues thrown up by COVID-19, and partly issues they’ve always had. You need to meet that need. You need to think through how you can help, where you can add value, and you need to share that information with your audience.

Perhaps, that’s what’s stopping you. Perhaps you don’t know how. There are plenty of agency owners who feel they have a lot to offer their clients but are less confident when it comes to promoting themselves. We spend a lot of time helping agencies with this – listening to what they’ve done, what they want to do and helping them find and tell the stories most likely to resonate with their audience.

In the past four weeks we’ve been doing it more intensively than we ever have. And this is what we’ve learnt from that experience: the six steps every agency owner should be taking now to emerge strongly from the COVID-19 crisis.

Six steps to growth

STEP 1: Free up resource to focus on this.

Any agency owner at this time has three over-riding priorities. Firstly, understand and maximise your cash position. Project it three months ahead in detail so you know you can be sure you can pay the people who rely on you for their livelihoods. That includes yourself.

Cut all unnecessary spending. Do everything you can to reduce your outgoings. Can you agree a payment holiday on your rent, mortgage, rates or utilities? Can you defer any other costs? Furlough team members who no longer have work to do. Your responsibility to them is not to keep paying them to be unproductive; it’s to ensure there’s work for them to do in the future.

Secondly, enable your team to deliver to your clients. Make sure they have all the practical, strategic and emotional support they need at what for them is a deeply stressful time. If you don’t have them already set up clear indicators so you can know at all times that your team is delivering to your clients in the way you expect them to. This is not the time to lose revenue or reputation through poor delivery.

Thirdly, put as much resource as you can into attracting new clients.

STEP 2: Surround yourself with experts

This is not a time for amateurs. The agencies who emerge from this period successfully will be those who had the best team working on their growth on their future. Who is that for you?

As the agency owner it’ll certainly be you, but who else? Who in your team is best able to understand where the opportunities will lie, to identify the stories you should be taking to those audience, and then to do the work of getting those messages out there? Who has an overview of the market and who is buying what right now? Who can help you see your strongest points of competitive difference? Who has the media contacts to help publicise your news and ideas? Who knows how to use social media and email to reach potential clients?

If you have experts on your team who can do all that then free up their time to do it as quickly as you can, but if you don’t then bring them in.

STEP 3: Identify your strongest audience

No economic downturn affects all parts of the economy evenly. This table from the UK’s OBR shows how unevenly it expects sectors to experience this downturn.

Table 1.2: Output losses by sector in the second quarter of 2020
SectorPer cent
Weight in whole economy value addedEffect on output
relative to baseline
Mining, energy and water supply3.4-20
Wholesale, retail and motor trades10.5-50
Transport and storage4.2-35
Accommodation and food services2.8-85
Information and communication6.6-45
Financial and insurance services7.2-5
Real estate14.0-20
Professional, scientific and technical activities7.6-40
Administrative and support activities5.1-40
Public administration and defence4.9-20
Human health and social activities7.550
Other services3.5-60
Whole economy100.0-35

Bear in mind too that these are big, broad sectors. Within each there will be much variation. Take tech for example. Tech interfaces that enabled people to find dates, restaurants and cabs look set to struggle. Tech that enables us to work, exercise and manage our finances from home are already soaring.

You may be lucky and work in an area that will grow through this. If not, you need to pivot rapidly. Do your research to find out the areas of growth and pick the ones where you have a compelling story to tell. Get granular. Maybe you’ve created a brand identity for a gym. You should know that digital fitness platform Aaptiv saw a 50% increase in engagement for non-equipment based work-outs in March, and that downloads of fitness app Peloton quintupled February to March and its value rose 9.2%. That’s your area to focus on – you now need to figure out how to shape your story for that audience.

STEP 4: Figure out your strongest stories

What do you have to say to that specific audience that will resonate with them at this particular moment in time? What value do you have to offer them? Do you have new work launching that you can make a lot of noise with? Do you have a specific service or idea or understanding of their market that’s particularly relevant right now?

Every agency we work with has a lot they can say. It’s no surprise – they’re creative agencies and brilliant at what they do. The challenge is to select the right ones to be taking to this audience at this moment. So, for every story, or message, that we draw out of the agencies we work with, we apply our seven tests before we do anything with it:

Purposeful: Will this deliver the objective we want?

Ownable: Is this authentically speaking to a strength of our agency?

Relevant: Does this matter to the audience?

Fresh: Are we moving the conversation on or just saying the same as everyone else?

True: Can we back up our point with solid evidence?

Specific: Have we tailored this as closely to our audience as we can?

Timely: Is this the best time to be telling this story?

STEP 5: Map out the channels

What’s the best way to get these stories to these audiences? Firstly does your website support these messages? Does it show the right case studies? If not, change them before you do anything else. If the content, UX, and SEO there is weak improve them. Then do the same with your social media platforms.

Once your house is in order you can start inviting people over. Figure out the optimum mix of news releases, think-pieces, media commentary, social media posts, sponsorships, advertising, webinars, podcasts, emails, mail outs, phone calls, and so on to get your messages in front of the people you need to reach.

STEP 6: Measure and manage

With the right plan in place you can put it into action. There is no time to waste. Allocate actions. Set out timelines and deadlines. Review frequently. Videoconference meetings allow for frequent, rapid check-ins – make sure they happen. Hold people to account. Be prepared to adapt and refine as you go and learn.

When times are bad…

Finally, as with any growth project, have clearly defined objectives, both long and short term. It may be to retain existing clients. Or to start relationships with a view to growth in the recovery. It may be to grow turnover during the downturn.

For many agencies that may seem unrealistic, but it’s not. Set out with a realistic view of success, put the right plan in place, have the right team putting it into action, proactively manage it, and that growth is entirely possible.

Crucially, you should make the choice to be bold. Don’t hide away during these tough times. Make sure you have a voice and you confidently communicate the value you offer your clients. As the saying goes: “When times are good you should advertise. When times are bad you must advertise.”

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