The polar vortex that plunged Texas into record low temperatures last month left local agencies struggling to keep their businesses going and, in some cases, a roof over their employees’ heads. With outages leaving basic services like water and heating suddenly cut off for millions, offices became temporary shelters while some coworkers became housemates, opening up their own homes to fellow staffers.
“Texas may be 50/50 on politics, but they were 100% for Texans that week,” says Crystal Anderson, partner and strategy director at Dallas-based 3Headed Monster. “Those with power and heat were quick to offer up their homes to their friends, coworkers and strangers. One friend made hundreds of tacos and collected blankets to distribute to the homeless.”
Anderson says restaurants offered free meals, while retailers like Houston’s Jim "Mattress Mack" McIngvale opened their doors to provide shelter. Still, the storms took their toll on local businesses, including the ad community, some of whom saw their offices decimated by flooding caused by burst frozen pipes. But they also saw people rally together like never before—in part out of necessity, without swift enough action and support from the Texas government.
Amp members based in Austin, Dallas and Fort Worth shared their stories, takeaways and perspectives following last month’s devastating storms.
Working through the storm
If there was a sliver of a silver lining to these storms hitting in the middle of a global pandemic, it’s that people were already accustomed to getting their work done wherever they are. “This was a more extreme version of that protocol,” says John Trahar, founder of Greatest Common Factory in Austin, who carried out 90% of his work during the storm from the inside of his car, which luckily had a 120v power source he could plug into to keep his laptop and phone on. Greatest Common Factory’s power was out for the better part of the storms, but Trahar says his team pulled through, missing zero meetings or deadlines. “We’ve always liked to think we’re ready for anything, and this proved it.”
At 3Headed Monster, employees were without electricity for anywhere from a few hours to several days. “While we were perfectly trained to work from home—thanks, 2020—none of us were prepared to work without the internet,” says Anderson, whose priority throughout the entire ordeal remained the safety of her staff. “We lost a week of productivity, and a few employees had broken pipes, but we consider ourselves among the lucky ones.”
In Austin, which saw record snowfall, sleet and sub-zero temperatures, the storm left some agencies with no choice but to put a hold on all work projects. “The Bakery team was basically ground zero for all the ensuing chaos,” says Jacqueline Thompson, senior VP of accounts. “By Tuesday morning, we were forced to shut down operations to allow everyone to take care of themselves and their families.” Thompson, who herself was without power for three days and whose home water heater burst, was grateful for the empathy of clients, who offered their support as the agency regained their footing and reprioritized their deliverables.
Fort Worth’s PMG experienced a similar come-together moment. “Those in Texas who had heat and water generously opened up their homes and offered food and resources for families and pets alike,” says Parks Blackwell, VP of Marketing and Client development. “Many also drove around helping their own communities pick up supplies and necessities. And everyone, including those out of state, called around to locate available hotels and Airbnb rentals that PMG booked to house our displaced team members.”
Hope in the form of community
For many, the storm left something to be desired from the preparedness and reaction of local government. “Hospitals were left to operate on backup power. People were trapped in their homes. Businesses were without running, much less drinking, water,” says Thompson. “People were upset. They felt let down.”
“My father was just one of hundreds of thousands of senior citizens and medically compromised individuals who were put in grave danger,” Anderson says. “And I was just one of many children who felt mad, helpless and frustrated at how Texas allowed this to happen to our loved ones.”
The lack of preparedness or swift action from the state left communities to pick up the pieces, with some private businesses stepping in to provide basic needs. “Even the large corporations that call Texas home, like H-E-B and Trader Joe’s, have been much more solutions-oriented, informative, and helpful than the infrastructure of the state,” says Trahar. “Breweries provided water around the city, and a gentleman with a small power washing business traveled through Austin delivering water as well.”
Seeing their communities rally to provide the support their fellow Texans needed offered a glimmer of hope for the Amp members, who received hundreds of texts from friends and family across the country. For PMG, that meant pitching in to keep business afloat. “Our global workforce from London to L.A. was able to step in and make sure our business and clients were fully supported,” says Blackwell. For others, the greatest support was felt on the hyperlocal level.
“On my block, we shared information, equipment, wood, humor and support throughout,” explains Trahar. “Our community support has been on the rise during the pandemic—this just took it to another level.”
In Austin—where even Diplo pitched in to donate 400 hot meals—Thompson felt an overwhelming sense of community. “Folks organized free water drops, donated hot meals and offered their couches for friends and family without heat. Everyone rallied to help plug all the gaps exposed during what was a preventable crisis,” Trahar says. “Texans stepped up.”
With the help of neighborly support filling in the gaps, countless local charities kept vulnerable populations out of danger. Trahar highlights the Central Texas Food Bank, the Austin Texas Relief Fund and the Austin EMS Fund as organizations to support. “I would also call out Community First, The Other Ones and Art From the Streets as organizations that provide resources for Austin’s homeless population,” he says.
Anderson calls attention to the Genesis Women’s Shelter and Outreach in Dallas, which suffered burst pipes in one of their safe houses that caused the ceiling to collapse. The damage forced 87 women to evacuate. “This organization is dedicated to giving women and children of domestic abuse a way out, a safe haven,” adds Thompson. “My heart belongs to Genesis Women’s Shelter and Outreach.”
In Austin, Thompson tips her hat to Good Work Austin. “It stepped in to help facilitate restaurants feeding thousands of people—not surprising considering its mission is to promote healthy employees, community and workplaces,” she explains. The storms were nothing short of devastating to the local population, but fostered a sense of unity that many have been missing over the past four years. “There’s nothing like a disaster to bring people together,” says Trahar.
"The only insurance against calamity is culture. When the stuff hits the fan, you find out what your culture is made of. If you have a strong culture of mentally tough problem solvers who give a damn, you can grind your way through anything." —Shon Rathbone, founder and creative chairman, 3HeadedMonster
More than a month after the first storm, Texas Amp members are back to work, but some are still dealing with lingering effects. "We're up and running, and our team is safe," says Elisa Silva, partner and managing director of 3HeadedMonster. "But there are still bumps and bruises throughout the state: HVAC systems needing repair. Holes in walls and ceilings. Water damage. Waiting lists for cosmetic or external repairs are lengthy as crews focus on getting folks safely back into their homes."
A little more than a year after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, the ad industry in Texas has been steeled to deal with almost anything. "The resilience and grit of our team never ceases to impress me," says Shon Rathbone, 3HeadedMonster's founder and creative chairman. "These monsters never quit."
But perhaps the greatest takeaway from a year of almost constant crisis is that while the past is prologue, the future is unpredictable. And if extreme weather exacerbated by climate change becomes the new normal, the ad community will have to be prepared to continaully deal with unforeseen challenges.
"It was a bit of a wake-up call on our industry’s reliance on collaboration technology, working off servers and so on," says Rathbone. "The tools that helped us push through COVID-19 don’t work well with rolling blackouts. The only insurance against calamity is culture. When the stuff hits the fan, you find out what your culture is made of, and I don’t mean the make-believe kind. I mean: Who are your people really, and how much do they care? If you have a strong culture of mentally tough problem solvers who give a damn, you can grind your way through anything."