How Texas agencies are coping amid 'mayhem' caused by epic winter storm
No heat. No water. No electricity.
The ad community in Texas is struggling to keep their businesses operating, despite a widespread lack of services due to a crippling snowstorm and an unaccustomed arctic blast that has plummeted temperatures to below freezing for days. Shops in Dallas and Austin are working to balance the needs of their employees and clients amid these challenging and even life-threatening conditions—with the added burden of the continuing pandemic.
“Texas is just not meant for a week-plus of wintry storms,” says Ly Tran, associate partner and chief media officer at Austin’s Proof. “Pipes aren’t insulated so there are a lot of bursting, frozen pipes. No water. No energy with rolling blackouts or permanently down. Cars and tires aren’t meant for road travel in this weather.”
“It’s mayhem,” says Britton Upham, CEO of McGarrah Jessee in Austin. The agency has closed until Monday and is now connecting via texts and Slack channels, but like all shops contacted for this story, Upham's immediate concern was the safety and health of his employees during the chaos. “The grocery stores are ill advised to drive to, because of very icy streets. And if you do, you’ll find a line around the store, outside before you can even get in,” says Upham. “People are boiling snow for water to put on reserve as there are rumors the city water may get shut off or compromised.”
“All Airbnbs and hotels are booked, so that means a friend or neighbor. But that opens up COVID concerns. One person reported 10 people and five dogs at their house,” says Upham.
After spending a day charging his phone and laptop in his car and borrowing WiFi from the parking lot of St. David’s Hospital, John Trahar, founder of Austin’s Greatest Common Factory, moved in with his in-laws, who had power. For heat, he was using his fireplace and stove, and the car itself was an issue—it’s a Tesla—and when he finally got an email about how to charge it, it was a day and half too late. His art director is operating from a hotel until his power returns.
“This is like an extension of the pandemic, just this time it’s the apparently less than robust infrastructure of Texas,” says Trahar. “We’ve already figured out how to work remotely under duress, so productivity has slowed only 20% due to Wifi unavailability. We find a way, so that’s what we’re doing. We can’t waste any time complaining. These are weekdays, and our customers are open for business.”
Staying open is requiring some creativity. Proof is “still open for business, sort of working in shifts, whoever is ‘up and running’ so to speak,” says Tran, who says she’s been triple-layered in clothing, and is lighting candles for heat. While the agency has been working from home since March last year, its downtown office, ironically, has heat and power, “so some staffers have brought their families there, if they could get there, to warm up and get connected.”
Austin’s GSD&M is taking a team approach. Employees with power are pitching in on accounts for people who don’t, and some of the lucky ones are offering up their homes to colleagues without power or heat, says Duff Stewart, CEO, who himself was out of power for 66 hours at his home and relied on his fireplace for heat. Meanwhile, notes Duff ruefully, the state senator from Texas, Ted Cruz, is in Cancun.
The outages are random, adds Stewart, noting that the agency does not have power, but buildings across the street do—not that it matters, since most of the agency is still working remotely.
“Our clients know we are able to balance people first and still do our work,” says Stewart, who notes that the shop had to postpone a planned celebration for winning the Avocados from Mexico business. GSD&M had planned a drive-in window for employees to pick up ingredients for guacamole for a virtual celebration.
“We are open-ish,” says Elisa Silva, partner and managing director at Dallas’ 3HeadedMonster. “There's been no real pattern to when or for how long some combination of power, WiFi, mobile service, and/or water will be lost for some fraction of our team. So our primary concern has been the essentials for our folks—that they are warm, that they have water, and that they are fed.”
“The workflow cadence that rolling blackout creates is kind of like working through the apocalypse,” says 3HeadedMonster Founder and Creative Chairman Shon Rathbone. “Work, laugh, yell, throw your laptop in the snow. But it’s hard to feel sorry for yourself when the power comes on and you catch a few minutes of TV about a family that hasn’t had heat for days.”
Oddly, the pandemic has helped shops feel more prepared for the storm. “It has benefited us during the pandemic and especially now in an emergency situation,” says Lillian Brown, partner, marketing and experience strategy at Austin’s Current Forward. “But the current challenge is that most of our clients are from outside of Texas and are running full speed ahead. The national news doesn't seem to be accurately reporting the situation here, so it's on us as owners and founders to explain what's going on. We're happy to do it—and to advocate for the Austin community—but with so much uncertainty, providing clear guidance on when we'll be fully up and running again is easier said than done.”
For some, the power is finally coming back on and the internet restored. “Both issues were sorted out for most of us when we woke up this morning,” says Mike Sullivan, president and CEO of The Loomis Agency in Dallas. “We're grateful just to be connected again. Now it's time to catch up.”