AGENCIES NEED TO PREPARE FOR NATURAL DISASTERS: `VIRTUAL OFFICE' APPROACH WORKED FOR SIMMONS ADVERTISING IN N.D.

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What if a natural disaster -- flood, fire, earthquake or torna- do -- destroyed your agency's offices? Computers, video and audio gear, job jackets, disks, desks -- everything gone. It happened to us at Simmons Advertising in Grand Forks, N.D., last year.

In advertising, we proudly say our products are our people and our ideas. When nearly five feet of river water flooded our offices, we had the chance to see if that was true. Here's our story.

ANNIVERSARY YEAR

Prior to April 19, when the brunt of the flood hit, our agency was located two blocks from the Red River. It was our 50th anniversary year, and we had been considering how to celebrate. (That subject didn't again make our "to do" list until months later.)

On that day, a Saturday, the Red River broke all predicted crest levels, washed over the city's levees and forced citizens to evacuate. Flood waters destroyed our offices, and fires destroyed much of downtown Grand Forks. For two weeks, it was the major story in the U.S. It was major to us, too -- and frightening.

The next day, I located our 10 employees, who had evacuated the day before and were scattered from Minot, N.D., to South Bend, Ind. Starting Monday, we called clients, most located outside Grand Forks, assuring them their work would continue.

Consider operating your agency without computers or records. Where do you start?

Our first step was to get a laptop computer and individual e-mail address for each employee. Our "virtual offices" were born one working day after the flood started. From kitchen tables, airplanes, hotel rooms and other locations, through electronic mail, cellular phones and laptop fax capabilities, we continued working.

With the right people, virtual offices can increase productivity. Previously non-billable time can become billable time. Plus, clients look to ad agencies for innovation. Virtual office capabilities will help you more quickly meet your clients' needs. For example, we produce a weekly newsletter distributed throughout North America for a client. We didn't miss an issue during the flood and its aftermath.

Our staff members met in coffee shops, exchanged materials at gas stations and highway intersections and developed innovative ways to keep work moving. Their diligence surpassed that of the very effective Margie, the lady cop in the movie "Fargo."

COLOR MATCH MEASURES

What do you do when you lose all your Pantone color matching booklets? As a temporary substitute, our creatives secured paint swatches.

"We discovered Pantone 123 is `meadow daisy,' " said Graphics Director Yvonne Rieger Westrum. "That helped us print a project on time with the correct colors."

During this virtual period, we made and won a new-business presentation with materials produced on laptops. (We still often worked from various locations.)

The verdict on the virtual office? It works if you have the right people for it. Risk-taking, entrepreneurial types do better than those who need the security of a fixed office. Working in a virtual office requires flexibility, vision and innovation from everyone. Our clients were especially helpful. The experience has made us a better agency.

FLOOD, FIRE OR TORNADO

As a 15-year member and past president of the Mutual Advertising Agency Network, Cleveland, I was able to quickly apply lessons learned from its meetings. One such lesson: We're all in the same boat. Our problems are similar. For us, it was a flood. For you, it could be a fire or tornado. Just keep your spirits up.

My advice is, if you don't have one already, get a laptop computer and find out which aspects of the virtual office model you can adopt. If you give it your best, this will make your agency better, too.

The flood destroyed buildings and equipment. It didn't wash away desire and creativity.

It's true. An ad agency really is ideas and people, and their ability to creatively execute those ideas.

Mr. Lukens is president, Simmons Advertising, Grand Forks, N.D.

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