Opinion: A game plan for running an agency in the pandemic
Whether you’re an upstart agency or have been around for decades, you can’t succeed without resiliency in the face of adversity. When I first started PJA Advertising, a big lurch of an agency executive told me rather cryptically at a cocktail party, that the “person who makes the fewest mistakes wins.”
You can make a lot of poor decisions in this business that cost you dearly: a bad hire, the wrong strategy, a foolish acquisition. A lot of times though, you just don’t know what the outcome of your decisions will be. What looked brilliant today could be a disaster tomorrow, and vice versa. Like picking stocks or buying real estate, it takes time to know whether you were shrewd, lucky or neither. Never has that been more true than today as we all make calculated bets on the future of our agencies and careers.
Right now running a business is a microcosm of the kinds of decisions we need to make in daily life. Do I get a haircut? When can we open the office? How do I build a pipeline for new business? How do we maintain a personal connection with employees and clients? We’re all looking for more data and guidance from the experts, but the information is incomplete. At some point you take a leap and go forward without knowing all the answers. The decisions we start making today will determine how successfully we steer our agencies, our clients and the futures of our employees through the pandemic.
I don’t know more than anybody else, but I’m working on my game plan.
Survival is goal one. We’re all going to have to make some unpleasant choices: cutting costs, revising pricing models, taking on projects we don’t want. Not easy, but when the alternative is failure, be willing to rethink old assumptions. I like the two-part test: Will it help my client? Does it help secure our future as an agency?
Manage the intangibles
Everybody knows how to manage their cash flow, but you also want to manage the assets that don’t show up on the balance sheet. The loyalty we have cultivated. The good will earned, the breaks given, the compromises made, the kindness extended. I’m going to protect those assets. Cash may be king, but profits come in many forms.
Embrace the counterintuitive
Herd immunity may be good for defeating a pandemic, but herd mentality is not so good for driving a business strategy. If 15,000 ad agencies all head in the same direction, a lot of them will be crushed in a stampede. I want to be well-rounded. I want to be integrated. But I’m also looking for the gaps not being filled. If the industry tilts toward more automation, maybe there’s opportunity in highly bespoke creative campaigns. Like baseball Hall of Famer Willie Keeler said, “Keep your eye on the ball and hit ‘em where they ain’t.”
Tough times bring out bad behavior
Under threat, people become self-protective—quicker to cross the line—whether that means breaking contracts, slowing down payments and sometimes just being jerks. When we look back at this moment in history, the heroes will always be the people who remembered their humanity, not the ones who exploited the situation or lost their values. Whatever the outcome, I want to maintain the same standards I’ve tried to live by during the good times. Treat people well, honor my commitments and be generous of spirit and resources. Success or failure, you’ve got to look at yourself in the mirror.
You may not know all the answers, but you can ask the right questions
Who knows what our role will be in a world with 35 million-plus unemployed and entire industries shattered? What will be the purpose of a brand? What will companies need to rebuild a great economy? While we can’t know the answers, we can think about the right questions. Traditionally marketers ask: What do you do better? How are you different? The question I like to ask is, What are you fighting for? Whether an agency or client, it speaks to your higher purpose.
I expect a rocky road ahead and right now a healthy dose of skepticism makes sense. Confidence is good, audacity has its place. But if COVID-19 destroys one thing I hope it’s arrogance. There will be people who claim to have figured it all out. How to redesign the workplace, pitch new business and succeed while others struggle. I’m not buying inflated promises. The best we can do is move forward bravely, with conviction, and a lot of compassion for the millions of people whose lives have been turned upside down.
The agency community is by definition collaborative and creative. We exist to solve problems. And the industry has always rallied to support the public good. I don’t know an agency that is not generous with its time and talent to address social problems. We see and believe in the power of communications to make changes—for both business and society. There will be many problems to solve for our clients, our companies and our communities. I’m hoping to see all of us in the advertising community play a leading role.