When things change unexpectedly for your agency.
Disruption can happen for many reasons.
Often, it happens without warning, or quickly enough to put an agency (or any other business) under pressure to react. Usually, there’s not much you can do to avoid the situation. You need to make a plan, and get ready to work through the challenges as best you can.
The world is currently dealing with a Pandemic - Coronavirus. This is the first Pandemic of it's size for a generation. For many, the impact is only just being felt. In the UK, we learned yesterday of the government's plan to move past the containment phase.
The plans are moving towards self isolation (for approx 7 days) for any minor symptoms. The dawning realisation that - like Italy has already done - soon families, and workers, will need to adapt to be able to work remote whilst home based.
At a time of crisis like this, there is the reality that loved ones might be affected through illness, or worse - through death. I don’t take this subject lightly. I have my mother, and mother-in-law, as well as children, friends and wider family who are all in my mind.
I am someone who likes to look at the positive side of things. A glass half full kind of person. This article covers some key areas of impact, and looks to offer suggestions, advice and ideas to navigate the crisis ahead.
Whilst there is already an impact to the economy, I’m keen to support as many agencies as possible from struggling when they might be able to turn their specialist skills, team cultures and creativity into something positive from a negative situation.
How does this impact your digital agency?
I'm writing this article as I too am an agency (of sorts) caught up in the disruption that others in my industry are going through. Many of my friends and business colleagues are agency based, creatives and solo-preneurs.
For my own work, I’m now faced with changing from an event focus, to a more distanced digital relationship focus to help continue delivering value to my clients and the audience I serve.
As I see it, there's a bunch internal and external disruption factors that agencies (big and small) will need to navigate.
Internal disruptions to digital agencies
There's a range of internal points that can (and most likely) will be facing disruption. Many agencies might already be ahead in these areas - but let’s cover them here just in case.
If you're bigger than one, your team may already work remote. That might not be an issue for some. Others might share co-working space, or have their own office (which tends to be what we call 'cosy'), often a small space packed with people.
Depending on your technical set-up, asking people to work remotely might require them to use their own technology (laptops, desktops, mobile phones), or you'll need to make provision to get something for them to work on.
Online ordering is still an option at this time. If they don’t need Mac laptops - will cheaper chromebooks offer a cheaper option short term?
Lacking the technology to connect, and work within the coming weeks - especially iif there's a national decision to enforce remote working - runs the risk of being unable to work as a team throughout any self enforced isolation period.
If you have desk based technology, is it possible to let your team move this to their home set up today?
You might want to check up on how this could affect business insurance, and also whether you're required/or want to provide additional financial contribution to things like wi-fi charges.
Your current team
Small teams are pretty easy to coordinate with through tools like Google hangouts, and Zoom (which is free). Zoom offers recording options - so if you have meetings or catch ups, you can record for other team members who are not able to join, and they can view this later.
Many agencies I know already have a project management tool. But if you don't or need to set up something else during this time there lots of free and decent tools to use.
Jira offers a free account for small team numbers (around 10 users). So too does Clubhouse (free for teams up to 10 active users, and some people can join as observers - if you need to add a few clients, but don't want to take over the limit to pay).
Larger teams may require more enterprise solutions if they are not already using them. It's a cost - but the coordination will be smoother.
Trello is always a good fall back, but the free version is not secure - if you're storing customer data or strategy docs which might require 2 factor security. Jira and Clubhouse offer 2 factor authentication, but check out the details before you sign up. Make sure customer data is safe during the disrupted process.
Caught in the hiring process
If you're growing a team - this might mean you're caught in the middle of a hiring process. This can be a challenge for you and the person who you are recruiting in.
Moving the team remote, just as someone is being brought in can be an unexpected start to their time with the business.
Consider what the on-boarding for team members needs to cover in it's details to reduce any feelings of being left out and unconnected with a new team.
Can you use this time to get your team to create short intro videos through Loom (currently offering more than the basic free upgrades as part of the Coronavirus crisis)?
What can you record or process out - in order for someone to read and watch to help them get up to speed with your agency process, people and projects?
Managing day-to-day tasks and processes
Many systems don't require you to sit in the same office, but there's a range of options for managing work through cloud systems.
As I mentioned above, the main focus is to keep things running smoothly - you might have to experience some productivity drop, as long as this is communicated out through the team.
For smaller one-person businesses, this is pretty much the same either in an office space or from home. I know I'll just be spending some time to back up work, and make sure if my laptop has any issues, that I have access to work through another method.
My wife has a MacBook Pro, and even my son's chrome book could be used as I'm pretty much Google connected in my approach.
Create a checklist to see what you need to back up
Convert some program files like Excel to work Gsheets and set permissions for editing if they are locked down as standard.
Save files with dates so you can track which versions are most recent when things calm down.
To make things easier for any drop in productivity, you might want to create a comms email and plan. This will help you keep your client's updated and aware of your availability.
If you're coordinating events with clients (something I'm involved in) then what's your plan for any last minute cancelations to venue if there's a lockdown on the number of people the government advises on?
In my case, I'm looking at options to record webinars or interviews with my clients - as these will be shared with my subscribers to reports and within the industry.
We can re-arrange the events for a later time.
Short term, I can still measure engagement, and test out a different medium to offer the same value as an event would.
If there's going to be an impact into your client delivery deadlines - you need to manage this in advance. Don't let this impact your good reputation by not getting ahead of the issues. I'm sure most client's will be facing similar issues with teams and business coordination.
What needs to be delivered - and what can you do to manage this through remote tools, video conferences and mobile phone calls?
Pitching for new work
Disruption to finance and income is a concern. If you're about to pitch for, or have been working on slide decks for a pitch - will all the decision makers be able to attend, or is there any changes to when this pitch needs to be delivered?
How will this affect your cashflow or forecasting?
Can you take a deposit to keep things in place, do you need to push on working your next pipeline leads?
If you don't have a pipeline of leads and prospects then there's an opportunity here to put some of the delay time into setting up new lead generation activity so this is working for you in advance of when things calm down.
I find lead generation for me (from first contact to pitch) can take around 2 weeks and 5 points of contact. With everything being disrupted like it is, I figure this will add more time to decisions, but it's important I keep active. I don't want my leads to dry up and STILL have to generate new momentum that takes longer than two weeks.
Reaching out to new leads might prove challenging if these people are also working remote as part of their business teams.
If you are in the pitch process - use video to record your pitch (something like Loom, or put this onto Wistia) and measure the engagement and drop off in watching time to make sure your message and proposal got the best chance to be heard.
Showing your face on the video helps to keep a personal touch in place, even if there's a chance you're not going to be able to be there in person too.
External disruptions to digital agencies
We've covered some of the key aspects of internal teams, but here some considerations that might be worth preparing for either for your own work or as part of your team's approach.
Staying front of mind
Like it or not, you're not going to be the first thing on the mind of your prospects and customers. I have 3 kids and a wife. The fact that schools might be closing soon (or in the coming weeks) is something that is going to prove hard to work around.
What's the impact of no school on the attention of your clients and team members?
Food is in the headlines as people start to stockpile. Loved ones and elderly care is another concern. I’m taking a family first approach, then work is the headspace you're dealing with as an agency.
Be respectful, empathic and understanding. It's going to cause some frustrations from both sides (them as much as yourselves) but some of this is out of your control.
Also be prepared to be flexible on when and how you can connect, converse and hear back from clients and prospects.
Flexibility through the use of project management tools can help, moving onto the next work and sprints (if you're agile) might be easier to handle. Asana, Trello, Clubhouse, Jira offer ways to drag and drop your tasks around.
If you're using tools like Liquid planner (which shifts everything around for you as things change) then these help give a better view of what's going on in real time, and where potential blocks to work and projects are going to happen.
Can delaying the start of new jobs be an option around your finances?
What creative ways can you and your team (or friends) think of to solve issues before they impact your client relationships?
Are your roadmaps with changes shared for all stakeholders to see?
Keeping decisions moving on current agency projects
Frankly - I'd be surprised if things went smoothly across the decision making process given the disruption that's going off. With this in mind, you need to be flexible on how, who and when decisions are made.
Though this has a financial impact which could be stressful for businesses needing sign off for delivery and payment.
There will be advice going out on the HMRC website for many UK businesses. Phone lines are likely to be busy as some are already experiencing.
Frozen or delayed budgets
Of course, it's important to ask about their financial decisions. Will your project or payment be part of a freeze if their finance team are out of the office?
Some systems are internal based - though hopefully payroll or payment for your project work won't be. Check out government advice on the support they are considering.
How are you for income and cash flow for your business as well?
What do you need to have in place to keep things going?
Who do you need to contact now - via email or phone - to show you have made efforts to manage this (i.e. landlords, business rates, utilities, etc).
If you cannot get a payment through from clients - can you get a payment in principle agreement? Maybe a smaller deposit would help smooth this over short term - helping their cash flow too, until they can get an idea of the disruption to their business.
Partnerships with other project stakeholders
If you work as part of a project with other third party suppliers, what do they also need from you - and you from them - during this period?
Regular meetings might be easier with a short daily updates over a video call (again - recording these helps to remove the need to take notes, and to keep things short, but accessible for future reference.
Reorganising live events and meetings
I'm currently planning a range of events - or was up until yesterday's news update.
As this is now being disrupted, instead of running events, I'll look into ways to give value through online and other content channels.
Webinars might be easier to arrange if lots of people are remote. Pre-recording these and then sharing are options so that people can access these at more suitable times for them.
Recording interviews of the people who were going to speak is a way to get an evergreen piece of content that could benefit everyone longer term.
There are many free ways to do this - and still keep things looking and sounding professional. However it will require extra planning and coordination to get this in place if events are being rearranged at short notice.
Obviously put your attendees in mind if you do proceed to move ahead with an arranged event. Refer to the government's advice on this to be safe.
Look for alternatives that could help to deliver on the promise of the value proposition you were looking to achieve.
Government updates and advice
At the moment there's a range of 24hour news channels to watch for updates. As well as information on governmental sites like HMRC.
Expect delays or busy tones at times like this for many of the call numbers you can use. Accessing information or getting to speak to someone might require patience over the coming weeks.
Make a note of opening and call times for any sources just in case. There is also the process of chasing up any grants or support payments from any emergency funds. Track the impact to your business as accurately as you can in the meantime.
Reducing the impact of disruption on your digital agency
Organise all your thoughts in one place!
I've tried to get out all my thoughts and concerns to help make this easier to work through for myself - and friends and colleagues I'll share this out to. I've used Workflowy (www.workflowy.com - free tool) for this - as it lets me re-arrange bullet points and work at pace to get things out of my head.
Evernote is another tool I love. So too is Coggle (www.coggle.it - also free). Or use your free team drive tools - like Google Docs, Microsoft - and invite others to share their concerns.
Where you can, task out who's going to do what, and any order you can arrange them in for logical timelines and actions.
Help your client's overcome their issues
Although agencies might be better able to cope remotely, many of your client's might need support to help them understand how best to connect and work with you during this time.
Your choice of tool for video tools (see above suggestions) might still be past their level of technology and user experience.
What can you offer in the way of support and instruction to help them navigate your choice of remote tools - or to help show them ways they can take these same approaches to help their teams.
Your client's are likely decision makers in their business or part of senior teams - are you able to help showcase ways to work like your agency is (maintaining productivity).
You never know if this might build more trust for your relationships if you can!
Be creative in your approach
You have a creative mind and so does your team (or connections). Ask for advice on their best tips for remote working. What tools and systems are they choosing to use, and can you learn something new here to help your situations.
If you work alone, are there groups you can join (or create and invite people into) that help to keep everyone connected and able to share their experiences? What ideas come to mind if you build tools and platforms?
More remote technology adoption!
A by product of this is likely to be that many of your tech shy audience become better and more accepting of using technology for business. So to could be a longer term benefit of knowing your team can work remote and keep a focus that is a better balance for work and life.
I spoke with a legal friend the other day who mentioned that his practice purposely moved into a smaller office than the team needed - to encourage more remote and work from home situations. They benefited from hugely reduced costs for office space - and kept the productivity of the business.
Would you need to run at the same office costs if your team displays they can manage their work effectively?
Would a co-working space for smaller teams offer solutions that a more cost effective after things settle down?
Ask for feedback from your teams about their experiences. What do they enjoy about remote, what don’t they enjoy? (use free survey tools to help manage this if your team is large!).
Opportunity to say it with video, not just email
One aspect of video I love is the ability to see analytics on the engagement of what you record. Wistia, Loom and others allow different levels of this ranging from basic ‘clicked’ &‘watched’ through to drop off of the audience over time.
You can also use Bit.ly links in to help monitor if your emails with the video links are getting clicked in the first place. All these help to measure whether people are getting to your videos, and then engaging. Helping understand the value you’re trying to create.
Show more personal side - offer some support
Hey, we're all about to go through a massive time of disruption. It's OK for things to not run smoothly in your business and your client's businesses. You can use this opportunity to be more human in your interactions.
Maybe sharing behind the scenes of your working practise, or their projects would be something you wouldn't normally do. If you're trying out new ways to communicate and keep contacts as rich as personal meetings are - you might surprise yourself.
What's going on with your office pets in the meantime? Are they running the show - creatively what would that look like?
Have you tried setting up a chat-bot to support and direct people if you're offline for a while? Again, there are many free options you can use to do this.
Managing changing expectations - good and bad
If deadlines and changes need to happen - how can you prepare your coms ready to have this update clearly communicated. Long-assed emails (which I'm known for in my time!) need breaking up into scannable chunks.
Adding in the What, Why, How, When to any changes in projects can help make clear the reasons (from your side or theirs). Helping preserve your relationships with clients and new customers.
Considerations for other income streams
Some of your solutions to your problems can solve issues for many others. As many agencies are content producers themselves - is there a product in the offering that could be tested during this period of disruption.
Maybe you're experiencing using a website for info that needs a redesign (Amazon’s interface for films STILL drives crazy!).
Maybe you’ve built a tool to handle your remote teams better.
The ‘by product’ of what you do could be products that others could buy. ‘Buy products’ - so to speak.
What to do with unexpected time on your hands ...
Why not test out getting a beta group whilst you have a more captive audience of your clients (who could have time on their hands whilst working remotely too).
Many agencies offer creative and digital solutions / services:
Is there time for your team (or yourself) to add a small but commercial product you can create other options for income?
Maybe it’s time to warm up your email lists or add in some strategies for gaining more audience for your business?
Connecting with influencers who serve your target audience - you might be able to help keep them supplied with relevant and rich content they can share out to a hungrier captive audience?
Unexpected Opportunities from disruption
I once spent time in Japan with a futures trader, who seemed to enjoy looking for opportunities when the markets were going haywire. I remember his advice being that every incident brings some opportunities.
It might be commercial, or it might be that this brings you, your team, and your clients together with a stronger sense of trust and understanding for your future relationships.
More time to talk
Less demands on your clients time offers more time to have deeper conversations. Maybe consider approaching them on this and scheduling something in. I use the free Calendly.com app and set time aside in my weekly schedule.
Arranging video calls might be nicer to keep the personal touch that meetings would have. Zoom & Google hangouts are free.
Spend some time looking at your client's background in LinkedIn. Is there a connection to something relevant you didn't notice before?
Extra time to work without interruption
37 Signals have shared in their books about how they find value in undisturbed blocks of time to get their work done.
Other businesses too - also find the lack of emails and chat messages allow them to get through more meaningful and productive work than bits of time here and there in a normal working day (with all the typical interruptions).
However, as a father of 3 kids, I’d caveat that if schools do close for extended periods - then family will be the cause of interruptions!
Maybe moving your working pattern to quieter times in the evening would help reduce this impact, allow family time, and still get things done?
Update and iterate
Updating things that have been put aside when you have time is a great way to get back in control.
Re-write copy on pages, update blogs, build better email sequences. Doing this type of work is a good way to prepare for when things are back on track. It can be a good investment of time.
Maybe have a challenge to team members to own and update different things:
What can you process out into flow diagrams and documentation?
Are there books you've been meaning to read through for your business?
Maybe there is research you wanted to do on your industry or your client's industry?
How's your value proposition looking since you last updated this?
It might feel like it's not as productive as usual work, but iterating your key content, pages, call to actions, images - can yield longer term gains you'd never get time to do otherwise.
With everything else being all about remote and digital connections - have you tried sending out some
letters by hand? Grab some stamps, paper and envelopes in advance of staying at home. Get people's addresses and send them something physical they can open and read at home.
Can you send books and gifts (if they don't compromise your bribery legal position)?
Getting something personal and real in a chaotic digital world of ‘always on’ media might be a great surprise for someone in your team, or for one of your clients. For me, I have three kids to possibly amuse full time.
P.S. Anyone sending me a board game or card game for the kids would be a god-send to keep people entertained!
Use the time to relax, recharge and re-evaluate
Running and agency can be hard mentally to switch off from. Maybe this is a perfect time to help balance out the work-life for a period of time?
Help to get yourself back onto an even time keel - if you've been putting in long hours or through hectic project delivery.
Finance pressure will always be there through a crisis - but investing in some personal development time too for yourself, or your team - can help the mental wellbeing of everyone.
It's important to get help and advice on stress and mental health issues.
Overlooking this is a problem for many agency owners (and team members). I speak from personal experience with my friends in the industry going through aspects of this. If you are struggling with mental health issues - please seek advice and professional help.
Focusing on family for a while. It’s a Pandemic, and the current state of disruption this is likely to cause is going to require you to be ready to support your family, friends and other loved ones.
It’s ok to acknowledge that sometimes things are just outside of our control!
Don't overload yourself with pressure to do everything to the same level you currently do.
Look for help if you need it, from wherever you can!
Be creative in your approach where you can. Disruption goes away after some time. So here's to keeping agencies surviving and thriving in the meantime.
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P.P.S - I'll be updating this article at ket points with links and supporting content - so don't forget to bookmark this page and check in to get the updates.