What we learned in 2020
12 months. 10 lessons. Note to self - learn faster next year
1. Return to the origin story
Somewhere, on the treacherous pilgrimage set forth by ‘let’s start a business together’, it’s easy to lose sight of the common goal and to slip on the various crevasses of day-to-day co-existence.
People may not change dramatically in their adult years, but their circumstances do. And our individual challenges and conditions had altered our short & long-term personal objectives, stretching (and occasionally straining) our collectivism.
Perhaps belatedly, we sought outside help – this shouldn’t be a stretch for a business likes ours, but hey – and found a coach recommended by our network.
They helped educate us and challenge us. Just as importantly, they helped detach us from the every day and connect us with the spirit that originally brought us together.
2020 was a crusade. It fomented an enemy that needed to be conquered daily, and with it shaped a galvanising, exigent purpose. As this abates, an ulterior challenge will appear: Reinforcing our decisions with our renewed purpose, values and ethos.
2. Be kind. Be pragmatic
This time last year we were venerating the power of relationships (as much as this is an annual column, this may be a perennial feature).
In March & April of 2020, little mattered more. With rare exception, businesses downsized, slashed spending and rolled back commitments en masse, overnight.
Our client base has always maintained a heavy footprint in bricks & mortar or supporting the high street. Needless to say, many faced an existential threat when lockdown first hit – some still do – and paused projects in the days that followed.
Chaotic times, where the playbook haplessly runs out of pages, reset priorities in an instant. The comforting case history of ‘what did we do last time?’ evaporates. Instead, you’re on your own, your values laid bare.
We had advantages, sure. Enterprises like ours became prime candidates to apply for and benefit from the CBIL scheme. We’re able to work from home effectively (more on this later) and with limited disruption.
But we had choices. We chose to help our clients where we could, communicate regularly and honestly with our team and pay our suppliers.
This shouldn’t deserve commendation. But not all actors chose to speak from the same script. We’ve remained loyal to those that responded to adversity with guts and succour when the veneer was stripped away.
Clients and projects have returned. And the relationships placed under trench-like pressure at the onset of the pandemic have remained, strengthened and enriched by shared experience.
3. Plan annually, think monthly, review weekly
Don’t worry. If you weren’t a VUCA-nite pre-Covid, membership is still very much open.
The days of the 5-year business plan have long-since faded. Chances are a business will (wait for it, 2020 word bingo is about to start) pivot multiple times in that window and the majority of the team will move on.
But even the most agile operator needed to spin on a sixpence when Covid-19 hit. Restaurants became retail stores. Everyone from breweries to bands started manufacturing hand sanitiser. Everything moved online.
When the landscape shifts, you either motion deliberately to safety or start preparing to live beneath the quicksand.
Post-lockdown, we immediately contacted clients to understand how lockdown would affect them, intent on understanding how we could help and whether they could commit to the projects in action, and therefore where resource should be allocated.
We reset our budgets and forecasts for the forthcoming year and established short-term goals for revenue & expenditure that would enable us to maintain our full team. We knew this would be essential for us to offer ongoing value across a variety of disciplines and provide us with the greatest chance to win new projects.
We leveraged current relationships to get in front of new prospects and revised our credentials to focus on the critical challenges born from the pandemic: Less headcount, the need to move fast and with flexibility, and an audience that had moved entirely online.
Finance & new business updates became weekly events, spelling out our progress and maintaining visibility. However, beyond the opening week, we steered clear of daily crisis meetings or anything that could pilot us to overreaction.
All-importantly, we prioritised. In a regular, non-earth’s-axis-altering week, it’s unfortunately commonplace to feel submerged under a sea of to-do lists. When the pandemic hit, we heightened our focus on a few, necessary deliverables. Lessons learned.
It’s the best show on TV. And it’s something we all need to plan for.
Agencies spend most of their time working for clients or working out how to work with clients more effectively. Stay with me now.
Equally unsurprising is the regularity with which we’ve found ourselves prioritising client work over projects that could benefit our business beyond a paid invoice. The latter are discarded, deemed a luxury amid the noise of tangible commercial gain.
2020 broke the cycle for us all, steering us away from erstwhile habits and towards self-reflection. Suddenly, everyday fundamentals appeared alien and prompted examination: Do we need to live close to work if we don’t go into the office? What can we achieve with the hours we previously spent commuting to and from meetings?
5 of us started the business and, since day dot, we’ve introduced ourselves as a set to prospects and clients, and directed internal decision making through this assembly. It suited our stage of growth, both as individuals and as a group.
Over the course of the year, we elevated members of the team into senior roles, empowering them with greater autonomy and creating additional support for the wider corps. They rose to the challenge amid a generational challenge.
We’ve welcomed new members of the team and we continue to recruit going into 2021.
Every year, our business becomes ever more reliant on our team. Long may it continue.
5. Seek unfiltered feedback. Have difficult conversations
2020 aside, running a business can feel akin to hurtling down a dark corridor coated in sheet ice, with little to break your stumbles and slides in the relentless pursuit of improvement.
Us founders, we’re brave explorers. We’re pioneers of the frontier. We risk it for the biscuit. Or whatever else helps us justify the hurtling, I guess.
In reality, every additional layer of reassurance and conviction we need to adorn ourselves in to make it through the day restricts our movement, narrows our view and deflects the concerns of those around us.
It can be bruising to hear anything but praise and gratitude from your team. It can challenge your dedication to the cause and distance you from the people that have chosen to join you in the fight.
As working days have devolved into a rush of nuance-free, function-first Zoom calls, there’s little room for idle chatter. We struggled to find the right way to reconvene in organic ways and engender feedback initially, but this has prompted a more earnest approach.
We still have work to do here (look out for 2021’s article…) but we’ve made a start on the path of greatest resistance.
6. Time away is not time subtracted
It’s only right at this time of year to quote a wise man and his acute insight into life: “Butter the toast, eat the toast, shit the toast. God, life’s relentless” Don’t dare question my festive spirit again.
2020 presented minimal reprieve. Even if your concerns were bounded solely by the professional, chances are you’ve suffered through enough turbulence to convert you to prayer. Oh, and you’ve had to butter, eat and shit that toast in the confines of the place you used to call home but now triples up as your workplace, bar and chapel.
We closed the studio over Christmas and New Year. We’ve all taken time away in the final stretch and pushed our team to do the same. We’re rolling over holiday into the new year for those that need it.
For the perverse among us, chaos equates to opportunity. And Covid-19 is the mother, father, grandparents and third cousins of all opportunities.
Agency folk are ingrained with the belief that they can solve any problem, rise to any challenge. Presented with a pandemic-sized hole to fill, many of us will have buckled under the weight of our own expectation.
Looking ahead, we need to balance our time between working on the business, working in the business and not working at all.
7. Trust the leap
MBWA. 4 little letters and a lifetime of mismanagement.
None of us had ever run a business that relies on a predominantly remote workforce. We’d been managed over our shared shoulders, managed our employees at the same range and saw little reason to change.
Of course, this year enforced change on swathes of operations, each having to embrace new practices without alternative or delay. Our business had to transition from managing at a literal arm’s length to a figurative one.
Online platforms have helped (hello Figma, Asana, Pitch & Slack). Increasing the regularity – but cutting the length – of meetings has too. WFH is still very much a WIP and we’re aligned with the consensus that our future will be split between home and the studio in any given week once the effects of Covid-19 palliate.
A decade or more ago, a troupe of pandemonium-ists and I reacted to the closure of the venue we worked in by going on a three (four?) day bender. We hadn’t seen the bar burn down, but we endeavoured to lay fire at the feet of our own existence in the aftermath.
Positively stunning, then, that our team should adapt to operating in their own living rooms, bedrooms and, on a sunnier day, in the gardens of Devon / Greece / Spain / Scotland in such a seamless manner. No smoke let alone fire.
We should have empowered the team to work from home earlier. They weren’t holding up the change, we were. You know what they say about hindsight.
8. Pace is everything
If you pull back the lens far enough, revolution and evolution look identical.
See, change isn’t the enemy – we weary and age at a pace that renders change undetectable – but accelerated change is terrifying. 2020 may have felt like a slow-burning decade in length, but it’s rapidly transformed the world we live in: How we communicate, what we buy, where we live.
Larger institutions are particularly susceptible to the ravages of an up-tempo game of musical chairs, unable to remodel or retool swiftly enough to remain viable; ill-practiced at unravelling the byzantine in favour of the simple and suitable.
We, the small-enough and sufficiently nippy, were able to contract, reshape our processes and generate sufficient demand to resurface unscarred, quickly.
As we grow, we need to lean into change and prepare for a world that brings uncomfortable acceleration to our doors with increasing regularity.
9. Stamina is a skill
Voltaire, a more prolific but no less contentious writer than I, nabbed an Italian proverb and translated this into French his poem La Bégueule. ‘The best is the enemy of good’ strikes at the heart of a fallacy we’ve all suffered with; that perfection exists and is worth striving for.
There is no perfect time to start a family or start a business (kudos & condolences to those that endeavour to do both in short order). There never will be. If someone appears to have their shit together, chances are they’re A. a talented theatric or B. well-versed at the art.
When we started the agency, we were all confident in our long-term unemployability and capacity to rebound if we failed. But we didn’t exactly know what we would do, who for or how (‘exactly’ is kind. See point 2).
Over time, through plenty of trial and plenty of error, our work has become long-term, multi-disciplinary and tied to the success of the enterprises and individuals we work with. This helps us understand our clients, their ambitions and their market in greater detail, returning compounding value to the work.
But 2019 & 2020 have highlighted a corollary challenge: The requisite to sustain often-fervid, vital effort over months and years.
New challenges are exhilarating. It’s easy to respond with boundless energy through the window of boundless potential. But as time travels further away from the genesis of an idea and ever closer to just one version of the multiverse, enthusiasm can and will waver.
To succeed in our new world, we need to remain consistent and redeem value from prior experience while applying the energy & fascination of the wide-eyed and new. And the swift maturation and growing endurance of our team has made this possible
10. Divided, together
Invest in people. Invest your time and confidence in them. Believe in their power to help as human beings, not just as members of your organisation. Look to them for inspiration and you will find it.
2020 overwhelmed, humbled, snapped, splintered and tore through us. It has distanced us socially and emotionally from one other.
Tragedy can divide us. It can compel or coerce us into believing our troubles are greater than those around us, that we have suffered more or have a steeper hill to crawl out of the mire.
Tragedy can unite us. It can provide commonality and help us understand the relative nature of our problems and seek sense in the experiences of others.
From the outset, we’ve embraced division. 48.1% stood for a minority view and the sentiments that steered us to the remain camp live long and strong amongst us.
2020 culminated with the end of the Brexit transition period. The end of our beginning. But we’ll remember it as a year that brought us together, rallying around a novel cause, and ready to stride on, renewed.