ITL #385 Surviving lockdown: eight lessons10 months ago
Values are among the most important investments a business can make and leadership is about so much more than saying stuff. By David Fraser.
As I write this, we have completed over 100 working days since the start of lockdown. For our agency, this has meant 100-plus 9am morning meetings where the whole team dial in to chat for 15 minutes about last night’s TV, whatever shirt or hairstyle someone is sporting and…well, probably for the last three minutes we will go over some work stuff too. And whilst we’ve learnt a lot about Tiger King and what people like to wear around the house, there have been a number of important lessons that this period has taught us all about our business, our industry and ourselves. Here’s eight of mine:
When the squeeze comes, pay your bills on time. Don’t screw anyone over. And after that, be Tight as F…
In our last day all together in the office on March 16th, we sat as a team and wrote a series of mini values that we would hold ourselves to over the corona period. One of them was around helping others (see later) but another was an unashamed, honest, transparent assessment to be as Tight as F… (sorry mum and dad) as the most sensible way to navigate our way through what was to come next. That means we meet our obligations, we keep our staff team together if we can (we did) but after that we don’t spend a penny more on anything. If we have a luxury, it stops. If we can defer something, we do it. If we don’t need to buy something, or we can reuse something, we go down that route. Why? Because…
…All you have is the people around you
Not only that. It’s also all you need. The reason to be immediately tight with every penny was jobs. Save them and preserve them and nothing else matters. A good, motivated, happy staff team will also be what drives the recovery and growth. So far, it’s worked and we have been fortunate in not needing to use the government furlough scheme or having to have any conversations about pay cuts. Our team has risen to the challenge. They have grafted and hustled and harried and produced for our clients and the agency every single day of lockdown, turning out some of the best work we’ve ever done. If we didn’t have such a dedicated team it could have been very different. I’m very proud of them.
Tell the team everything
Some bad stuff has happened in lockdown. Clients have stopped with us. Some fees have been cut, our income has reduced and it wasn’t always very fun. We’ve pretty much shared every detail of it with our staff, from junior levels to the management board. Do you like it when the government tries to pull the wool over your eyes? Can you see through it? Work teams are no different. I suspect that if we’d have ‘protected them’ (whatever that means), we wouldn’t have produced half of the good work that we have in this period.
Leadership is not about saying stuff
In times of uncertainty, people look to their leaders. I am sure we have made plenty of mistakes in this period, but one thing we are careful about is doing stuff, not saying stuff and knowing the difference between the two. We’ve been clear about what we know, clear about what we don’t and given an honest assessment of the way forward. We have been brutal in telling people what they don’t want to hear, but need to hear, when it’s necessary. I was broken-hearted for the poor employees of Edelman who lost their jobs in June after being promised they were safe in March. To make a promise you can’t keep is an unforgivable failure of leadership.
Values are your life raft
I’ll let you into a secret: Agency leaders don’t know the answer to every question they are asked. It happens more than you might think – and I always go straight to our values for the answer. About a year ago our team set them together (Commitment, Decency, Growth, Supportive, Enjoyment, thanks for asking) and they have been our guiding star ever since. If one writes them sincerely, and commits to them, then they are one of the most valuable investments you can ever make because when you are stuck they serve as a reminder about what you are doing and why you are doing it.
Creativity is better live
When I hear people say that the future is remote working, or working from home, I’m not sure they’ve thought about creativity and collaboration. I’m proud of the work we have created in lockdown. We’ve produced best-in-class content. We’ve got an idea of ours on BBC news. But nevertheless, the best ideas are produced in an environment of collaboration, togetherness, back and forth and co-development. You can improvise virtually but without that face to face experience it’s not the same. And I for one can’t wait for it to return.
The new perk of the job is the job
If you needed a lesson before that everything is fragile and that circumstances can change in a moment, you don’t need one now. This period has made me certainly reflect on that but I feel it too from junior colleagues. We take so much for granted and perhaps we will again but for now this has brought home how central employment is to our being – from a practical point of view of course but on many emotional and developmental levels besides. We are the lucky ones.
If you can help others, do
In that final staff meeting altogether before lockdown, as well as being tight financially during lockdown, we all agreed on a simple promise: that if we can help others during this time, we should. From there, Ready to Help was born – an initiative to offer assistance to any brand or organisation that is genuinely trying to do good during the pandemic and is helping others. As a PR agency, we knew we could help amplify that message and let people know about it. We set up a simple website at http://readytohelp.uk and asked people who needed help to get in touch.
Our first campaign was for JustPark, a pro bono project where we asked people to list their parking spaces for free for NHS workers near hospitals and we quickly responded to more brands including carers charity Mobilise Online, online boutique Trouva and the British Red Cross.
The decision to work on these projects has been one of the most pleasurable things of lockdown. It may not have been a good business decision but it’s boosted the team, our motivation and has genuinely done good.
David Fraser is Managing Director and Founder of Ready10, the current PRCA Agency of the year.mail the author
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