What do we have on this spaceship that’s good?

Tony Chapman offers guidance to leaders struggling to get through current uncertainty, from someone who has been there before.
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By Tony Chapman

Age gives me some perspective. I started my first agency in a recession. Twelve years later, I saw that disappear almost overnight into bankruptcy. My situation had little to do with us, and everything to do with the multi-national that had acquired us. They sank under the weight of too many acquisitions and a weak balance sheet.

My new agency, Capital C, had a 22-year run. We had to navigate two economic downturns, an income trust that had acquired a majority interest in our firm and got blindsided by changing tax laws, and then a merger with MDC. Throughout all of these times, we also lived with the ebb and flows of a service business. We were dependent on clients and our talent to carve out a living.

In our best year, we were just north of $20 million in net revenue and over $5 million in profit. We could do no wrong. A few years later, we were looking at a bleeding income statement. “Big Ideas,” our currency as an agency, had lost some of their value as marketers were shifting from spending to investing budgets. The focus turned to costs, guarantees and the safety of adapting global creativity. The safety net of, if the U.S. creative didn’t work, it was their fault.

We also lost two major clients and found ourselves, almost overnight, competing in a sector where barriers to entry were disappearing. The entire ad industry was softening as too much creative capacity chased too little client demand. Prices and margins were collapsing, and even the big agencies were fighting for scraps.

I know that none of this – recessions, mergers, market conditions – compares to the sledgehammer that is hitting our economy right now, and no one can predict whether its force will break windows, crack walls,or collapse the very foundations of our consumer-driven economy. I feel for all of you, especially the employees who depend on a paycheque. I also have an equally big heart for the owners and leaders of agencies, who are trying to sail a ship when the wind has become entirely still.

What I can share is what got me through the times when I couldn’t sleep, worrying about making payroll, losing a key employee or a tough (sometimes final) conversation with a client or employee. I learned to shift my focus from what could happen, to trying to make anything happen.

I learned that it was the uncertainty that was hurting my mental health. Not knowing would amplify every problem and turn my imagination over to Tim Burton or Quentin Tarantino. I couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel because my brain raced towards the worst possibilities, versus any hope of a desired outcome.

The only way I could control it was to shift my focus from impossible to possible. In my mind, I played the famous scene in Apollo 13, where Kranz asks his team, “what do we have on this spaceship that’s good?” before tasking them to literally fit a square peg into a round hole.

It wasn’t a skip in the park and it didn’t provide some magic panacea for solving our problems. We still had to make cuts, and sometimes deep, and they hurt as they involved lives and livelihood. However, we did so knowing that we could contain some of the jobs and reinvent ourselves. We used what we had a capacity of, time, to think of new things we could offer our clients, many who were also dealing with their own slowing business. We also looked at new ways to do things efficiently. To deliver to our clients more of what they needed, with less friction, layers and cost. We survived and could make a comeback.

I am an entrepreneur and, despite the speedbumps and head-on collisions I have had in my career, I remain an optimist. We will not only come through this virus with an economy for all of us to make things happen, we will also come out as a better human race.

We will learn that jobs are precious and that consumers are the lifeblood of our economy. We will treasure our times face to face at the office, walking and shopping on our main streets, and even greeting strangers as we parade through a park.

The idea of surrendering a third or half of our workforce to automation that does little but replace a human being for profit will be countered by a renewed faith in helping each other. We will reclaim the middle ground that partisan politics and the media has pulled us away from.

And the ad agency – the storytellers of capitalism, who make us smile, and think, and feel, and buy – will have a massive role to play.

Tony Chapman is a brand and business strategist, formerly the founder and CEO of Capital C. He also has a blog and podcast called Chatter that Matters (he suggests the episodes with Joe Jackman and Hugh Evans for anyone looking for some listening that would be relevant to the current situation).

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