The terrifying truth of running a small agency in a pandemic

The Idea Suite's Shelli Baltman on what the last six months have taught her about pivoting and planning to not have a plan.

By Shelli Baltman

All of us at The Idea Suite were thrilled that we had earned a spot on the Report on Business’ ranking of Canada’s Top Growing Companies for the second year in a row.

However, we won’t achieve a three-peat next year.

Like many of our peers, our revenue has declined significantly in 2020. We’re very grateful to still be standing, although it has been a humbling experience in many ways, especially as we’ve seen so many fellow agencies struggle and even permanently close their doors this year.

Once you hit the five-year mark, it can be tempting to believe your business is established and you’ve figured out a fairly predictable way of working. At this point, the hardest years are usually behind you. But economic shocks happen, and they’re a terrifyingly real test of your resilience, stamina and creativity. Almost overnight, we went from having a fairly good view of our future to planning only weeks ahead. Now, we value flexibility more than capacity and, like many businesses, are very clear that breaking even or turning a small profit is a huge accomplishment.

When the pandemic first started, we saw a plethora of articles and webinars about how to manage through a crisis, be a great leader in hard times and effectively move to virtual working. But most of them were written by individuals and companies who weren’t on the front lines of running a business. We spent those first few weeks fighting for survival – running scenario after scenario for how we could cover our growing operational costs and exploring every avenue possible to keep our staff employed. The stress was real, and we faced the daily reality that our company might not survive.

It took some hard work and deep research, but we managed to pivot our offerings to an entirely virtual solution and iterated this process in the early months to optimize it, all while managing to secure a pipeline through to the end of June. Just as we felt we’d won the first battle, we realized that we had to think through how to survive living with COVID-19 until a vaccine is developed. It’s one thing to depend on the culture and client base you’ve created to get through an initial shock, but finding a sustainable, ongoing model for the next 12-18 months is an entirely different challenge.

Now, after more than six months of pandemic leadership experience, we wanted to share a few of the things that we’ve learned.

Trustworthiness and deep relationships matter

The deep relationships that we’ve formed with our clients from years of hard work, over-delivery and being in their corner have proved to have real value during this crisis. We were an in-person meetings and workshop based business, but overnight had to ask our clients to trust that we could pivot into the virtual world and achieve the same results. It turns out virtual ideation is more productive than in person workshops, but our clients couldn’t know that at the time.

The depth of our relationships and the trust our clients had in our abilities meant they were willing to pivot with us, in some cases mid-project, and follow us bravely into this new Zoom-filled virtual world. Caring deeply about and providing masses of value to our customers during our busiest and highest growth periods then, is what made the difference now.

The test of your culture is what your team does when you can’t see them

There was a lot of talk in the early stages of lockdown about virtual team management and effective virtual leadership – but in the end, our management style and approaches didn’t materially change.

We were initially concerned the business wouldn’t be able to function without those casual conversations and moments of creative brilliance that happened in the office. However, our team quickly adjusted to virtual chats and quick meetings in the same way we used to stop by each other’s desks at the office. While we all had overwhelming and teary moments from the personal and professional pressures of the pandemic, there wasn’t a single missed deadline or disappointed client, and our team rallied around each other in ways that consistently blew us away. We are hugely grateful to have such a dedicated and hard-working team who showed the true embodiment of the values we recruit for: integrity, excellence and hustle.

Take the time and find the silver lining

From our perspective, it seemed many people simply put their heads down and powered through the first four months of lockdown. We watched as our clients accomplished all sorts of incredible things. Meetings were conducted in the toughest of circumstances, key objectives were accomplished, and essential projects were completed – but there wasn’t a lot of time for self-care, something that is hugely important during a crisis of this nature.

We found ourselves exhausted and depleted after several months of lockdown. Our clients depend on us for energy – another one of our core values – and that is not something you can fake. We knew our future depended on our team’s ability to replenish and rejuvenate themselves – so we decided to take some time over the summer to slow down. Our clients were taking their holidays, people were spending more time outdoors, and it felt like much of the world took a short, well-deserved break.We feared this was a sign of the widely-predicted economic collapse, but rather than letting that fear win, we found the silver lining and took some time with our families to rest, recuperate and prepare for what was certain to be a challenging fall.

Creativity and resourcefulness are the killer apps

We’re planners, by nature. In the last five years, we’ve taken pride in our ability to assess situations well ahead of time, and subsequently make sound, forward-thinking decisions. But even after six months of successfully navigating this crisis, the future remains unpredictable.

We don’t know if another lockdown is coming, or how long the fight against COVID-19 will take to win – the only thing we know for sure is that the past is not an accurate predictor of the future. Rather than feeling confident in our plans, we need to have faith in our creativity and resourcefulness to handle whatever comes our way. It’s a challenging shift for a natural planner to make, but we’re settling in to a world where belief in our ability to roll with surprises has become more important than a detailed, inflexible plan.

Shelli Baltman is president and founding partner at The Idea Suite, a boutique agency focused on innovation, research and consumer insights.