Are you roaring out of 2020 or licking your wounds?

Camp Jefferson's Peter Bolt looks at the choices agencies made last year and the lessons they provide for what's still to come.
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By Peter Bolt

During the first nine months of the pandemic, the cost-cutting decisions brands made to survive phase one, two and beyond affected relationships with their agency partners, many of which went through challenges that lasted into the fall.

Camp Jefferson, however, was fortunate enough to not only survive the pandemic without layoffs, furloughs or downsizing, but we are actually roaring out, adding new clients and staff.

Based on my experience in a turbulent year, where an agency netted out was a function of three things, all of which will help them get through the challenges that are still to come:

Putting people first

Like many of you reading this, we had no idea how COVID would impact our business in the upfront. While Camp Jefferson was growing at a significant clip prior to the pandemic, many clients’ initial reaction was to pull all marketing spend and we all felt new business activity halt. The reasonable first question to ask in this situation was “how many people will we have to lay off?”

But that was the wrong question to be asking.

Clients still needed us, but most importantly, our people needed to feel taken care of and secure. So, we leaned into our relationships with our team and had difficult, but transparent, conversations about the realities we were facing and next steps – including agreeing to take pay cuts. We paid many staff back within the first month of the pandemic, but everyone pulling together allowed us to look after our people when they needed us most and grow in a time when many were experiencing losses.

Client work and deliverables are undoubtedly important, but I cannot stress enough the importance of maintaining and growing culture when going through challenging times. Take time to celebrate the wins, big and small, treat each other like family and always instil a culture of having each other’s backs.

Thinking beyond the bottom line

Whether a large or small agency, COVID was a litmus test on your client relationships, and whether it was a threat or an opportunity depended on what those relationships looked like.

If you were a vendor, a supplier of ads or other marketing outputs, you likely felt COVID as a threat, with your services less required. If, however, you were a true partner to your clients, COVID was a true opportunity, as they needed partnership and guidance from their agency more than ever.

We have always been relentlessly focused on strong business relationships with clients over transactional ones, which helped both of us weather the storm. We did things that wouldn’t necessarily help our bottom line, but were the right thing in the position we found ourselves in. Any work prepared pre-COVID was shelved and re-planning was necessary across the board, but we still gave our clients the service they needed at the time they needed it, instead of thinking strictly of our revenue.

In the end, this resulted in stronger relationships with our clients that were built on trust and partnership, and now has fostered deeper relationships, new mandates and organic growth – and proof that our approach to relationships with clients has and will be the right call in the future.

Stay calm & focused

If the pandemic has taught me anything, it’s to not be reactionary – meaning, in tough times, we must take a measured approach, think longer term, and focus on the important things. Had we scrambled to keep our short-term revenue intact, we wouldn’t have grown our client relationships. Had we laid off our terrific people when times looked tough, our culture would have suffered dearly, and our agency would have failed.

It’s important to remember that how you act in times of crisis has a lasting impact on your perception going forward. Whether it’s for clients or your staff, it all starts with your mindset. We pride ourselves on having a challenger mindset – and in the context of a global pandemic, that means making the best of the situation, and finding opportunities in seemingly bleak situations.

At the end of the day, many agencies that reacted radically were hurt in the long run. By putting our people and clients first, fostering our relationships with both and keeping a level head, we were able to come out on the other side stronger. Because it’s not always just about the numbers.

Peter Bolt is EVP and managing director at Camp Jefferson.