With 2020’s best laid plans interrupted by the outbreak of Covid-19, we had a virtual chat with Graham Withe, the Managing Director of We Influence, to discuss what it’s been like to run an agency during lockdown, the main learnings from the past few months and how the events of this year can be turned into a positive for the future.
Firstly Graham, let’s go back to March 23 when the Prime Minister announced a UK lockdown – as a business owner, how were you feeling?
It seems such a long time ago now! When something major happens and you have to make difficult decisions I go into a calm state of mind. I don’t panic. I have a single focus, accept the situation and look for the best way of dealing with it. That was the situation facing many of us back in March.
There have been times in my business life when things have gone wrong. My last company started during the global recession of 2008, so I was aware of what it takes to trade in really difficult financial times. You have to be really lean and keep tight control of all of your costs. I relied on my past experience to stay calm, despite having no idea what the immediate future was going to look like.
The government support was great, which helped a lot. Being able to defer PAYE and VAT payments helped alleviate any possible short-term cash issues and gave me the confidence that we were going to be okay.
Having said that, we were going into the unknown as we couldn’t predict how our customers would react to this new world. Within the first 48-72 hours of lockdown we did have some cancellations and other customers asked for reductions in their fees. There was a feeling of some panic across the sector but as an agency there was nothing we could do about it. We had to just be there for our clients and didn’t enforce any notice periods. Other clients warned that if things didn’t improve then they may also have to pull the plug.
I did a lot of early financial modelling, taking into account worst case scenarios and planning for all eventualities.
Were there many sleepless nights?
Not really. I was calm and collected. When I had to close my last business that brought a huge amount of turmoil and heartache. This was nothing compared to my experience back then.
The scary thing this time was our contractual revenues dropped by 25% leaving us in a position where we couldn’t cover our overheads. Thankfully the government’s furlough scheme helped address that situation and ensured we could cover our costs.
How did you feel about all of your staff suddenly working from home?
Closing the office was a bit scary, but we had no choice and it was the right thing to do.
With the nature of our business being digital, it wasn’t that big a deal for everyone to work from home. Our staff usually work from home one day per week anyway so I was confident it wouldn’t present us with any issues.
The key thing was going to be our quality of communication, both internally and also to our clients. From day one everyone rose to the challenge and I have been really proud with the way the team has stepped up to what were new circumstances and a new challenge.
We wanted to make sure nobody felt isolated so, like many other businesses, we organised quiz events over Zoom as well as regular company check-ins where we could update everyone with the current state of play.
What have the main learnings been over the past few months?
I think it’s been a positive in the sense that people have had to make more of an effort to talk to each other. Rather than just shouting across a busy office, communication has been more structured via video links and I think that has helped us step up our game even more for our customers.
I think our relationships with our customers have improved over this period as well. Many of the businesses we work with are local and although we haven’t been able to meet up with them in person as we usually would, there has been a real sense of camaraderie and togetherness as we have all worked together to help secure the best results, whether that be riding out the period or taking any opportunity to help deliver growth.
At the start of this year we did a lot of branding work on why we exist as a company, our place in the market and our ideal customer types. We also looked deeply into our mission and vision, and we have been able to put a lot of that work into practise over the last few months.
It’s still an uncertain world, so how can you plan for the future?
It’s not easy because we don’t know what is going to happen next. Will there be a second spike which sends us all into lockdown again and back to square one?
The best thing we can do as a business is plan in three-month blocks, rather than the 6 or 12 month plans we would have looked at previously. This will be especially important as the government furlough scheme starts winding down later in the year and we look to bring more of the team back into the office.
All we can do at present is continue working as hard as we can to deliver the best results for our customers. It has been really pleasing that some clients have enjoyed their best ever results over this period, which is something we couldn’t have really predicted a few months ago when the world looked so uncertain.
It helps that we specialise in growing Ecommerce businesses and those organisations haven’t necessarily been hit as hard as the high street chains, but even so I think we can be proud of the work we have produced.
It’s important that the business keeps growing as much as possible and remains as ambitious as it can, even in these strange times. We want to make sure our existing services are being delivered as successfully as possible while also looking to add additional strings to our bow when the opportunity comes along.
We have recently added email marketing to our service offering and it has been pleasing to see that being so well received. At this time when communication between businesses and their customers is increasingly important, the ability to have email marketing campaigns being delivered can be an effective and profitable solution.
What are your thoughts about getting back into the office?
I am going to reopen our office on September 1 but am going to leave it completely optional for all staff to decide if they want to come back or whether they would prefer to continue working from home. I think that’s the most sensible solution.
All the measures are in place and all precautions have been taken in terms of PPE, hand sanitising stations, temperature checks etc to make sure the environment is as safe as it possibly can be.
Because of the productivity levels of recent months and the results our clients have enjoyed, I am completely relaxed about whether people want to come back to the office or not.
What are your emotions as you look back on the last few months?
It has obviously been a very different time for all of us and I am sure all agencies have had their own specific challenges and situations to contend with.
I have been on lots of webinars and read so much about bouncing back from Covid and what that might look like in the agency world, but I guess we will just have to wait and see. For the time being I am so proud of my team for the way they have managed to help deliver great results despite everything that has been going on around them. I don’t underestimate how unsettling this period has been for everybody.
Financially we have work to do to hit our targets, but that’s to be expected. Pre-Covid we had great momentum and it does feel like we have been stopped in our tracks a bit, but new business enquiry levels have picked up again over recent weeks so I am confident the increased focus we have placed on our outbound marketing will drive new sign ups and then overall profitability.
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