Six months on… agency life amidst lockdown learnings

Tomorrow marks exactly six calendar months since the UK found itself plunged into COVID-19 lockdown. It’s been a rollercoaster of highs and lows for businesses in every sector, but ‘black swans’, paused retainers and crisis comms are just some of the curveballs agencies have found themselves tackling since March 16th.

Here, agency founder Katie Mallinson, managing director of Scriba PR, provides an honest account of her most hair-raising moments, key learnings, and planning beyond the pandemic.

Six months, 184 days, 4,416 hours, 264,960 minutes… however you want to frame the period of time that’s passed since lockdown began, it’s pushed many people to their limits.

Some friends of the business, for example, have been so unbelievably rocked by personal tragedies, as well as commercial survival struggles, that it almost feels crass to talk about our own experience of COVID-19. We’re here to tell the tale, after all, and we know we’ve a lot to be grateful for, as a result.

I think people with any degree of empathy have started to caveat everything they say for that reason – fearful of sounding insensitive and mindful too, perhaps, of jinxing anything. I know I find myself in that camp, for sure. So, if I’m asked, all I can do is be honest. And I’m still not counting any chickens.

Looking back to lockdown

When lockdown was first announced, we’d already moved everything to a home office environment a few days previous, ‘just to be on the safe side’. We’ve never been averse to flexible working so this initial shift was relatively headache-free. We made a concerted effort from day one to find ways to keep in touch, and spirits high – not least because our newest recruit had arrived only two weeks beforehand! The first month of someone joining us is always about them getting ‘settled’ and sure they’ve made the right decision, so we still wanted to welcome her with a bang.

And boy did the bang come! Only two weeks or so after the onset of lockdown, more than £284,000 of retainer work was paused. For a team of ten (8FTE), that’s a lot! We were careful to ensure there was no animosity – clients were honest with us and needed our help to stay afloat. All were clear it was only temporary but, equally, most admitted that the pauses were indefinite.

Other clients maintained their comms investment – some, in sectors such as tech, remained extremely busy and strategically focused, while others found themselves concentrating on reactive ‘needs must’ communications to prevent rumour mills going into overdrive. Whatever the brief, most of these organisations needed us more than ever.

For that reason, I didn’t see how we could put any colleagues on furlough. In our world of technical PR, our clients are very niche, so to pass them to a new member of a consolidated team who knew comparatively little about them, just didn’t feel like an option.

The ultimate test

I was open with colleagues that this was going to be a test for us. A big one. There were times when I was an emotional wreck – and not just because I’d had a baby four weeks earlier. I battled with daily thoughts of “I’m totally winging this,” “I feel like a leadership fraud” and “am I doing enough?” In the face of questions about the future, I didn’t have concrete answers and as people looked at me hungry for certainty, I hated that I couldn’t give it to them. In hindsight, I think most business owners found themselves in the same boat, but it still felt like a lonely ship to steer.

My gut told me to keep talking to people – clients, whether paused or not, so they knew we were still here; partners and friends of the business so we could share pep talks plus ideas large and small; and colleagues so we didn’t lose our vibe. This undoubtedly kept us sane and I hope we returned the favour many times over, when people wanted to pick our brains or lean on our shoulders, too.

We took part in many lockdown-obligatory Zoom quizzes, and enjoyed other virtual treats with co-workers and clients, from takeaway nights with our extended families to home spa evenings, murder mysteries, cheese tasting and more! However clichéd this ‘organised fun’ sounds, it mattered.

Rallied troops and real commitment

This undoubtedly went a long way to us taking every week as it came, excited with every retainer that returned, only to feel deflated when the next client called sometimes only hours later, to tell us of their struggles.

But the new business enquiries kept coming as well. And the capacity we had meant we could explore these, at the same time as wowing clients who continued to invest and keeping in touch with those who needed to take a break. The commitment and hard work of everyone in the team, made this possible.

As we started to feel a little more optimistic, did I worry that the beautiful new office we’d spent six months refurbing in 2019, was now redundant? Yes. But do I think it still plays an important part in our approach to flexible working? Yes. For us, it’s about having a choice.

Where are we now?

Fast forward to mid-September, six rollercoaster months after lockdown hit, and we’ve replaced every pound of lost revenue – and some – with either un-paused, upsold or new work. We’ve also welcomed an additional colleague into the team, each embarked on a day of volunteering per month with paid leave, donated a £35,000 PR contract to a local charity, and delivered pro bono support to 10-year-old Maisie Catt, a double amputee who walked 26 miles for LimbPower – raising £11, 768 in the process.

There’ll also be a £500 bonus in everyone’s wage this month. Is this because it’s going to be a year of phenomenal business growth for Scriba? Perhaps not. Is it still a milestone year for the team? I think so.

This is why we opened a bottle of fizz a few days ago, as we mark this six-month point. We’re wary it perhaps feels inappropriate to ‘celebrate’ – not least because of my earlier point about how truly awful the last six months have been for many. However, I do think it’s important at the same time, to show pride and appreciation for the efforts colleagues have made.

I’m very mindful that, in truth, we have no idea what the future holds and writing all of this down does make me nervous of ‘tempting fate’. But we plan, day by day, with a cautious eye on the long game too, and I think right now, that’s all we can do.

A colleague reminded me, that on day one, I said that how we behave during lockdown is how we’ll be remembered, no matter how hard we’ve ever worked before.

I hope that’s true.

Photo by Anne Nygård on Unsplash

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