Leading an agency through COVID-19

This essay earned Katy Sharpe, Managing Director at Guerillascope, a Distinction for the IPA Leadership Course.

We are spotlighting some of the best essays from our MIPA qualifying courses and qualifications. Here, Guerillascope MD Katy Sharpe looks at what agency leadership needs to do to come through the Coronavirus pandemic stronger.

Introduction

COVID-19: Nothing in modern times has impacted the economy and our businesses as much as the issue we are currently facing. In business we analyse our threats and we risk assess but ultimately some things just cannot be foreseen. This essay sets out to explain why opportunities lie within this uncertainty and why those that adapt quickly now will thrive in the long term. This question asks about how leadership should evolve but here I argue that in a time of crisis, the emphasis should be placed on taking leadership back to basics. Within this essay I’ll provide real examples of why basic principles such as vision, communication and agency culture have never been so important, especially when teams are more fragmented than ever before.

We Are Human

Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of needs’ is a five-tier theory that layers people’s motivations and needs. The theory, dating back to 1943, states that once an individual’s physiological needs – food, water, shelter, clothing - are achieved, the attention must then focus on the need for security and safety. Coronavirus has affected both of these fundamental states, but as leaders, one thing you can offer your team is an element of security.

We know that uncertainty in any situation makes people feel unsettled, as humans we are hardwired to crave order, predictability and control in our lives. 

The situation we currently face is unsettling for everybody and therefore, as leaders, you need to communicate well, adapt quickly and help to squash some of this unknown. This will ultimately allow your team to feel more safe and secure and concentrate their energy on their workload, resulting in an increase in the quantity and quality of their output.

Communication Is Key

The current economic situation is affecting all levels of business and as a result, it’s highly likely that some difficult conversations will need to be had with your team, which as Goffee and Jones explain, must be done in a clear, personal and authentic manner. Leaders who place focus on these qualities whilst ensuring all communication is delivered efficiently will safeguard the team from any added uncertainty.

Yet, in light of the current climate, it’s fair to say that you won’t always have the answers and I’d argue that its OK to admit that to your team, it shows humanity.

Putting this into practice, at a time when teams are working from home and when regular face to face meetings with clients have been shelved is certainly easier said than done. Sera Miller, co-founder of The Fawnbrake Collective, identifies the importance of learning a shared language with your team and clients and recognises three ways you can do this:

  • Lead by example – set the tone, inspire and motivate your team.
  • Dialogue not monologue – take time to listen and value other people’s opinions.
  • Storytelling works – this is especially important when talking to clients, CMOs are time poor so communicate with them in a way that resonates and focus on the information that matters to them.

At a time when the nation is discussing and comparing their workplace’s approach to the current situation, the way in which we respond and communicate as leaders, to both our teams and clients, will be remembered and have a ripple effect far into the future.

The Vision

Whilst you’ll have a wider company vision, at times of uncertainty you have to re-adjust and act in the now. What you’ve previously strived towards is likely to have changed in the short term but keeping a sense of agency purpose is imperative.

Gwyn March, training officer of the IPA, suggests the importance of a shared purpose which can be achieved through short and long-term goals. Manageable short-term objectives can give purpose and encourage teamwork. Adding emphasis to the small wins during uncertain times is also critical; celebrating the achievements of your team will boost employee morale and promote a sense of togetherness.

Invest, Inspire, Empower

This is likely to be remembered as one of the most challenging times in business history. Remember your team is your business so it’s important to place them as a high priority. William Lidstone lectures on leadership in turbulent times and describes the most fundamental leadership behaviours as investing, inspiring and empowering your team.

Invest:

Many of the businesses that have adapted well in this situation have had employees that are trained or have worked in many facets of the business. This means if crisis happens and one area of the business is particularly strained, other people can quickly slot in and fill necessary seats. Brand Amigo Loans have always placed importance on promoting from within, which means that many of their staff have first-hand experience across multiple areas of the
business. During COVID-19 this has resulted in fewer being furloughed and less strain across the whole business.

I’d suggest that continued investment in learning and training now will pay off substantially in the future. Encourage your team to expand their knowledge and skill set during the downtime.

Inspire:

The best way to inspire confidence in your team is by leading by example. These uncertain times will call on flexibility within all job roles, including your own, meaning that as a leader, you need to be more visual than ever before. Imagine yourself in a battle scenario, out gunned and outmanned. A general that is cowering at the back and admitting defeat before a sword has been drawn is doomed to failure. For the best chance of victory, they must lead from the frontline as an equal and inspire those behind them.

Empower:

Be conscious of your leadership style; resonant leaders embody qualities such as empathy, compassion and a desire to understand others. Dissonant leaders on the contrary are often task orientated and achievement led (Dr Gabiia Toliekute 2020). This is a stressful time for everyone, focusing on task orientated jobs will disempower the team.

Whilst I believe the flexibility of working from home has always been beneficial, now is the time when leaders - who might have previously thought otherwise - are being thrust into that position. Whilst setting boundaries and routine for your team is key, trusting them to get the job done has never been so important.

Encourage your team to take regular breaks and work the same hours they would previously have done in the office. Keeping a routine will help to build trust between leaders and their team but also ensure that employee wellbeing isn’t compromised. Furloughing in media has been prevalent, with many people taking on larger workloads, we should all be aware of this and the added strain it places on people in an already difficult time.

Clients: Build Relationships Not Barriers

Sera Miller further recommends that to run an effective agency, we should know our client’s businesses as well as our own, and right now, there has never been a better time to fully understand our clients and the challenges they face. There is no doubt that the current climate is affecting every business in varying ways; whether it be government restrictions and the effect it has had on the travel industry or the sudden increased demand that the supermarkets face.

Understand what your clients need right now, tailor your approach to them, build strong relationships and advise them on areas that might typically fall outside of your media remit. Again, take things back to basics and re-calibrate what your clients need from you as one solution doesn’t fit all.

Rachel Murphy, founding partner of RJM Consulting, believes one of the main disconnects between agencies and their clients is how they are perceived, which is often as a cost on the P&L. Agencies should be better at communicating the value they create and emphasise that spending on communication is an investment to build intangible assets.

Be conscious that client budgets are being put under pressure. Your agency must put together a case for your worth yet be understanding to your client’s situation and their own challenges. Measuring effectiveness as well as providing regular industry updates will allow clients to feel informed and support their marketing case.

On a new business level, this isn’t the time to just sit and protect the business you have. You’ll gain more ground by finding pro-active opportunities, remaining agile and adaptable whilst still placing an emphasis on the value your service offers. Perhaps switch focus to find brands that are helping communities get through lockdown.

Summary

These are unprecedented and turbulent times for us all, but also a time of great opportunity for businesses and leaders alike. This is a chance to re-establish your worth and relationship with current clients but also seize upon new opportunities presented from a pro-active approach.

A focus on the leadership fundamentals which keep your agency together, providing education and growth to your team at a time of uncertainty and panic will ensure the agency come back on the front foot, armed with a strong and loyal team.

In the words of Mike Tyson 'Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth' and here we are, reacting to the situation put in front of us and making sure our counter-punch is not one of defeat but one that ensures we come out stronger.

Katy Sharpe is Managing Director at Guerillascope. This essay earned her a Distinction for the IPA Leadership Course.

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Last updated 21 September 2020