Anyone looking at a map of reported COVID-19 cases in the United States will see the prognosis for the next wave of the pandemic is not good. And it's not surprising. Considering pandemic fatigue, denialists, and the politicization of basic safety measures, we hardly had a real chance of avoiding it. Not since "Game of Thrones" came out has the phrase "winter is coming" carried so much foreboding.
There will be some clear differences this time around. Unlike what we were told in March, we know COVID-19 is really coming. And unlike in March, we have more information about how it is transmitted. Instead of facing many unknowns—and not getting straight answers about it—we now have some idea of what lies ahead. But what does it mean for agencies?
It didn’t take long for some agencies to shut their doors when the pandemic hit. The ranks have thinned at many more after thousands were laid off (and more layoffs are yet to come). But one of the pleasant surprises of 2020 (relative to the view from mid-March, which was indeed bleak), is that some agencies have not only survived but thrived in these conditions. How did these agencies manage to do it?
Businesses have some advantages compared to earlier this year. By now, we have (mostly) adjusted to working remotely. Agencies have brilliantly come up with new service offerings and new opportunities to safely engage consumers, leaning into digital and virtual interactions while leaning out of in-person transactions. If the coming winter is worse than what we’ve faced to date, no one can say they didn’t have lead time to prepare.
A roadmap for agency success
Agencies preparing for an unknown 2021 have a roadmap provided by agencies that weathered the storm this year. Those that succeeded despite the pandemic followed some simple steps:
- These agencies took a pause to view the playing field and adjust their messaging to the so-called “new normal.” And they continued to adjust it as the “new normal” evolved. They likely deployed fewer emails at the outset and changed their outreach messages to be genuine offers of help. (Note that “genuine” doesn’t mean thinly-veiled sales pitches offering help with strings attached). They were sensitive to the fact that prospects were working from home and may be facing real personal crises related to the pandemic and its economic impact.
- While they paused, these agencies never stopped. They didn’t stop reaching out to prospects who they knew were facing unprecedented challenges. As economic concerns threatened to eclipse health concerns, these agencies never lost sight of the fact that their prospects needed immediate solutions to fortify their bottom line. Their efforts became more targeted, and they understood it might take a bit longer and require additional touchpoints to break through. Gracefully, they persisted.
- Realizing that it is cheaper and easier to retain a client than secure a new one, these agencies put an increased focus on their existing clients. They found that organic growth is the quickest way to grow revenue.
- These agencies did not waste resources chasing “reach” accounts they did not have a right to win. They put aside aspirational goals and tangential categories to focus on their core services and industries. When companies needed a “sure thing,” these agencies were hyper-focused on pursuing targeted prospects to whom they could offer proven results.
- They sharpened their messaging and their marketing materials to focus on results and metrics. These agencies proactively gave proof that would allow prospects to say “yes” to a relationship.
- They adapted their agency's offerings in response to prospects' changing needs or changing market conditions and found new ways to utilize their core areas of expertise. One example of this is experiential agencies' pivot to virtual and drive-through events. Another is smaller-size packages allowing agencies to accommodate clients at lower prices—but not lower margins. Notably, successful agencies did NOT adjust their core business offering or accept lower prices for the same amount of work in hopes of landing new business.
- Agencies that didn’t miss a beat in 2020 were agile and creative in finding solutions to unprecedented practical challenges, such as video production while working from home with a remote team. When their clients faced supply-chain issues or suddenly went from doing 50% to 100% of their sales via digital channels, these winning agencies always had a solution, whether it was a new e-commerce app or a brand loyalty campaign.
- Agencies that did well this year worked to strengthen the internal relationships of their pitch teams and over-prepared for virtual pitches, knowing that they would present better as a cohesive unit. It was easy to tell which agencies did this and which ones did not.
- Although prospects may have been a bit more understanding about deliverables and pitches due to the ad hoc nature of virtual working conditions this year, successful agencies did not use that as an excuse not to deliver the very best campaigns.
These are simple tactics that any agency could implement ahead of the coming resurgence of COVID-19 to gain an extra edge. If you see something that your agency missed this year to date, perhaps there is an opportunity to tackle it now.
The Drum just published a collection of their readers’ approaches to planning for 2021 in the middle of a pandemic. Jinal Shah, vice-president of marketing at Feather said that her team is investing in scenario planning. We’ve seen a lot of contingency planning throughout the year. It makes sense that we would enter into 2021 the same way, particularly with the coming months presenting a significant unknown.
What are some other things you’ve seen agencies do that have helped make 2020 survivable—or even successful?
Are you subscribed yet?
- Is Your Agency Closing New Business During This Downturn? Many Are.
- Thoughts on Selling Agency Services Amid COVID-19
- Prospecting in Difficult Times
- What Will Your Agency Look Like On The Other Side Of This Crisis?
- Don’t Devalue Your Agency, Even In Times of Crisis
- New Business In the Time of Coronavirus