In a year of COVID, nationwide protests, and a contentious election, we’ve come to expect the unexpected. And as much as we’re all ready for things to settle down, it’s not crazy to think that 2020 has more in store. So what does that mean for agencies? If we’re expecting more insanity, what can we do to prepare?

Top of mind, now as always, is client retention. Obvious, right? But how can we get ahead of account churn?

Make it personal

One major difference I’ve noticed in 2020 is access. It’s so much easier to get in touch with senior executives now than in years before. The noise of the office is gone. And many execs are looking for a break from relentless internal meetings. This is a great trend that agencies should continue to allow clients to interface (virtually) with the senior minds of the agency to build deeper connections, to foster ideas and share market insight.

This year we’ve gotten to know each other on a much more personal level. Now we know who has cats, dogs, or kids. We can make these interpersonal connections that we couldn’t before. And that goes a long way in humanizing and personalizing our working relationships. 

That’s a good start, but relationships alone aren’t everything. Clients also want data. And for nearly every advertiser, something about their business has changed in 2020. From bankruptcy or near-death experiences in sectors like travel to the mind-boggling case study in brand equity that Clorox is providing the world, every advertiser has something to learn from changes in consumer spending and behavior. 

Make your measurement count

It’s not just beating the dead horse of “show me the data” — it’s a question of what the differential data provided can tell us about the brands, messages, and buying strategies that we’ve employed in the past. What can we learn from things that have changed in the past year?

Agencies should be investing heavily in transparent real time data and making equal investments in data analysis to ensure everyone understands what the data is telling them and to connect it back to their goals and brand story. Finding the right analyst teams who can integrate and make sense of their data sources as a holistic story will go even further, rather than interpreting their  insights in a silo.

Make market and category intel a priority

As always, clients are turning to agencies because of their value proposition, hoping to benefit from their breadth and depth, and deep specialization in relevant disciplines. Clients (particularly with in-house operations) have always confessed a fear to me about being able to keep up with the Joneses. Now, without live conferences for easy intel-gathering, and against a very different backdrop, agencies have more of an opportunity than ever to surface the trends and expertise that can capture client attention and catalyze them into action.

Make your team management open and flexible

Success in the face of potentially more chaos isn’t just about managing our clients. Even working at a company that’s been remote for six years, we’ve had to make adjustments. Everyone’s been under incredible stress as routines have been upended and everyone’s been forced to find new ways to get things done. Keeping your frontline client-facing employees happy will go a long way right now.

I’ve always relied on radical candor, and it’s more important now than ever. In letting teams into our struggles on a personal level, we give them permission to reach out when they need help. Being flexible with your leadership and management makes a difference too. These days, we work around the Zoom homeschool classes and the doctor appointments. A surprising result is that people are more dedicated and creative about getting the work done. Having open support from their employer has created greater commitment from employees to navigate their work and personal demands. Continue to invest in your people, it will pay dividends.

Keep planning ahead but broaden the scenarios

So what comes next? If we expect chaos, do we stop planning? Absolutely not. Dwight Eisenhower is famously quoted as saying “…plans are useless, but planning is indispensable” and that’s never been truer. (The counterpoint being, of course, the Mike Tyson quote that everyone has a plan until they’re punched in the mouth.)

We should be broadening the scenarios which we plan against and include much worse cases than we might have had a few years back, along with some good upside options. That way, we’ll have an action strategy in our playbook whether we get a blow to the face or a welcome respite from the chaos.

Given the rate at which change has been occurring where adjustments have been required, we should consider adjusting account and company planning to shorter term targets by month or half year versus 1-3 year plans and goals. Having shorter goals will also allow for greater focus and troubleshooting during turbulence.

Make the structural changes you’ve been putting off

For some clients, a major dilemma has emerged. After cutting staff due to COVID spend cuts (and maybe shoveling in some non-COVID issues), the tide is out on whether they should make further organizational changes, such as re-orgs, re-badging, or other structural changes in their organizations.

Personally, I say “while the patient is open and on the operating table, keep working.” If you’re going to remove a ruptured appendix, why not get some liposuction while you’re under? Now is as good a time as any to evolve the business so you can emerge from these times a changed but stronger and more differentiated business than before.

Now is the time to make change. Fail fast and fail often should be a daily mantra to make changes for the sake of evolution. And if you get it wrong, you can always chalk your mistakes up to COVID. Whoever wished that we live in interesting times has certainly had their wish granted

By Brian Dolan, Founder and CEO of WorkReduce 

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