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Covid-19 from a business development viewpoint

“At the end of a storm there’s a golden sky and the silver song of a lark”

It’s what we do now that will get agencies through this storm – leadership, proactivity, adaptation and innovation are key, but more importantly collaboration and community.

For most, that golden sky seems a long way off, and the reality is nobody, right now, knows. This pandemic represents the most disruptive and challenging period that any of us will have to deal with. The pace with which we have been attacked by this virus in our working, home, family and everyday lives is simply incredible, yet inconceivable just 8 weeks ago.

I am sure we will all personally know members of the NHS through friends and family, putting personal health at risk to help all of us through this. They rightly took their applause on Thursday evening, and that small moment of collective thanks from the British people is indicative of the collective goodwill and support that comes from situations of adversity.

We can talk of the blitz or Dunkirk spirit, stiff upper lips etc., but the reality is that within a few days over 750,000 volunteers have signed up to support the NHS and their local communities. A truly great reminder of the spirit of people but also illustrating a desire to help the country push through and out of this as quickly as possible and help those who are feeling it most.

In our own insular world of marketing and communications, we too are embracing that spirit. We often speak of the creative community in the UK and never before has everyone sitting under that banner (be that in-house marketers in businesses, marketing agencies or suppliers) worked together as we are now, supporting each other and adapting and innovating to a situation that has changed the face of the country and business in such a short time. Flexibility, adaptability and innovation are all words that underpin this market sector in the UK and as such, they are well placed to come through this period.

So how do small to medium sized agencies survive and eventually thrive? Is now the time to be selling yourselves?

Genuine help from agencies will trump unwanted approaches

Business development for agencies remains critical, and even more so when budgets are pulled and briefs shelved. It is vital that agencies maintain momentum and they must adapt their approach and communicate to prospects with empathy. Offers of support and genuine help need to be at the heart.

Like it or not, prospecting needs to go on and leadership is paramount. Agencies and prospects are in panic mode, battening down the hatches and reducing costs, adapting to working at home with different processes and systems and, in a lot of cases, kids and other factors. The government support schemes lack clarity and first thoughts, rightly, are to support our staff and keep them employed. Fear, however, can encourage bad decision making and knee-jerk reactions may not only just be costly to your own agency - if the whole agency and communications world does the same, a dangerous vacuum of depression will be created. The fact remains that agencies coming through this on the other side need to remain viable and the staff that we are all able to hold onto will need work to do. Essentially, why go through this current pain, only to sink once out on the other side because your P&L is so lopsided?

In the main, the country is doing its bit. We are working at home where we can, and social distancing as is appropriate. We have ridden the initial storm of essential and very quick change and the eye of the storm may be in sight in the next few weeks. We are not out of the woods by any stretch, but those agencies who have held their nerve may then have more information and a bit of time to reflect and plan and there maybe a few rays of light coming through the clouds.

Now is the time to strengthen the boat. Based on current predictions and forecasts, we can be confident that the skies will darken again, so at least be prepared.

Look at how you will maintain current clients and business and then plan for how you will generate a new prospect pipeline for the future. Once the country accepts that this could be a longer lockdown than predicted, which is imminent, marketers will require help to plan their path over the rest of 2020 and beyond.

How can we do this together?

Unity is important, and the agency world is an incredible community and one that supports each other to a tremendous degree. It is hard in uncertain times like this, so you must have the drive and resolve to push your own agency forwards. Speak to your current clients, work with them to help, but also keep active on new business and having conversations with key prospects. Lead times can be long in normal trading circumstances, so building mutually beneficial relationships remains the foundation of business and client development.

Use your network. Most agency owners have strong relationships and contacts. Reach out, as often individual skillsets can form a stronger proposition when combined. Business development is not just about direct to brands, a lot of opportunity exists within your agency peers.

What is the message to prospects?

Tone in this environment is pivotal. We want to help, not hinder. With any new business approach on behalf of our clients right now, we need to accept that we are invading not just their time now, but their personal space. People are in their homes and everyone’s situation is different with kids/partners/wifi/technical issues involved that would not be there in any office. The empathy between people within different companies and the individual challenges that each party faces is as it never has been before. Prospects know agencies are concerned and nervous and want to talk about future briefs and projects, yet any business developer within agencies needs to know the rules have changed.

You don’t want to be the agency that bombards people with emails and off-key/irrelevant messages or tries to make light of a very serious situation, but this will end. Communications and marketing won’t cease and utilising this time to get into good shape for when that end arises is time well spent for both marketers and agencies.

The question we have asked is “can our agency clients help marketing decision makers with the challenges they now face?” and in every case it is a resounding “yes”. Nobody wants to add to anyone’s stress, so the message to prospects needs to be that we can help and support if you have been given permission by the prospect to do so. We want to walk a mile in their shoes, and we are prepared to invest time and effort into doing this. This is not insensitive to the current situation. It is helpful and, yes, the payback is potential opportunities down the line, but that is fair and reasonable.

Once the world starts moving again, recovery may be gradual or it could move at pace and you certainly don’t want to be left behind, trying to build relationships hastily and in a panic. We all got caught out coming into this and it is vital that agencies are not caught out again when positive change happens.

It dawned on me yesterday that I have reached out and spoken to more friends, colleagues, peers, prospects in the past week via phone or video call than I ever have, and in every conversation there is a sense of mutual understanding, support and help. Nobody wants to boldly approach a prospect suggesting that this is the greatest time ever to be marketing (although clearly some market sectors will thrive). As we always have, the proposition to any prospect needs to remain relevant. Agencies can start to help prospects with strategy change, new ideas, re-purposing, different ways to approach problems, coaching, guidance and so on.

This is a unique situation with new rules and one that requires consideration. When, in anyone’s working lifetime, have they had almost the entire country working at home? Communication, media, digital, social and search all have a heightened importance. Those with employee engagement expertise can really support and help, and insight and research agencies have a critical role to play in identifying the underlying and everchanging sentiment of the country. Marketers’ jobs have instantly got harder and companies and brands have a major responsibility to behave and act in the best way possible and through the help and support of communications and marketing agencies, they can get that right.

We want to help our clients through this period and the message needs to be that we are supporting and helping and not selling. Aside from continuing to develop a lead pipeline through an empathetic and supportive approach, we can help clients with initial introductory conference calls, advice on online presentation and pitching.

If you have the drive, ambition and spirit to get through this, take the time to make considered decisions, maintain prospect outreach and marketing, you will come through the current storm and who knows, there may just be the song of the lark waiting.

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