Early on in Covid, our CEO, Tom Coombes, said to me “never underestimate a crisis”. I think he’d forgotten that I started my career as a chef and I only needed to wait for a Saturday night service to see which new joiner would last the distance. We’ve had plenty of ‘Saturday nights’ thanks to Covid, but rather than it being a year to forget, the best thing we can do as business leaders is to unpick what to remember from all the chaos. We’ve learned a lot in 2020 and it would be a waste of an opportunity to just go back to normal just because the world starts to do so.
It is now very hard to remember what Q1 of 2020 was like. What it was like to commute every day, to be amongst people and be able to draw off their energy. How we miss being able to hear another conversation and just enjoy the unplanned of anything. Serendipity took a break in 2020. But thankfully we can look at our finances to see something about those 3 normal months. They were particularly good for Cognito in Europe and it was the best start to the year that we have had. And then Covid hit. Like a tidal wave. The evidence was there already, but then it came wave after wave. Like all agencies, we were hit with the double whammy of pulled projects and trimmed retainers. Very early on in Covid we did an emergency re-forecast and our outlook then was that Q2 would see a 33% drop off in income relative to Q1. Record start of the year or not, this was a nightmare looming.
As well es being an ex-chef, I am also an ex client and I didn’t envy those on the inhouse side of the fence. They would be under pressure to cut costs with their agencies whilst also being asked to do more by the business. Not an easily squared circle. So how could we be our best for our clients while sustaining our own business. We needed to focus a little less on the numbers and more on how we could support.
With clients, it was very much the case of being in this together. Even where retainers were cut back, we needed to be super focused on delivering value. Whilst we always want to be at the heart of helping clients achieve their business objectives, Covid has pushed those conversations forwards. Much more frequently do conversations start with what does the business need right now. And when we’ve got that right, it’s even clearer that clients appreciate effective marketing. Time will tell what will happen to the events industry, but I’m certain that longer term Covid will accelerate marketing’s ability to demonstrate actual business value and not just marketing metrics.
Like many agencies, we put in place measures to manage our cost base. We were lucky to get some rent reduction, we furloughed some employees and cut back as much as possible on outsourced work. And of course, the cost of running a business goes down when no-one actually leaves their house. We fought hard and ultimately our revenue drop in Q2 was 20% - almost exactly matching the UK GDP drop. Since then we’ve clawed it back slowly and we are so far on target to beat our 2019 revenue. We’re by no means out of the woods, but we have plenty to be proud of.
The reality is that dealing with Covid is not about dealing with your P&L. Of course you need a solid grasp of your numbers, but dealing with Covid is about people. In many ways, I drew on my experiences as a head chef and moved to high velocity decision making and trying new things, knowing not all would land. Here’s a selection of what we did and whether they helped or not.
- Q2 revised goals: we asked all employees to set goals for themselves for Q2 including personal ones – e.g. fitness, looking after a family member. The idea behind this was to remind people that their careers were not on hold just because we were in a crisis (and the goal was never to appraise them later on). This had mixed results with some seeing it as piling even more pressure on!
- Team daily step competition: this was good for ‘banter’ but never really went anywhere (although I won, so not all bad)
- Home cookery classes: As an ex head chef, I committed to doing a cooking class. Actually incredibly difficult to do, but quite a few people joined and it was good fun, if somewhat amateur.
- Regular client scrum meetings: We put in place daily or nearly daily client catch ups. It is incredibly hard to get the right balance of keeping everyone up-to-date whilst not overloading them with meetings. Something that is much easier when you can quickly catch up in the office. We continue to refine their regularity – zero is not enough, every day too much. So something in-between.
- WFH Fund: We reallocated all the money we’d saved from not having our office cleaned and created a fund for people to use to improve their WFH environment. As always with unexpected money, this went down very well.
- Covid recharge days: As it became clear that we’d also end the year at home, we’ve given everyone an additional day a month to do with how they please, training, catching up or Netflix.
- Promotions and pay rises: Whist we originally put these all on hold – given they were due in April; we have since ensured that promotions due are given and pay-rises are made. We’ve also increased the use of spot bonusses and micro-recognition for great work
The filter through which all these are judged is ‘Will this work for our clients, and will it help the working experience or environment for our team’. When Covid started and income started dropping, we zeroed in on focusing on quality and value to our clients. They were struggling too and the last thing they needed was a marketing function that was under-performing. And this heightens the pressure on the team. Pressure is not axiomatically bad; pressure that drives you to do great things is highly rewarding, but pressure when you are not in control of your work or your time is highly debilitating, demotivating and ultimately very stressful. We needed to keep striving to get that balance right. Whether we got it right enough is for our clients and the team to say, but I know I am incredibly proud of what they have achieved in a highly challenging environment.
So, what have we learned?
- Presenteeism. It was always stupid. Hopefully Covid will be the final nail in that coffin.
- Trust. People want to do good work. trust them to do it.
- Value. Focus on the value people are bringing
- Quality. It turns out to be easier to see quality shine through when we are all working from home. You learn a lot about the people in your team.
- Attitude. It’s not new to know the importance of someone’s approach as well as their ability, but by god do you need good attitudes and personalities during a crisis
- Feedback. Whether for the team or clients, regular and constant feedback is so important and valuable
- Try, fail and try again. It’s of course the way of the Valley, but even in a professional services business, it’s important to keep trying new ways of doing things. My mantra was very much these are not normal times, so we can’t just do everything the same way we did before.
- Have fun. Agency life is supposed to be a combination of high octane and fun. It’s not as easy to do that from home, so small and regular moments of levity help us all
So, we have weathered the storm well so far, but the outlook is still far from certain. We’re doing our budgets for 2021 now and we still don’t have the levels of certainty that I’d like. But we’ve seen that in the last 9 months, work tends to be less committed and more hand to mouth.
I’m pleased to say that we’ve not made any redundancies and all those that were furloughed managed to find other roles before we were able to bring them back. We’ve also had some people leave for new roles and recruited new people in the 2nd half of the year. All that feels relatively normal in some ways. We’re currently in the process of creating a 3-year business plan for Cognito and it’s my hope to draw on experiences before and during Covid to make that work. There’s still so much we still don’t know – Brexit, the economic recovery, 3rd wave or, hopefully, vaccinations, but we also know that quality marketing is critical for all companies right now, so we really should be in the thick of it.
I want to thank the entire London team of Cognito, they have been amazing through incredibly challenging times and I’m very proud of the award-winning work we’ve done this year. Thank you also to our clients. You stuck by us, you pushed us, you went through this with us together.
We’re going to close our office a little bit early for Christmas this year to ensure everyone gets at least a ten-day rest. We all need a proper break and some time to relax. And at least Christmas is in many ways a time to be at home. Sure, this year will be more movies and fewer parties, but that’s ok. So, whilst all the memes are about how 2020 is the year to forget, for me it’s the year we mustn’t forget to remember.