The New Normal
You may have heard of a recent Global event that has indefinitely changed the way we live our lives. COVID-19 ring any bells? Well, whether you have or haven’t, it’s been the driving force behind a period of serious adaptation for Australians, especially business owners who had to pivot on a pinhead earlier this year to change practices. Accommodating new health directives, social distancing laws and an insistence from the Prime Minister to work from home where possible.
I sat down with Impress Design Directors Nathan Yiangou and Craig Howard over a cup of tea and biscuit to understand if and how their business has been affected by the Coronavirus. I wanted to know from people on the front line, if in the face of adversity, how they were able to stay resilient and if problems could be turned to their advantage to further the business and support its employees.
Rob: Gentlemen, firstly thank you for your time. I know things are busier than ever, so I appreciate you taking a moment out of your busy schedules to have a chat. During this conversation, I want to ascertain what it has been like for owners of an ad agency during a strange period of transition. So, let’s get cracking. I’m interested to learn, when did you realise COVID-19 was going to change the landscape of the industry?
Craig: Thankfully, our business has been transforming quite dramatically over the past 2-3 years. During that time, there has been a significant shift to digital design and in particular videos, animations and web-based products. COVID-19 has accelerated that shift quite dramatically and this became particularly apparent from June 2020 onwards as clients seek to engage with their audience online given the restrictions on face-to-face engagement.
Nathan: I still don't think we know for sure, but you get little glimpses that we'll never go back to what we had before. It's clear that what we’ve experienced is more than a temporary shift. One thing it did was accelerate a trend we were already on. We were already heading to an environment where work is no longer a place you go, it's a thing you do.
Rob: It sounds like some good has come out of the difficulties?
Nathan: Yes. There's now more acceptance of flexible working arrangements i.e. the need to fit in family and lifestyle. Rather than just taking a natural trend, it forced people to change out of necessity rather than because they were ready. Furthermore, it showed people that through necessity you can make something work, rather than not wanting to take that risk before you're 100% comfortable. That was the case for our business. Because of the work we do, because of the file sizes we work with, because of the speed at which we work and our service focus, we were sceptical that you could operate an entirely remote workforce. But, then we had to! It accelerated step-change thinking on how to operate a business.
That goes for not just what we do, but also how we facilitate our clients to enjoy smooth projects. Without face to face contact, we’ve had to think about our role in assisting our clients to drive the provided creative through their business in a way that factors in remote working. We’ve had to look at how we present our creativity, and how we give our contacts the tools to sell our work, to their internal stakeholders.
Me: How did you adapt the business to life during the epidemic?
Craig: It would be hard to take credit for adapting the business out of choice, foresight or leadership. It was in essence, forced on us. However, one thing that we're really good at is that we're really good at not dwelling on the problem, but working out the solution. And, we do that every day. Whether it's an emergency deadline and last minute request, a challenge that comes in with a complication that was unforeseen. We focus on a culture that thinks beyond worrying if we've bitten off too much, we just worry about how to chew it. In terms of adapting the business, the first thing we dove into was, if everyone is working from home what are the challenges?
Nathan: Initially, we looked at the obvious stuff. We needed to make sure people could still operate, as a number one priority we could offer the same agility and speed to our clients and as a result, we needed to look at our technology. Very quickly we worked out what was missing and although it's not perfect, we have two to three methods to access files and our working day. Whether that's through a better server performance and connections, and also remote usage options, for when all else failed. Ultimately we relied on the guys to understand their role, understand how our studio processes work and what our customers expect. Myself and Craig didn't sit and make everyone's decision. We presented the problems to the team and relied on people that are great at what they do to work as a team and come up with a solution that was going to benefit the entire agency. It's not perfect, and we struggle from time-to-time, especially with the number of jobs we have and ensuring they are getting back on the server. It's definitely something we talk about a fair bit and want to perfect.
Craig: Adjacent to the technology was the people conundrum. How are we going to make sure, if they aren't in the same room as us, people remain engaged, motivated and safe - physically and mentally? One of the big things kept in place was having structured daily meetings. And whilst at times I'm sure people turn up and wonder if they could have that 15 mins back! But, from a team and leadership POV, regardless of jobs on and business of schedule, it’s important not to lose that daily human contact.
Nathan: Whilst we have Slack and other platforms that we can use to communicate without talking to each other, we've encouraged our guys not to replace a face to face conversation with a digital one. Even if it's easier to send a message, have a phone call in Slack. Have a conversation. You may ‘waste’ ten minutes talking about what you did on the weekend, but that's more important than just relaying the task that you need a person to do.
Craig: It makes me happy to see in Slack all the little phone icons next to names to show that there are chats going on between people that are at opposite ends of the City. And, to be honest, we're probably talking to each other a hell of a lot more than we ever did when we sat in the same room. Did we proactively make that choice? In a way. But, we recognised that we needed to make that a priority when we went to remote working. You can get heavily task-focused and you can lose the sense or the need for humanity and connection.
Rob: Well, it sounds like you’ve really embraced the challenge, Gents! So, can you give me an idea of what’s working and even things that aren’t, within the context of the pandemic?
Nathan: One of the things that is really working for us, is that we were always built to service our clients across many design and creative disciplines. There’s been a huge swing from physical to digital collateral and we’ve tried to get critical messages into the hands of their audience in a different way. Because of the nature of the people that work for us and the focus on being multidisciplinary, we were equipped to deal and shift accordingly.
Craig: I think we were able to help our clients transition into new ways of working and distributing their messages. They didn’t have to find a new supplier to increase their digital presence. Having that ability in-house means we can give our clients the right advice about what would work rather than swinging the advice we provide them based on the skills we have in the studio, because of a fear they may leave to find a discipline we can’t offer.
Rob: So what about the things that need work?
Nathan: I don’t think your people management/culture ever stops needing work. From a cultural perspective, we were probably better in the first three to four months of working remotely, than we were in the last eight weeks. We feel we have been able to firmly support people in their transition to a very different working environment. However, we also need to be careful that in your busiest times, like the last few months, you don’t lose yourself to your tasks and project delivery and forget the fact that isolation isn’t what humans are built for. For example, the “fun” things you might do at your morning Zoom meeting may become tired and boring and some of the easy wins of keeping people connected run out and you have to keep thinking of new ways to keep people engaged. We may be approaching something that is “the new normal,” but we must remember that it might feel normal in terms of what we’ve been doing, but it’s not normal in terms of how humans naturally interact with their co-workers.
Craig: One thing we need to be careful of with working from home is we potentially have swapped our travel time to work for extra working time. That’s fabulous from an efficiency point of view, but we can’t create a new baseline of what minimum standards are. Whilst we still need to pitch in whenever we have to and deliver on what the objectives are, we have to be mindful that we don’t lose those important moments when we have some alone time.
Nathan: That‘s right! The car journey or the train commute is a good time to read, pop the headphones, listen to your favourite podcast or whatever it is to take that half an hour for yourself. We just need to make sure we don’t lose that designated time, as much commuting can sometimes be frustrating and not that comfortable, it actually plays a pretty important role in your day and with your mental health.
Rob: Looking to the future, what has the period shown you about where the business was and where it will head moving forward?
Nathan: I believe this period has shown that people’s ability to adapt is much, much higher than we would have envisaged. Even the safest clients and organisations moved swiftly from very traditional forms of mediums. Some were certainly behind the ‘cutting edge’ of technology with regard to the role that digital technology plays within their communications portfolio and I’ve been amazed to see those guys try new things. Necessity breeds innovation and our clients are becoming braver. They are seeing rewards from their courage. Because they are seeing a positive return on the change they are more likely to take a risk again. The adoption of new technologies means comms teams within all our clients are willing to take risks and can see that their audiences are more adaptable than they might have thought possible. Just because that’s the way it’s been done, doesn’t mean it’s the ONLY way it can be done.
Craig: For us, the new norm is a dramatically increased rate of change of tech adoption, a shift into digital, a shift into interactive digital rather than static and integration of print and digital (AR/VR). It’s no longer just the playing field of really innovative agencies, it’s the technology that most of our client’s audiences have come to expect.
Nathan: It will be incumbent on every agency to push their clients, that have a comms objective, to keep thinking of how we keep our foot on the gas and make sure we’re not waiting for the next set of global issues to catch up again. From a client perspective, you can only expect that speed to continue.
Rob: Well guys, it’s been a particularly stressful period of time with a great amount of uncertainty, but you have clearly taken the bull by the horns. I will look forward to seeing how the business continues to evolve over the next 6-months as we start to go back to some sense of normality. Thank you both for your time.