June 05, 2020

By Mark Duval - The Duval Partnership

As the dust begins to settle and we get a clearer view of what the future might look like, one thing is certain: it won’t look like it did pre-COVID.

Agencies aren’t headed back to the office en masse anytime soon. Many aren’t bringing their entire teams back. And many won’t occupy the same physical spaces.

What does that mean for your agency? What does that mean for the way business is done? The answer is more layered than simply, “we’ll be conducting more meetings and pitches via Zoom.”

Work from home is the future, but it’s not new

I have been amazed by all the stories about working from home. The #wfh hashtag is littered across social media posts. Working from home has never been so widely understood and respected.

The Duval Partnership has used a remote workplace model for nearly 13 years. We have team members in every time zone in the country. When I first started the business, there was more of a negative connotation to working remotely—we had to work even harder to prove to clients that it wasn’t going to impede our work quality or relationships.

Over the years, the negative connotation dissipated, and we now present our work from home structure for what it is—a strength. Working remotely has allowed us to be more productive and put together a more talented core team with the ability to quickly scale up or down as needed.

We don’t waste valuable time and money commuting to a central location every day. And we have fewer overhead expenses. We’re remote by choice, and I wouldn’t trade it.

Offices won’t be the same

Nielsen recently announced they will not renew the lease on their current office space and are instead looking at other solutions. Google, Netflix, Facebook, Salesforce, and countless others have announced plans to work from home through the end of the year and beyond. In New York City and across the country, businesses are rethinking what their return to business will look like.

I recently spoke with a friend who is general counsel for a Fortune 100 company. He told me they are never going back to work like they did pre-COVID. The plan is to massively downsize their office spaces, with most people working from home at least half of the time. The office will be set up with workstations instead of offices.

The same friend also told me about a financial company that will utilize shared offices to allow employees to work remotely more often. A single office space will be used by one person one week and another the next. The framed family pictures on the desk will rotate from week to week.

According to Jonathan Litt, head of activist real estate investor Land & Building Investment Management, commercial real estate in New York City is “facing an existential hurricane” (WSJ.com). His firm is taking a bearish approach, shorting commercial real estate stocks. I’m sure they aren’t the only ones.

Rethinking the office’s purpose

Business owners are asking themselves whether their physical office spaces are still necessary. The potential impact of this is huge. If businesses don’t return at full scale, urban centers will be changed, and cities will lose tax revenues. Companies will be able to disentangle themselves from the budget-draining expense of maintaining large spaces.

“Maybe there are smarter ways of doing things, for example, maybe we don’t need our huge office space in the Empire State Building. Maybe we don’t need to come together every day to work in the ways we’ve done in the past.”
— Scott Goodson, founder of StrawberryFrog (in Mediapost)

Until now, it’s been assumed that big businesses needed big buildings to serve as physical centers. For what purpose? The main reasons include impressing clients, creating a sense of community, and ensuring the quality of work.

Big office spaces are also an expensive crutch that businesses have grown overly-reliant on. It’s increasingly apparent that they are not necessary to ensure quality of work (Adweek, AdAge). And, as companies have been forced to find other ways to maintain a sense of community and to impress clients, it’s becoming clear that big fancy offices could have (perhaps should have) been questioned all along. Figuring out how to compensate for these benefits is a challenge businesses will face moving forward.
How we do business will change

What if you keep your agency’s office space and bring your entire team back to facilitate in-person collaboration? Even if your agency doesn’t downsize, you will still feel the effects.

Major employers across industries plan to change the way they do business going forward. This change will have a dramatic effect on the businesses and services that are dependent on commuters in urban centers and office parks.

Grabbing a drink after work or having a meeting over lunch will likely be a thing of the past. For one, many restaurants will be out of business—secondly, without physical proximity, in-person opportunities are limited.

who is commuting post COVIDIndustry events, long used to engage with prospective clients and increase visibility, are also a thing of the past—at least for now. They will return in different iterations, but don’t expect them to be like previous years. In-person events in 2020 are unlikely to have solid attendance, and most will be canceled or held virtually.

This introduces a lot of questions for agency owners. When you think about how your agency will adapt, keep in mind you will need more than just training on how to pitch more effectively via Zoom.

Build the right #wfh team

I have spoken with numerous agency principals who have been amazed at how their teams have come together without missing a beat while working remotely. My response to that is, you must have hired a team of responsible adults who know what their priorities are.

On the other hand, if your staff is struggling to deliver what is needed while working remotely, quite simply, you need to replace them. I know that’s harsh, but I firmly believe things are not going back to what they were. You need a team that is self-motivated enough to get things done without someone looking over their shoulder and micro-managing them.

Maintaining #wfh efficiency in the long-term

Here’s some advice from personal experience: don’t over-rely on video calls. One thing I’ve seen in the past couple of months is that some agencies use Zoom the way they normally would use their conference room. I would suggest easing back on that habit or at least opening it up for discussion with your team to ensure you are working in a way that is comfortable for everyone.

Zoom fatigue is real

Zoom fatigue is a real thing. Explore other channels of communication to mix it up. That may mean allowing camera-optional video calls or using Slack. For internal meetings, our team typically uses Uberconference with the audio on and shared screen features, but without active webcams.

When a team is booked on consecutive hours of video calls, it can be unnecessarily draining and lead to inauthentic participation. The “spotlight” is on everyone for the entire call, whether or not they are talking. Keep in mind that people aren’t always camera-ready. Consider whether you need yours to be, and set expectations in advance.

There are also a lot of rules for acceptable behavior on video calls. Normal human reactions like subtle eye-rolls or weird facial expressions have heightened visibility. When we aren’t conscious about how we are presenting in the moment, it looks sloppy and is distracting. Think about how long you need your team to give their undivided attention, and what’s best for productivity.

How will your agency stand out in a virtual environment?

For example, how do you hold your office together when you rarely have your entire team in the same room? It’s not just a productivity issue. Working from home will reshape your agency culture.

Agencies give a lot of lip service to their culture. Most of it is bullshit. Very few agencies have cultures that are differentiating and unique. A lot of it is syrupy manufactured mantra that could only be contrived by someone who has too much time (or maybe too little time) to write something that is truly reflective of their agency.

Whether your agency’s culture is genuine or aspirational, what will working remotely do to it? What can you do to build it up remotely?

What is your agency without a physical hub?

Your agency will probably continue to have a physical location, but for many agencies, it will not serve as a center the same way it did pre-COVID. Not in the near term, and perhaps not for the long term.

In a world where face-to-face opportunities are fewer, and you can’t impress clients with big fancy offices (as StrawberryFrog’s Goodson calls them, agency “ego-gratification” headquarters), how can your agency make an impression?

First and foremost, it’s about the work and the results. That has always been the case, but in the past, there were more opportunities to charm, impress, and distract. When most of that is off the table—and particularly during a financial crisis—it’s about value and ROI. Your work and results must speak for themselves.

With that in mind, now is the time to revisit your case studies. How do you demonstrate the bottom-line impact of your work? Not with vague, general statements or marketing metrics such as likes, views, and impressions. How did your work affect sales and revenue? How many more people learned about the brand and were talking about the brand? How many people had a more positive view of the brand?

If you feature creative work on your website without highlighting its impact, make updates to illustrate how your work solved clients’ problems, and provide specific results.

Want to win at #wfh? Here are some things to look at:

  •     Tighten up your processes and capabilities for the work from home context. What are the rules, standards, and expectations? How can your team work most productively and efficiently?
  •     Find new ways to reach and connect with your prospects, as well as your clients' target consumers, in the new landscape
  •     Hone your remote meeting and pitching skills
  •     Strengthen your core new business plan and practices
  •     Ensure your website copy, messaging, services, and positioning are still on-point in the current context
  •     Update your case studies
  •     Brainstorm on who your agency is without a physical location, without the team being in physical proximity. How do you stand out? How do you build your team?
  •     Will your organization’s leadership structure work in remote conditions, or does it need to be adjusted? 

Parting thoughts

Major disruptions can be uncomfortable, but they are also exciting because they upset the playing field and introduce new opportunities. If you share that perspective, thinking about this has probably already got your “creative juices” flowing.

I think we are going to see that reducing reliance on physical spaces will be a positive move for a lot of agencies. Working from home is consistent with ongoing trends around agility and cutting fat, moving towards business models that are leaner and faster. The way that you plan to meet this trend will determine how beneficial it is for your agency.

"The wind is blowing and some agencies are building walls while others are building windmills."
—Stephanie Olson, founder, We Are Rosie (in Adweek)


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