How Agencies Can Survive and Thrive Through Change

With experience running his own digital agency, Drew Gorton understands how major, unexpected changes can lead to fresh opportunities. Here, he shares his advice for making it through.

Photo by Fabien Bazanegue on Unsplash

The world is changing in a radical way. Anxiety is high. We are concerned for the safety of ourselves and our loved ones. We are concerned about the stability of our jobs and our companies. None of us knows how deep and long-lasting the current crisis will be, nor what the new normal will be after this. And, it is increasingly clear that there will be a new normal; not everything will go back to the way it was in 2019. 

Starting and Running an Agency

Twenty years ago, I left my secure job as a web developer to start my own agency. I wanted to do a specific kind of work and decided the best way forward was to start off on my own. I ran that agency for the next 15 years and learned an incredible amount along the way. One of my earliest lessons was about finding the opportunity in change.

I was fortunate enough to land a big client early on. It was a television show with a real budget and a willingness to try bold ideas. We worked together for three seasons and each one we did bigger, more ambitious work together. The team was invaluable and fun to work with, providing enjoyable opportunities to learn and improve. They also accounted for a huge percentage of our income during those years. 

Disaster Strikes

In the third year of working together, disaster hit. The show was canceled. 

We had to drop our largest project plans to-date. I was devastated. There was no quick fix to replace the loss. Sleepless nights were followed by cutbacks. Jobs we wouldn’t have taken two months earlier were suddenly lifelines. But we made it through; we cut expenses and found new income. It wasn’t easy and I didn't want to repeat it, but after the dust settled, we survived. 

An Unexpected Twist

Soon after, we started getting inquiries from the people who we’d worked with on the show. All of them had also survived and moved on to new opportunities, landing positions with other TV shows, in finance, media, and more. As they found problems similar to the ones we had solved together, they would bring up our names as recommendations. 

Fast forward another year or so and instead of one big client with ambitious goals, we had many. Over the next few years we landed at least 20 great projects that we could trace back to that initial show. 

Change Always Brings Opportunity

Change is often difficult, challenging, and threatening. It also creates opportunity. Always. Throughout my career I’ve learned this many times over and at this point I hold it to be a simple truth. Change always brings opportunity. 

We are all facing massive change right now. I don’t know how this ends, but I am confident that the change we are seeing today will lead to many opportunities. 

Understanding the Change

In my experience, a good way to find opportunities is to start by clearly articulating what has changed. This has helped me as I grapple to find the answers to the “What’s next?” questions in my head. I find a simple list helps me get rolling:

Change Factor 1: COVID-19

There are a number of immediate and obvious changes that have happened because of the COVID-19 virus. They include:

  • Working from home is suddenly the norm for all working adults

  • Students of all ages are learning from home

  • Physical stores are closed or have reduced hours of operation

  • Communication with everyone outside of our homes is almost exclusively digital

  • Daily lives and schedules are completely disrupted to accommodate all the above

Change Factor 2: Economic Downturn 

We are also seeing a massive economic downturn. It’s obviously related to COVID-19, but it’s a distinct set of changes that includes:

  • Many people are losing their jobs

  • Organizations have just scrapped their existing 2020 plans and are scrambling to make sense of what’s next

  • People and organizations are looking to cut costs, canceling anything deemed superfluous 

  • People and organizations are looking for creative opportunities to replace lost income

Finding Opportunity in Different Areas

Now what? Those lists are of limited usefulness by themselves. Nevertheless, I find that breaking down a potentially overwhelming situation into discrete components allows me to focus on individual changes and see potential opportunities. For example: 

Working from home is suddenly the norm 

Many agencies have already made this switch and can help coach clients through best practices. If you are already comfortable working remotely, know that things you take for granted (collaboration tools, ergonomics, norms, settings, etc.) may be new for many of your clients.  Deepen relationships right now by hosting a webinar or writing a guide to help them navigate this new world. If you work with a defined industry vertical, share that advice more broadly and make new connections in the process. For example, you might want to create “The Practical Guide to Running a Remote [Your Client Industry] Team in 2020”. 

Students of all ages are learning from home

Education and higher education are being massively challenged and transformed. If your clients include educational institutions, there’s a lot they need help with right now. Some organizations, departments and instructors will be innovating and finding success. Find out where that’s happening with your clients and what you can do to help. Once you’ve got solutions, help cross-pollinate those ideas and practices to other institutions. If you can do this successfully, you may be able to look back on 2020 as the year that launched your agency to the next level. 

Physical stores are closed or have reduced hours of operation

If ecommerce is in your toolbelt, you’re probably too busy to read this blog post. I’ve talked to a number of you in this situation. Congratulations—you’re ahead of the curve! If you don’t offer ecommerce and your client mix includes organizations who could do business online, you owe it to yourself and your clients to start offering it as a service. WooCommerce is based on WordPress and already powers about 25 percent of all online stores. It should be on your agency's short list for consideration.  

Communication with everyone outside of our homes is almost exclusively digital

Geography is suddenly irrelevant for most interactions; it doesn’t matter if you’re a mile away or across the globe; the communication and opportunities are the same. For anyone who has a defined audience and the ability to deliver their goods/services at a distance, the whole world is now your audience. This may have been theoretically true for a long time, but many of us and our clients may be realizing this viscerally for the first time and are ready to take action. This is true for agencies as well as our clients. If you’ve been able to make this adjustment for your organization, it’s time to help your clients do the same. If you haven’t, it’s time to challenge yourselves to get started. If you’re looking for help doing so, here are some tips for virtual presentations.

It may seem counterintuitive to expand our horizons in a time of uncertainty, but this is fundamentally true. Agencies who meaningfully address this for themselves and their clients will do better than those who don’t.

Many people are losing their jobs

Some agencies are seeing a surge in activity and inquiries (e.g. ecommerce specialists). Now is an excellent time to be hiring great candidates. You are likely to find a larger pool of talented individuals and anyone you hire right now is likely to be a thankful and loyal long-term team member. If you’re already growing quickly, you’re in great shape. If you try some of these other ideas and are able to turn the corner and grow, this opportunity may be here for a while.

Organizations have scrapped their 2020 plans

Agencies understand how to manage change. As someone told me early in my career, all consulting is inherently therapy. If you and your team have led projects to launch websites, you are also experienced at managing change and digital transformation. You may not have thought about in those terms before, but at some level an agency’s success is predicated on the ability to do this for clients. Agencies know how to gather stakeholders, prioritize feedback, facilitate difficult conversations, clarify objectives and more. Those skills are invaluable right now.

As your clients struggle to organize themselves, prioritize tradeoffs and consider possibilities, there may be space for your team to help with that planning. This might be a major pivot for you, but it may also be an interesting way to provide value to your customers.

People and companies are looking for creative ways to drive income

Previously dormant ideas and side projects are being re-examined to see if they make sense now. Creativity is high. If you’re able to deliver quick prototypes that can give measurable results to validate ideas, now is an excellent time to focus on that portion of your business. This could take the form of testing something with content strategy or any of the ways Josh outlined in how to grow your agency by killing the relaunch.

If you’ve already got practices along these lines, you may want to double down and spread the word more widely. If you don’t, now may be a great time to assemble a cross-functional team to see what you can do. Many of these kinds of projects start small (by design) but when successful turn into incredibly valuable long-term strategic relationships. 

Don't Take My Word For It—Make Your Own Lists

The above lists are neither exclusive nor exhaustive. You have your own unique perspectives and insights. Talk to people you respect and listen to their ideas. Talk to your clients and find out how they’re doing. Some of them are innovating, pushing through this and trying new ideas and finding success. Find out what they’re doing. Emulate. Facilitate. Cross-pollinate with other clients. Become a hub of expertise and find the opportunities that exist in this rapidly changing world. 

Survive. Then Thrive.

There are many agencies out there who are struggling and concerned. If you are in that boat, your first goal is to survive. Manage your finances carefully and make the uncomfortable decisions necessary to survive. Use your unique insights to find the opportunities that exist for you and your team. If you’re able to do that successfully, you’ll find a way to thrive through this change. 

Join Our Agency Webinar

If you’ve read this far you may also want to join our upcoming Agencies: Survive and Thrive Through Change Webinar to discuss all of this and more. We’ll be talking with real agencies who have insights and recommendations to share based on what they’re trying and learning right now. 

Whatever the future holds, know that I’m rooting for you and Pantheon is too. If you’re looking for additional help or ideas at this time, please feel free to reach out to your Partner Manager, email us at agencypartners@pantheon.io or join this conversation on our community forum.  

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Feature image by Fabien Bazanegue on Unsplash.

Topics Agencies

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