In the consulting world, the start of a month is usually a joyous time. Projects start, budgets reset, and invoices go out. But the start of April this year was a truly miserable time for many marketing agencies, and it showed. We dragged our disheveled bodies to video hangouts with other marketers, shellshocked from the sound of clients going to ground, and looking around the room for answers.
Consultants tend to be expensive specialists so we know we are the first to be excised when marketing budgets are examined but we also try really hard not to be reliant on a single industry or geography so it’s unlikely more than one client at a time will cut us loose. We have strong referral networks and we lean on each other when times are tough. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the US, however, the devastation was near-complete.
Despite content marketing faring well in long-term predictions due to the cancelation of in-person marketing like events, our business was not immune. We suddenly had a lot of time on our hands, so we engaged in three key strategies:
1. We stemmed the bleeding
We used Steve Blank’s 5-day crisis plan to figure out where we could cut costs and scale down our plans for the year. It was a godsend to have step-by-step, no-nonsense instructions in a crisis. Then I happened upon the Porter Novelli COVID-19 Tracker, which analyzes brand leadership and business responses to the pandemic. In it was this striking quote from Sandy Skees, EVP, Global Innovation & Impact Practice Lead:
“Has there ever been a time when all of humanity was experiencing the same thing at the same time? Today, brands, governments, and NGOs are grappling with the same existential (threat) that we, as individuals, are also facing. I am struck by the creativity of humanity – people sharing hopes and fears, as well as silliness. Right now, the best a brand can do is participate in this collective effort … Trust your sense of humanity and do the next right thing.”
I knew I had a tendency to frontload – always thinking about the next quarter, the next task, the next challenge – but I realized when I read that quote that I had unconsciously brought that culture to my business. As an individual, frontloading is a useful characteristic. As a business practice, it carries the risk of paralysis. If you’re always planning for the future, you risk missing out on what’s happening now.
In essence, Blank and Skees were saying the same thing: Take it one step at a time. You don’t need to figure out what the best move is in three or nine months’ time – in fact, you probably shouldn’t. The only thing you should do is figure out what your next move should be.
2. We built new pipeline, fast
The first thing we wanted to do was make some structural improvements. We reworked and replanned our sales pipeline in February, which was a blessing, but the website redesign we planned in – um, 2018 – never actually happened so it was time to push that out. New brand campaigns, refreshed resources, and streamlined process documents helped prepare the ground for success once those leads started coming in.
We worked with business planners from Sertus Partners and SCORE to better position No Pants in the market. Everyone was telling me to leverage my network, which I felt like I was doing. But I really wasn’t. It was during the conversation with Sertus that Nicolle Bennett said something that really resonated with the “next right thing” mentality: “Leverage your network,” she said. “And when you do, tell them what’s going on for you.” That gave me the permission I needed to accept that the impacts of coronavirus were not due to a failure of my business and in turn, that was not due to my own deficiencies. Once I recognized that, I was truly and honestly able to leverage my network in service to the business. That gave me the confidence to pitch to new clients and pick up work for the company that will sustain us for months to come.
3. We made ourselves irritatingly useful
With work dropping through the floor, we suddenly had time and energy to spare. To the clients we retained, we freely shared ideas and produced additional value wherever possible. To our fellow consultants and agencies, we helped brainstorm, offered support, and reshared their marketing posts. We gave love, connections, and advice in our Slack channels, produced a ton of resources, accepted just about every invitation to speak at webinars, and offered no-cost marketing therapy sessions to startups and small businesses.
It’s been eight weeks since the beginning of April and things could not be more different. We’re still working on the pipeline and focusing on being useful but the crisis for our business is over for now. But the lessons learned from that horrible week in early April will stay with us: Be useful, be open to our network, and focus on the next right thing.