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Disruption as an opportunity: the impact of COVID-19 on agency work

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“From Day One, we have been telling clients that you have to see disruption as an opportunity.”

Some probably wouldn’t expect to find much optimism in the industry right now. Can’t really see why that would be – I mean, client loss? Budget cuts? The team all apart and working from remote? What’s there to be negative about?

All silly jokes aside, maybe there really is a silver lining to be found in all this. The old and recently much repeated concept to ‘adapt or die’ has forced many businesses to anticipate technological and workflow advancements, some of which would have otherwise required decades of hard work. And it is with such optimism that global experience agency Imagination has opened our interview just this week.

Rather than just seeing COVID-19 as a "major disruption in the business," said Jiri Bures, Executive Creative Director EMEA and Alex Beazley-Long, Creative Strategist, Imagination has forged ahead and has started creating new experiences for its clients, developing new ways of work and embracing technology as part of the team’s creative process.

Imagination is just one in a pool of countless other agencies which had no choice but, again, adapt or die. From virtual meetings and client presentations to remote shootings, most have had no choice but to forge ahead. Often, sacrificing the existing paradigms and team culture to embrace the promise of an uncertain future.

Client Retention in COVID times

“As an experiential agency we have sadly had some projects pushed back, but the crisis has also opened us up to new works and clients.”

Like many, Imagination has had to deal with the loss of some projects, especially working in the experiential field. Adapting to remote filming obviously took some time, not just for Imagination but for the entire industry. And while some are faring better than others, our Coronavirus Report back in May showed that most small businesses would have to shut down by September, especially production agencies.

A lot has changed since then, and the industry has slowly but surely started to recover. In our follow-up survey in July, only 16.8% responded that their clients had stopped their spending, though over 60% replied that that budget was certainly cut.

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However, though the budgets were cut, client retention was mostly unaffected. Over 40% of the respondents stated that they have the same clients as before, while 32% only lost “some” of their clients. Some even reported an increase in the number of clients – showing that the impact of COVID-19 on client retention may not have been too catastrophic, and that most clients may have chosen to stick with the creative professionals they’ve worked so well with in the past.

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Team bonding and productivity

Creative teams do their best work together. It’s easy to speculate on which impact living apart for so long may have head on team productivity, but one should be careful not to be lured into a superficial analysis of the issue.

Jiri and Alex added: “As a creative team, we do our best work together. Ideas, brainstorming and general camaraderie has been difficult to replicate remotely without the spontaneity that comes from sitting at the same table. However, when the time comes to get your head down and deliver work, the benefits of being at home come to the fore.“

The team is more focused in a familiar home environment and, though working mostly apart, Imagination doesn’t seem to have felt the issue too much. Trust, transparency and communication have been key to keep everyone involved and supported.

“A team that feels trusted and empowered will perform the best. As a team we have made sure that there are regular catch-ups for everyone in the diary, so that people still feel connected with each other.”

And in fact, responses to our follow-up survey have confirmed just that: business productivity was mostly unaltered, with 17% stating things have remained as always, and 1 in 3 saying that the business was only “marginally affected.”

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It is worth noting, however, that the productivity of a good quarter of the respondents was severely affected by the lockdown, showing that this pandemic has hit various corners of the industry in considerably different ways.

A glimpse of normality

When asked what the “new normal” will look like for Imagination, Alex and Jiri replied: “[Our new normal will be] much like our work for clients, a hybrid approach that includes physical and virtual elements. We will be heading back to the office soon, but with an increased emphasis on flexible, smarter working.”

Imagination’s choice reflects a trend that is certain to keep rising in the industry, with increasingly more companies adopting remote or flexible working as a permanent policy even beyond COVID. With new mental health challenges arising during lockdown, most businesses have likely observed that in the creative industry, people are the most important asset there is. Their comfort needs to be taken into account.

And most will do just that. 75% of our survey respondents will keep supporting remote or flexible working after the lockdown. And while the economic implications of the crisis will reflect on the industry for years to come, this new approach may be the key in helping the industry recover from such a low blow.

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“Only those willing to adapt and develop the way in which we work will survive,” the folks at Imagination added. “Lockdown has taught us new ways of working and has brought everyone together.”

By seeing disruption as an opportunity to grow, Imagination has faced the lockdown and the global pandemic in a way that’s allowed the team to deliver some amazing projects, including work for Samsung and the National Saturday Club, which have propelled the agency forward in such a challenging time.

A mindset that should serve as inspiration for all the agencies out there wanting to do the same.


Header image: Imagination.
 

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