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What we learnt from the most catastrophic quarter on record

Posted by: Ben Fox on 8 September 2020

As with every new quarter, we kicked-off August with a review, planning and strategy session with our external partner, The Digital Strategy Unit.

These sessions are by no means a new fad at Fox Agency; in fact, we hold them regularly, to check progress, hold ourselves to account, make big decisions, and to ensure we are on the right path to success.

And we were very much on the path to the holy land of agency success, fame, and fortune. That was until Friday 13th March came along.

Little did we know then, whilst pitching to a B2B tech start-up and planning a trial ‘work-from-home day’ on the Monday, what was to be in store over the next five months (and counting).

Going downhill, fast

The next week everything started unravelling more-quickly than you could possibly imagine.

From arriving to a client meeting, only to be informed we had to present via Zoom from the carpark, to fielding calls from team members reporting client cancellations, project postponements, requests to renegotiate contracts, and notification of payment delays. It felt somewhat surreal and extremely tense.

In week two of lock-down (which now feels a lifetime ago), we experienced the unique feeling of sheer joy followed-by instant despair, as we were notified of winning our single largest campaign pitch ever, beating some far more well-known agencies in the process; only to be informed the campaign would not actually be going ahead.

Of course, we completely understand the client’s decision and we certainly place no blame; however, it was a particular low point.

The worst quarter since records began

With panic setting in across the board, countries being forced into lock-down and whole industries worldwide being put on hold, our work schedule felt like an airport departure board, as one by one projects were cancelled, or at best, delayed.

Overnight, we lost 50% of our monthly revenue, with the remaining 50% looking increasingly precarious. Four of our top 10 highest spending clients over the last 12 months immediately put a stop on all activity.

Meanwhile, the five-year lease taken on an entire building in January (to accommodate our fast-growing team) was rapidly looking like our worst-ever business decision (and we have made a few).

Hanging in there and looking ahead

As April turned to May, which became June, we took things a week at a time, trying our best to deliver for our remaining ‘active’ clients, whilst taking the opportunity to review our business in its entirety.

Like most, we reviewed all non-discretionary spend and made use of government support where possible, and we made some difficult decisions to help ensure business continuity.

We focused on what we could control, including our own brand, proposition, website (coming soon), case studies, marketing plan and other items deemed important to ensure we came out fighting.

For our global B2B clients, we evolved our offering overnight to help them reach and connect with global audiences. Our largest client saw its flagship global industry event cancelled; four years of planning and new product development was at risk, so we quickly started delivering virtual open houses, live stream product launches, global sales webinars, thought leadership content and automated customer journeys.

As June evolved (and would become our worst month since Feb 2016), we began to see tiny glimmers of clients becoming active once more, and, crucially, we saw the first hints of new opportunities emerging.

Big lessons learnt along the way

It is fair to say that our plans and forecasts for 2020 have been blown out of the water. Frustratingly, we were on our way to achieving 30% YoY growth and on-track for our five-year growth plan. Instead, we are striving to surpass last year’s figure as a mark of defiance and to regain confidence ready to ‘go again’ in 2021.

Whilst the last six months have been an emotional rollercoaster and, at times, hugely challenging; our recent strategy session highlighted some key learnings.

1. Give thanks for our global B2B tech focus

In April 2019 we announced our new agency focus, mission, and growth strategy to our internal teams. I would like to say it was amazing foresight that led to us defining a clear focus on global B2B tech, but I would be lying.

However, it has proven vital to creating a strong global client base of world leading B2B tech organisations, which has provided a solid foundation to help see us through this most challenging period.

2. We have truly great people (and a strong agency culture)

Genuinely, our people have been amazing throughout the entirety of the last six months – how they have dealt with the huge uncertainty, combined with everything they have going on in their own lives, has been nothing short of outstanding.

But what has stood out above all else has been the strong culture and values we have within the agency; everybody pushing in the same direction for the good of our clients and the agency, people checking in and supporting one another and, generally, being all-round great people.

3. We are pretty damn resilient and agile

Like all businesses we have had to adapt, and I do not just mean we have had to learn to work remotely (which is not really a big deal for us). We have had to learn how to take some big knocks and get back up again and focus on the next opportunity and keep delivering for our global clients, no matter what.

We have had to be prepared to change, learn, adapt, and deliver for our clients. Our digital expertise has increased significantly, we’ve delivered more virtual events, webinars and podcasts than you can shake a stick at, we’re turning around expert thought-leadership content in record time, and our video and animation skills have gone through the roof.

4. Strong relationships matter above all else

Overnight our clients’ worlds changed in the same way as ours. Suddenly, their perfectly planned out 2020 was derailed with everything that was known, no longer true.

We experienced clients apologising profusely for cancelling projects, whilst fearing for their own and their teams’ jobs.

We built deeper, more meaningful, and more ‘human’ relationships with all clients, as the usual uber-professionalism was replaced by a collective sense of ‘getting through it’. And as the world begins to reopen and business start to look at ‘what’s next’, it is these relationships that will hold us in good stead to get back-on-track, together.

5. Remote working is not all it cracked up to be

Perhaps this is just me, but I will throw it out there anyway. 100% remote working definitely is not all it cracked up to be (and I’m not only talking about juggling work demands with the demands of a toddler – although that is definitely not all it is cracked up to be!).

I truly believe you cannot ever replace the benefits of face-to-face interaction, be it with colleagues or customers. Zoom is great, Teams is better (controversial) and Rainbow is even better (slight bias as it’s a client), but nothing beats face-to-face for sharing ideas, pushing things through, sorting something properly, or building rapport.

I know the world of work has changed forever; but I am flying the flag for hybrid working.

So, what is next?

As a business, we are slowly but surely getting ‘back on track’ – we are definitely heading in the right direction and we are hopeful and confident for what is left of 2020.

Who knows what the next six, 12 or 18 months will hold, but here is hoping that the lessons we have learnt will stand us in good stead for the challenges that await.

Here is to a much calmer (and more positive) year ahead, for all.

Categories: B2B Marketing, Fox musings
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