Episode 234:

US and European based agency owners are fighting vigilantly as the coronavirus pandemic unfolds in their region of the world. It’s affecting agencies and their clients in significant ways. I’ve been talking to agency owners non-stop for the last two weeks and one thing is for sure – one agency’s experience is not like another’s. For some, business and AGI has never been better. In others, 50% of their AGI has walked out in less than ten days. I wanted to connect with an agency owner who had already experienced everything we are going through today and could tell us what’s coming next.

Kiri Sinclair owns the 50-person PR shop aptly named Sinclair. They’re based in Hong Kong with hubs in several cities in China and they are about three months ahead of us in dealing with the coronavirus. Needless to say, there are some good lessons for us to learn from her experience.

Hong Kong and mainland China reacted differently to the initial outbreak than European countries and the US have reacted so our experience may not be perfectly parallel. However, the timeline still provides us with some idea of what to expect moving forward. The good news is – there’s good news.
Two and a half months in, client business in Hong Kong has picked up and things are moving back to normal. Every country and every agency is different, but Kiri’s story serves as a beacon of hope and helps us anticipate what is coming next.

A big thank you to our podcast’s presenting sponsor, White Label IQ. They’re an amazing resource for agencies who want to outsource their design, dev or PPC work at wholesale prices. Check out their special offer (10 free hours!) for podcast listeners here.

What You Will Learn in This Episode:

  • How agency owners across the globe are responding to the COVID-crisis
  • The experience of Hong Kong-based agency owner Kiri Sinclair since the outbreak first occurred there over two months ago
  • How clients responded to the global pandemic in Asia
  • How to be proactive in protecting client relationships and the team amidst the crisis
  • How to consider handling internal changes such as pay and lay-offs
  • Mistakes our guest made and what she would have done differently if she knew then what she knows now

The Golden Nuggets:

“Agencies in the U.S. and Europe are very lucky to have an additional two months of knowledge to make difficult decisions.” @SinclairTalk Click To Tweet “Get your contingency plans in order. Then, communicate what those contingency plans are, how your business is operating at this moment in time, and how you are supporting the community to contain this outbreak.” @SinclairTalk Click To Tweet “There are so many ways all of us can either personally be of service or, and most importantly, enable our brands to be of service.” @SinclairTalk Click To Tweet “As an agency owner, it's on my shoulders to find every single piece of business so I can bring in enough work. I have to generate enough revenue to ensure that my teams have enough to live off of, and that's what I'm going to do.” @SinclairTalk Click To Tweet “If we need to reduce the calories across the team, that's what we'll do. But we will ensure that everyone who wishes to remain with us has the opportunity to keep that job.” @SinclairTalk Click To Tweet

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Speaker 1:

Welcome to The Agency Management Institute Community, where you’ll learn how to grow and scale your business, attract and retain the best talent, make more money, and keep more of what you make. The Build a Better Agency Podcast, presented by White Label IQ, is packed with insights on how small-to-mid-sized agencies survive and thrive in today’s market. Bringing his 25-plus years of experience as both an agency owner and agency consultant, please welcome your host, Drew McLellan.

Drew:

Hey, everybody. Drew McLellan with another episode of Build a Better Agency. I know that across the world all of you are watching what is happening with COVID-19 very closely. For many of you in North America, it has come to roost on our land and it is effecting our businesses, in some cases in a very dramatic way. For some of you, I literally am talking to agencies from 7:00 in the morning until midnight most days, and it’s remarkable the wide range of experiences that you guys are having.

So for some of you, it has actually been great for business. You have clients that are in essential services or industries and they are busier than they’ve ever been, which means you’re busier than you’ve ever been. On the other end of the spectrum, some of you have literally watched 50% of your AGI walk out the door in less than 10 days. Most of you are somewhere in the middle. I think one of the things for all of us that makes this so frightening is that so much of it is unknown. We have never experienced anything like this, and we feel like we are sort of walking in the dark.

Certainly at AMI, what we’re trying to do is shine a light into that darkness and help you find your way, and try and help you with resources and tools. I have mentioned and I will mention more than once in this podcast probably, we’ve got the survival resources for agency owners on our website, so go check that out. Every week, we’re updating it with stuff that we’re creating, best practices, guidelines for you, and also things that we’re curating we think will be helpful.

But one of the other things that I’m trying to do is I’m trying to help you see what’s coming next. So last week I was fortunate enough to sit in on a webinar where an agency owner from Hong Kong named Keri Sinclair talked to us for almost two hours about what they experienced. They’re about two months, three months ahead of us, so the Coronavirus showed up in a way that was significant in Hong Kong the last week of January. I’m recording this with her on the 25th of March.

So they’re two and a half months into it. So in the webinar, she sort of walked us through some of the things they learned and how she responded as an agency owner and how it impacted their employees and clients. So right after the webinar, I reached out to her and I asked her if she would be willing to come on the show and have a conversation with me because what I’m hoping to be able to do is give you a look at what’s coming.

Now, is your country’s experience, wherever you are, going to be exactly the same as Hong Kong? No. How they responded to it, particularly because they had already had experience with a deadly virus when SARS hit their country, is different and was more extreme than many of the other countries around the world are responding, certainly more extreme and rigid than the US is responding as a state. But it will at least give you an idea of sort of what came and now where they’re at.

One of the things that I really walked away from the webinar feeling was hopeful. Kari and her team were back in the office. Now they’ve had a little outbreak again, so this last week they’ve been working from home again, but she is confident they’re going to be heading back to work again. So two and a half months after all of this, they’re back in the office, client work is picking back up, and things are looking stronger and better.

So my goal in this conversation with her is to really talk about what her experience was like and get her to sort of walk us through the timeline starting at the end of January up to now and some of the decisions they made, and some of the ways they are helping clients, some of the ways they hung on to business, so that you can be thinking about what’s coming next and you can plan a little bit. Again, it’s not going to be exactly prescriptive. I’m sure there are going to be elements of your agency that don’t match up to her agency and certainly every country is handling this a little differently. But I know it will be insightful. I know it will be hopeful and I’m certainly hoping that it will be helpful.

So with no further ado, let’s jump into the conversation because I want to get as much time with Keri as we can. Keri, welcome to the podcast. Thank you for coming on the show and being willing to tell us about what you went through so we can begin to anticipate what’s coming next for us.

Keri:

Thank you so much for having me. I’m coming to you from Hong Kong where we have been experiencing this since the end of January, Chinese New Year. So we’re a few months ahead of the curve for now. We’ve just passed the two month mark.

Drew:

So I want to go back to before the Chinese New Year, before all of this happened. Just give us a sense of your agency. How long have you been in business? What kind of clients do you serve? How big is your staff? Just as you’re telling us this story, we can sort of understand sort of the landscape a little bit.

Keri:

Yeah, absolutely. So the agency Sinclair, we’ve been in operation 10 years this year. We have offices in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing and Singapore. We have a staff of 50 people across the four offices and we operate under one PNL, which means that we work as a cohesive team across all of our offices. We don’t actually call them offices. We call them hubs. That reason is to really make sure that we have a cohesive team because a lot of times client comes to us, or either greater China or Asia region [inaudible 00:06:50]. So as a team, we come together and we’re able to offer that without having to kind of split up charging between our hubs on the client side, which really gives them a one stop service to the region.

So our clients cross consumer, corporate and government, so we work for clients like tourism boards and central tourism boards, through to retail properties like malls and retail brands. So the shops within the malls or their online counterpart. We work on the corporate side, so managing brand reputation, for a number of large organizations that are either locally born and looking to kind of expand in the region or expand internationally, or are international organizations that are operating in the region.

As an agency, we are led, so public relations led, fully integrated agency. So, that’s my definition. What it really means is that we look after marketing communications across the full remit of digital, social, public relations, experiential on behalf of our clients. That’s us.

Drew:

So as I think about eventually countries being shut down and everyone being, what we’re calling here in the states anyway, sheltering in place. When you talk about the kind of clients you have, your clients were in the center of business disruption when all of that happened.

Keri:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Drew:

I can’t imagine, on the one hand, how busy you were helping that message, but also what it did to your business.

Keri:

Yes. We’ve had interesting times. Being ahead of the curve, but also not as quick to shut down shall we say. So in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing and Singapore, we do not have stay at home order or shelter in place orders. We have restricted social interactions at different levels. So for example, in Hong Kong, as early as the kind of late January, entertainment parks such as Disneyland and so forth shut down. Anything that would cause people to come together.

Just remember that these markets are some of the densely populated markets in the world. So it’s really important that we were able to keep people somewhat separated as much as possible. So in our markets, we have been discouraging any form of events or gatherings, and had to kind of change that towards other forms of interactions, whether they be online or communicating in different ways. So the impact has been massive right across the remit of our clients.

The immediate of course was felt within travel and tourism clients.

Drew:

Sure.

Keri:

Anything like hospitality, restaurants and so forth, but also live events. So we have, as you know, Hong Kong is a hub for live events.

Drew:

Yes.

Keri:

This month of March, we would have had [inaudible 00:10:00] in Hong Kong. Last month was the [inaudible 00:10:03] masters of Hong Kong. We’re also missing the rugby sevens which is our biggest sport event of the year. So anyone working across these events had to start activating in January to start the cancellation process. So all the way from then, we’ve been dealing with everything from perhaps a pace at a retail mall. So someone has tested positive and, because we have a very strict government enforced policy on tracing people’s history of where they’ve been when they’ve been testing positive, that means that that tracing will link back to some of the brands or some of the locations that they’ve been in.

Then those locations need to be deep cleaned. People that they had interactions with need to either be put into government quarantine or self quarantine, which means they stay at home themselves. So in that sense, what it’s really meant is that we’ve been really on the front line of communicating on behalf of brands in all sorts of situations, whether that be a shop shutting down, a mall having to make announcements about someone testing positive and had then gone to their premises.

We’ve had office had to close. Obviously there’s been massive disruption within supply chain.

Drew:

Sure.

Keri:

So I’m sitting in Hong Kong right next to [inaudible 00:11:30] Province which is one of the mass producers of the world. When their factories closed, obviously that effected everyone from Apple through the whole remit of consumer brands that any of us work with. So then explaining why brands weren’t able to deliver product on time or such became also part of that communication.

Drew:

So it’s the end of January and all of the sudden the news in your region is buzzing about the virus. I would assume that your clients are calling you to find out how they should respond, if at all. Did you guys go as a country or region … you were not told that you had to stay home, or you were told you had to stay home at one point in time?

Keri:

Right. So we’ve never been told that we have to stay at home.

Drew:

Okay.

Keri:

In any of these markets specifically. I’m talking about markets because really I’m talking about cities. However, there are some cities in China, as we know that went into lockdown, and there were periods of time where cities in [inaudible 00:12:41] Province, which is the closest province to us here in Hong Kong, where cities also kind of closed … didn’t have orders, but had a kind of closed jurisdiction so that they could maintain the health of their people.

So looking at how this unrolls, really what happened was the first time we heard about this was the 31st of December. Anyone who lives in Hong Kong or China or Singapore would immediately have just thought … the announcement came out as a SARS like virus has been reported in China.

Drew:

Got it.

Keri:

That immediately sent alarm bells. So as an agency owner and a business owner, that was my first indication. At the time, I was on holiday in Thailand. So at the time I immediately called to my team in Hong Kong and said, “We need to buy masks and we need to make this preparation in case this becomes something.” That’s because I worked and lived through SARS. So I was on the frontline of communications during SARS 17 years ago. So obviously personally I felt very scared.

Drew:

Of course. Yep.

Keri:

But how it then unrolled is, in Hong Kong, we had our first case about the 22nd of January. So by the 25th of January, that three days after our first confirmed case, Hong Kong declared a state of emergency and we closed our parks. By the end of January, we closed all of our libraries, our museums, or letter facilities and so forth within that jurisdiction. China was busy doing the same thing at the same time.

Now, with the experience of how quickly something like this can travel in our community, and especially as I said a densely populated community like ours, our governments resorted to the very strictest protocols. But at the time that these protocols were coming into place, we were actually on Chinese New Year holiday, so we had a five day period where we were on leave in Hong Kong, and that’s a one week period to 10 days in mainland China.

So a lot of this happened when we were on holiday. So to say it meant most of us were on holiday in our home countries, but some people had traveled overseas. So when we were meant to return to work after the Chinese New Year holiday, the day before that I think it was, the civil service announced that they would work from home. Now, what happens in that situation is usually business follow suit. So as an agency, we immediately followed suit. So the minute that the civil service said that they were working at home, in Hong Kong and in Singapore, we worked at home.

Now China is a different situation because the mainland China government very quickly extended the Chinese New Year holiday for another … I think it was 10 days. So during that time, there was no work. Everything was shut down. At that time, schools had closed for the Chinese New Year holiday and then just hadn’t opened again. So for those of you with kids at home on day five or day 10, think of those parents here in the Asia Pacific region that are on month two.

Drew:

Wow.

Keri:

With the kids at home while working at home. Yeah.

Drew:

Now, have your schools gone back, or no not yet?

Keri:

No. No, the schools are closed. They had announced that schools would likely open after the Easter break, but that’s now being said to be unlikely. So it’s a fluid situation here still. But yeah, so very early on in that decision making, first of all because I’ve had prior experience, I was very quick to say this could become something. Then Hong Kong, Singapore, as market the government very quickly made decision, which was very helpful because of course the moment Hong Kong declared a state of emergency, that means that, within insurance contracts for major events, force major comes into effect, which means that we can then start to cancel a major event with the insurance company kicking in that.

Drew:

Right.

Keri:

So then we can make quicker decisions under that legal jurisdiction that the government gives us. I understand from colleagues all around the world that there have been a lot of problems regarding some governments don’t want to call an emergency too soon and they have their sound reasoning for that. But when it comes to business, especially when it comes to managing the inherent nature of what are we liable for, it becomes a lot easier to manage that if the state or jurisdiction has called for emergency. That’s been our experience here anyway.

Yeah, so it’s very interesting times we’ve been living through, and I’m just really glad to be able to share our experience in this way because I think there’s a lot of misstep that we’ve taken as an agency or learnings that we have from across working with many types of business organizations to get us through to the point we’re at now. Remembering that government regulation changes on a daily basis or guidelines. We don’t necessarily have that much regulation, but government guidelines changes on a daily basis.

So a lot of it is sentiment monitoring and seeing, well what’s happening in the industry and what are consumers saying? What do people want us to do as a brand? What do our employees want us to do, and making decisions based on that.

Drew:

So, as January is wrapping up and as people are starting to work from home, especially given the kind of clients you had, did you see an immediate decline in clients? Were clients canceling contracts, canceling events, asking to pause retainers, things like that? Or did that come slower over time for your?

Keri:

Yeah, that’s a great question. The first thing that we did in January as an agency is we reviewed all of our client contracts for two things. Firstly, what was our remit with the client in our contract in our crisis management, whether that be on social or PR or whatnot, and what was our termination or pause contract clause within our contract. So when we knew that this was coming, we then proactively reached out to each of our clients individually to say, this is our current terms regarding a crisis within our contract, so this is what we’re currently contractually obliged and of course willing to work with your team on.

Should you wish us to do these other things that we can also offer you, please let us know. If crisis is already included in a retainer contract, which for many of our retainers it is, let’s immediately start talking about crisis planning and crisis approval chain so that we’re all in the know before something happens. When it comes to contractual termination and pause, we reviewed all of our client contracts to see what risk we were at as an agency and what we should be proactively doing.

Of course, we spoke to our insurance company and to our legal teams to find out what their take on this was. So that was the first step there was really protecting our clients and protecting our client relationship. We then immediately saw either the workload of the client increasing 10 fold because everything was in crisis, or clients immediately effected, so clients within let’s say airport service operators or such, immediately needing to find ways to reduce their overheads in every way possible. So therefor reaching out to, in almost 90% of causes, pause our contract, not terminate.

Now the only ones that wished to terminate were those that had, for example, a mega event that was no longer happening.

Drew:

Right.

Keri:

So there’s nothing to go forward for. So after we then had to renegotiate what the remainder of our remit would be in those cases so that we could help them to communicate around the postponement or cancellation of an event and making sure that we’re communicating throughout their entire stakeholder mapping to be able to get the right communications to the right people and have everyone assured that the right things were being done, but also that they were well informed and educated of what was going on.

Drew:

As you were doing this assessment, talking to the clients and sort of seeing where work was growing, work was shrinking, work was going to go away, I’m assuming you, like all agencies, the largest expense you have are the human beings that do the work, your team. So here in the states anyway, a lot of the agencies that are beginning to feel the effects as we are now entering what you were entering into in January, there’s a lot of discussion about laying people off versus pay cuts, versus all of those sort of things.

So what was happening maybe at your agency, but also I’m sure you were talking to other agency owners in your area? How did agencies in your part of the world handle this typically and what was the rationale behind the decision, whatever that was?

Keri:

Yeah. Just one point of clarity there I think is that what we were going through in January is somewhat the same kind of experience that agencies in Europe and America are going to be feeling now, except we had a lot less knowledge. So we didn’t know what this disease was. We didn’t know how fast it was spreading. We didn’t know. There were so many more unknowns. So I would say to agencies that are operating in Europe and the US that you’re very lucky to have an additional two months of knowledge in hand now to help make these decisions and are going to be able to make them faster now that we know really how dangerous this is.

So what have we been doing to manage our agency finances are right across the remit. At Sinclair, our core value is team first. That was the model of the agency that I set up at the very beginning, and I believe very strongly that as a service and a professional service that is based on the expertise and intelligence of the people within our agency, that is the core value and asset that we have.

Drew:

Absolutely.

Keri:

When we put our team first, everything else will be okay. What we did from the very beginning was start talking to our leadership team and saying this is … We’re a very transparent agency and I think that that’s an important thing to say as well. But from the very beginning saying this is where our current cashflow is at. This is exactly what’s happening with each of our clients, and you can see an overall of what our cashflow situation looks like and we need to make decisions.

So our first one was to talk to the leadership team and say what decisions should we be making here as a team. Within that, we formulated some ideas and scenarios, and then we took that to the entire team at the agency and said, here are the scenarios. What do we all want to do in this situation? So rather than making decisions at the top, we kind of used the leadership team to think through what could possibly happen and what we could do, and then brought it to the team as a whole.

Now my commitment to the team has been at Sinclair that we will not let anyone go during this period and that we will keep the full team intact no matter what. No matter what that takes, we’re going to stick to that commitment. That commitment means that people will get some form of pay on a monthly basis and that they will remain insured with health insurance. If that means that we need to take voluntary non paid leave, then that’s what we’ll do as a team. If it means that we need to reduce salaries across the team, that’s what we’ll do. But we will ensure that everyone who wishes to remain with us has the opportunity to keep their job.

I know that there are other agencies, Indy agencies, that are making the same types of commitments to their team to ensure that … My mindset is, and most people in Asia is, that this is a journey. We are going to go through stages of this journey which are community, outbreak, containment, and then we’re going to be moving onto recovery.

Drew:

Right.

Keri:

That’s going to be a three to six month period. We don’t know what it is. In greater China, we’re on two, two and a half months at the moment. With that understanding, we also know and have experience, through past emergencies like this, that business bounces back really quickly and you’re not going to be able to hire fast enough when it comes back. So with that in mind, we just need to get through this period, whether that be three months or six months. That’s our commitment.

The other things that we’ve done as an agency is we’ve reached out to any sort of emergency government loans or financing that we can get our hands on or apply for in all of our market. Now what’s happening in Asia is very different to what’s happening in the UK or the US for example, or France for example, where the government has been stepping up to volunteer to pay wages to some extent. So in France, for example, I think it’s 80% of wages are getting paid across the board.

So in our markets, we need to find ways to pay our workers ourselves because we don’t necessarily have those emergency government grants or commitment. So we’re doing that through government confirmed SME loans or other financing options that the government is backing for us. So that’s the way that we’re supporting in that way. Other things we’ve done is we’ve phoned every other financial partner that we have to ask for any type of cashflow management that they can offer us. So one thing to mitigate is that we understand that our clients are suffering too and that they’re not going to pay us in the timely manner that they usually do.

Drew:

Right.

Keri:

So fighting back with them isn’t going to help. If there’s no money, there’s no money. But rather looking for other ways to finance those gaps in payments. So we’ve been working on that. We have phoned all of our landlords and asked for rent reductions. In mainland China, our wonderful landlords there have given us two month free rent period.

Drew:

Wow.

Keri:

Bless them.

Drew:

Yeah.

Keri:

Our landlord in Singapore has been kind and given us a percentage. Our landlord in Hong Kong, not so much. Nothing there. That is usual Hong Kong way of life though. You’ll read about that everywhere. I think we feel about our landlords the way you feel about your governments, but anyway.

Drew:

That’s probably true.

Keri:

Then the other thing we did was we looked at every supplier and the contract that we have for every one of our suppliers and reached out to renegotiate contracts, recognizing that as our clients start to pause their businesses with us, that our need for our suppliers would decrease. So in that way, if there was any way to reduce the costing of our suppliers. So basically, overall, we looked for every way to get the agency down to skeleton financing levels.

Drew:

As you were doing that, again because you don’t really know how long this is going to last … From the webinar that I listened to, it sounds like some of your clients are already coming back and business is already starting to resurge for you guys. Is that correct?

Keri:

So it really depends on what sector.

Drew:

Yeah.

Keri:

We have been very lucky to have actually brought on brand new clients within this period who are looking for crisis and future communications planning within the region and need immediate help. We have clients within travel and tourism sectors who are needing to pause with immediate effect. The way that we’ve managed termination and pause is, rather than having a client terminate a contract or pause with immediate effect, which would put our agency at a lot of risk, we’ve worked with each client to find a way that is middle ground.

So saying if they would like to pause, if they could pay us two months, which is our termination period, up front in cash now, we can then pause with immediate effect and use those two months at a later date without charge, so to say. So it’s like putting two months in the bank or whatever services they are in the bank. That helps our cashflow and is a way for them to ensure that, at any point, they can press the go button and we’re right here, and we know their brand well and we can immediately act on their behalf.

Those clients that are on pause, I think one or two have come back, and that usually is because either something has changed in their sector and they’re allowed to reopen, or there has been an emergency and they come back saying that they require assistance. Then we have other clients where actually our scope of work is either completely changed remit at the same financial agreement.

Drew:

Sure.

Keri:

Or the remit has increased with other services. So what we’ve done as an agency is we’ve also looked at what are all of the services that clients need now more than ever? That goes down to brand monitoring, industry analysis, sector analysis, crisis management planning, scenario planning, stakeholder mapping and stakeholder outreach, increased reporting and so forth. So we have a dedicated measurement and insights team and we’ve actually reallocated other team members into that team because that’s where the majority of our work at the moment is really looking at … say we look after one cruise company. They want to know what every other cruise company is doing so that they can work within that industry.

Drew:

Of course.

Keri:

Now we also are working with clients on campaigns that are what I call pivot campaigns. So in that sense, it’s where a client is looking to perhaps say they traditionally work in a brick and mortar type environment and they immediately need to start and amp up their social commerce or e-commerce. Now social and e-commerce are massive part of the market in Asia as you know. I would say the majority of us rely on online shopping in one form or another for most of our lives.

Drew:

Of course, yeah.

Keri:

So those brands that had focused more of their spend or effort in a more physical environment or bricks and mortar environment, we were helping them to quickly pivot to a new online reality. So we were creating campaigns around that to show their customers that they hadn’t just disappeared. They wanted to continue communications and engagement, but just in a different format. So that was another interesting piece of work that we’ve been working across clients with as well.

Drew:

So looking back, as I understand it, things are starting to open back up. So restaurants are back open. You guys are able to move around the city a little more freely than you were before. So life is getting back to quasi normal for you would you say?

Keri:

In Shanghai and Beijing, yes it’s quasi normal. Restaurants are opening. Mainland China is definitely opening up for business and the prospects are looking fantastic there. In Hong Kong and Singapore, it’s a different case completely. So by March, we were in a very good place of containment where many people felt very comfortable going out to restaurants and bars, going back to work.

We were actually back to full working in the office for about a period of a month there. Then, as the cases started to pick up in Europe and the US, we had people come back to Hong Kong who had either left Hong Kong when the containment was first starting out here or left the region and moved to Australia, Europe, America, whatnot, and then wanted to come back because we’re now seen as the safest place to be.

But also, as the schools and universities around the region, around the world, started to close down, we have all of our students-

Drew:

Coming home.

Keri:

Coming home. So now we have imported cases.

Drew:

Right.

Keri:

So the numbers in Hong Kong and Singapore in the last few days have been what we would call horrifying, which is between the 20 to 40 mark of new cases per day. The majority of which are linked to or directly someone who has traveled. That’s going to spark off a new level of community outbreak. So this week, the civil service started working from home again this Monday. We’re on Thursday now. Currently the government is talking about further measures, and I’m sure they’ll be announced today, in both Hong Kong and Singapore to stop the new outbreak. So we’re now on our second outbreak.

Drew:

Wow.

Keri:

So it’s a bit of a rollercoaster ride, and we just take it day at a time. But some things have been closed throughout this entire period, and others opened and then closed again. So for example, the libraries and museums have reopened for some time in March and are now closed again.

Drew:

So in other words, when we think we’re done, we may not be done is a good reminder and lesson for all of us.

Keri:

Caution first, yeah.

Drew:

Yeah. So looking back on the last couple months, you had mentioned earlier sort of the advantage we have is that we’re a couple months behind so we can know more than you knew. What decisions would you have made differently or what do you wish you had known then that you now know?

Keri:

I do love hindsight. I really wish it worked differently.

Drew:

It would be awesome.

Keri:

I think that being more upfront with clients about how serious they needed to be about scenario planning and crisis management would be my first point. My second would be talking to our clients about contingency planning, so actual business contingency planning, because remembering that whatever a business communicates internally or any way that there’s an operational change, whether that be with their employees or the way that they serve clients, or the way they manufacture, that’s going to have a knock on effect on brand reputation, brand perception and the way that we communicate more externally.

So again, it would have been looking at how that contingency planning would affect each and every internal and external communications channel. So an email to an employee for example, from an HR manager, we have seen examples where that has been captured on a mobile phone and shared widely on social media. So just where one HR manager has had a one on one conversation with an employee, the employee feels that that conversation is wrong in some way, and then suddenly the entire brand reputation is at risk because of that one communication.

So the importance of really doubling down with our clients on the way they communicate and how every single interaction, whether it be that one email from the HR manager or one comment on social media, or one word wrong in a press release will have brand impact globally on their reputation.

Drew:

Yeah. In terms of the decisions you made as you were navigating this as the agency owner, are there things that you would have done differently, sooner, later on the business side of your business?

Keri:

I think, to put into perspective, in the China market, because of the US China trade war, that market has been impacted from early January 2019. That impact has also had knock on effects of both Hong Kong and Southeast Asian market. In Hong Kong, we’ve been experiencing social unrest with the protests since June. So across the region, our business has been impacted from last year, so this is a continuation and obviously a huge escalation, but it’s a continuation of a situation we’ve been living for almost going on 12 to 14 months now when it comes to financial impact to the agency.

Drew:

That sounds exhausting.

Keri:

2019 was the most difficult year that we’ve had financially. 2020 is going to now cap it. You take the gold coin this 2020. I did see an email the other day canceling 2020. If someone could tell me if that’s real or not, I’d love to know.

Drew:

One of the memes that’s running around here is my 90 day trial of 2020 is almost over and I don’t want it.

Keri:

I’m done.

Drew:

Yeah. Right, yep.

Keri:

On the other hand, it’s hard to say what I would have done differently because I don’t think that those options were available to me. So I would have said, look for new banking and financial options early on, but actually they didn’t open to us until the budget was read out in early March.

Drew:

Right.

Keri:

So there was nothing we could have done. That’s our government budget, sorry. But there was nothing we could have done earlier. I think that we’re in the lucky situation that we had this experience very recently, 17 years ago. So the moment we heard about it, we didn’t say oh it’s not going to happen to us. We said it’s going to happen, we’re preparing now.

I must say that, from February onward, I’ve been in conversations with agency affiliates worldwide saying, it’s not if, it’s when. Get prepared.

Drew:

Yeah.

Keri:

Those agencies that are Asia Pacific and such listened. They got in touch with me. They started to ask for advice and so forth, which is why I started offering agency to agency close door webinars to talk about what we’ve been doing to offer that experience. In February, I had people telling me, especially in the US, it’s not going to happen to us. So I’m really sorry to hear what’s going on with you.

That’s such a shame because there were two months there that people could have been really doubling down on what they could do to prepare. On the other hand, I have many agencies in Europe do immediately set in place actions. One of the things I said in these discussions was, imagine that you can’t go to your office tomorrow, that your whole team can’t go to your office tomorrow. Are you prepared?

I had agencies come back to me the next day and say, okay I haven’t slept all night. You need to prepare me. Just tell me what you’ve done because we are so far from prepared. Since then, I’ve had people in Italy and France sending me chocolates, sending me flowers, sending me notes saying thank you. Had we not prepared, we wouldn’t be where we are today and be able to help our clients. So for that, I’m grateful to be of service. I think talking about service, I think it’s up to all of us now as communications professionals to step up and be of service to whatever communities we’re in. This is an example of being to service of independent agency communities.

Drew:

Right. Absolutely.

Keri:

I’m on the board of the PRHK which is Hong Kong’s public relations association, where we are also trying to be of service to our community of PR professionals throughout the region that engage with us on how do you manage a crisis. What do you do in these situations? I know that there are so many ways all of us can either personally be of service or, and most importantly, enable our brands to be of service.

Drew:

Yes.

Keri:

Really speaking to our clients about how can they step up in a time like this to help their communities, whether their community be the international football associations all around the world or whether their community be the employees which they employ within their local jurisdiction so to speak. There’s lots of different ways to think about community and I think that the brands that proactively step up now, that proactively become the change makers for good in their community, are the ones that are going to have such a brilliant and longstanding reputation because of that. It’s an opportunity for brands to do the right thing.

Drew:

Absolutely. For the agencies as well.

Keri:

And for the agencies that enable those brands.

Drew:

Yep. So I’m going to ask you to look into your crystal ball for a minute. Tell me what you think the next few months will be like for you guys and your agency. What are you anticipating April and May and June will be like for you, because for us that’s probably July, August and September.

Keri:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). So earlier this month, Sinclair published an insights report titled COVID-19 recovery planning for brands. It really is looking at the journey that we will all go through as we have this experience of COVID-19. So looking at a roadmap towards business recovery, we’re looking at three stages. The US and Europe is currently in phase one, which is that community outbreak phase.

Looking at Asia, we’re very much in phase two now. Having a little jump back to phase one, but we hope that’s only a short little jump. But that phase two which is containment. We’re in a stage now where we are truly living a home bound economy where people are sitting at home and engaging the economy in a new way, in a very digital way, and that’s where brands need to pivot and adapt, and that’s where agencies really need to double down on monitoring, on insights analysis, on giving real insight and sentiment analysis to their clients to be able to show their clients how to take steps forwards to fostering their community and how to communicate correctly with each of their key stakeholders.

I would say then phase three is where we’re moving onto market recovery, and that’s where we resume a new normal lifestyle. So daily living normalizes slowly as the situation improves. I think that that kind of where mainland China is at the moment is moving into that market recovery phase where shops are opening up, luxury brands are seeing big jumps in sales as people are going out and rejoicing with shopping.

Drew:

Yeah.

Keri:

Being able to engage with each other and go out for dinner for the first time in months. We hear that the amusement parks and such will be opening very soon, this week or next week in fact. So looking forward, that’s what we’re going to be looking towards. So as an agency, how we work with our clients during the phase one, which is that community outbreak, it’s very much crisis management, issues management, and that immediate response.

That phase two as an agency, containment, we’re helping our clients to pivot and adapt. So we’re helping our clients to understand how do they operate a business under a home bound economy.

Drew:

Right.

Keri:

Then that third phase which is going to be so much fun for all of us. That is really looking at market revival. What are our recovery campaigns going to look like? We’re working with many clients across different remit on what recovery campaigns look like. How do we as a tourism board invite people to come back and visit? What markets are we inviting and how do we invite one market without inviting another market.

Drew:

Right.

Keri:

That’s what the tourism industry is going to have to go through. Then if you look at, for example, the art within arts and culture, whether you be an art institution or a museum where people go and gather together to enjoy the art, or a gallery or whatnot there. How do you and when do you invite people back to gather again, and how do you communicate to that until people feel comfortable after having an experience like this?

Then of course it’s moving onto consumer goods and brands. Once the factories are up and running and once the delivery and supply chains are up and running, how do we reengage in a spirit of community to bring people back together around a brand ethos that engages customers back into the sales pipeline? At the moment, nobody should be trying to sell anything.

Drew:

Right.

Keri:

At the moment, everyone should be helping that community outbreak phase. Containment phase is, okay, the reality. I need to keep my people employed. To keep my people employed, I need to be able to manufacture and deliver goods and services. How do we do that while we’re all at home? Pivot [inaudible 00:48:43]. Then when we start to venture out again, what’s that campaign that is going to bring people back together in a spirit of joy and celebration that we as humanity on earth got through this together.

I think that each of those stages has its own difficulties. It’s very hard to know, and Hong Kong and Singapore being a case and point, of when you’ve moved from one phase to the next. But as we move forward, it’s going to be a fluid situation. We all know that two steps forward one step back is a real reality in life, and that all we can do at every step of the journey is our best and the best that we think we can do for other people. So as an agency, and when I’m thinking of my team and the absolutely amazing people that I work with … and I would like to say as an aside there that I have team members in their 20s that are the sole breadwinner for a family of five or six. They are the only income for their brothers, sisters, parents and grandparents at this time.

Me being able to supply them with work, to have an income, to pay rent and buy food for that family is very much on my shoulders. Our government isn’t going to be offering huge amounts in these situations. It’s not what the Hong Kong government does.

Drew:

Right.

Keri:

They are helping businesses in other ways. So it’s on my shoulders as an agency owner to find every single little business that I can in every single way that I can to bring enough work in and to bring enough revenue in to ensure that my teams have enough to live off. That’s what I’m going to do. That’s what I’m going to focus on for the next two months. Being two months ahead of you guys, I’d like to say that to date we’ve done that. We have been able to supply an income to our teams and we’ve done that through a multitude of ways, mostly offering different types of services.

These aren’t new services to us, but they are … we’re offering much more in terms of digital and social and also in the monitoring and analysis than we ever have before because that’s what our clients need right now.

Drew:

So we’ve talked a lot about sort of the B2C side, because I know that’s where most of your clients are. In your conversations with other agency owners who maybe are doing more B2B work, was their experience similar to yours?

Keri:

About 50% of our business is B2B.

Drew:

Oh, okay.

Keri:

It’s easier to talk about B2C because, when we start to venture into B2B, we get into a lot of non disclosure policies and so forth.

Drew:

Of course.

Keri:

So even generally speaking, B2B we’re very cautious in the way that we talk about. But when it comes to B2B, it’s very much about stakeholder engagement. Number one, how are you acting responsively towards your employees? How are you maintaining reputation for your brand so that that touch point on stock markets and so forth is as strong as possible to keep the brand afloat at this time?

Businesses really need to think about being transparent at all points. Really, there’s nothing wrong right now with saying these are the difficulties that we are experiencing, this is what we’re going through, this is why your delivery might be two days to two weeks later than we had anticipated. We will not be able to keep our current promises on how long the bank can get back to you, how long our customer services hotline can get back to you, because of the current situation.

These are the things that we’re doing to make sure that we’re doing the best we can, and that transparency, taking the right steps in action and being transparent about those steps in action. I really would encourage everyone not to just be taking the steps of telling people that you’re doing things without actually taking the first step of doing the right actions.

Drew:

Absolutely right.

Keri:

I have seen some companies saying we’re doing these things, and then employees coming out and saying no they’re not.

Drew:

Right. Yeah, no we’re not doing those.

Keri:

Get your contingency plans in order and then communicate as transparently as you are able to do what those contingency plans are, how your business is operating at this moment in time, and how you are supporting the community to contain this outbreak.

Drew:

I think about the owners who are listening to this show. Certainly they’re all over the world, but many of them are here in North America or Europe, or Australia, New Zealand. So we’re where you were a couple of months ago, and most of us don’t have the benefit of having had an experience like this before like you did. So you heard the news and you were like, oh I know what this is, and you went into action.

So right now, as people are listening to us, there’s a lot of freaked out agency owners. They are scared, they are worried about their own families, they’re worried about their people and their families. What would you say to them, if they were all on the phone to you and they were all saying this is scary, how do we survive this? What would you say to them to help them understand that they are going to get where you are now and it’s a much better place than you were two months ago. So what do you have to say to them having already walked the path that we are just starting in many parts of the world?

Keri:

Power of positivity is incredible. As agency leaders, steering both our clients and our employees through this in a positive manner is going to be the number one thing that we can do. Not inciting fear is so important. Encouraging your team and your clients to be of service. I think the key fundamental to remember is that, by being of service to someone else, you are actually reducing your own fear.

Drew:

Yes, absolutely. Yep.

Keri:

Because you’re creating a positive knock on effect within yourself and within your teams. So for example, as an agency year round, we offer 10% of our time to pro bono. So we work with clients like Mind Hong Kong, which is a mental health foundation here in Hong Kong and a number of other charities and non government organizations.

We are also at the moment stepping that up to help wherever we can. We’re in touch with a doctor in the Republic of Congo at the moment so that she can get her message heard on as many channels around the world about what is about to happen in Africa. When I read what she has to say about what is about to happen in Africa, my entire mindset changes because I am so grateful to have a roof over my head, to have water to wash my hands with, to have soap to put in that water to wash my hands with, to be able to have enough money in a bank account to buy some beans for dinner if that’s all I can afford because they do not have that.

When I work in service in that way, and when I enable my team to work in service in that way, they are then thinking about that and not their current own fear. So in that way, we are able to shift the mindset, shift a perspective. Another thing that we’ve been working on is a fabulous kind of pivot campaign here in Hong Kong called Art Power HK. So Art Power HK came about following the cancellation announcement of Art Basel in Hong Kong. Art Basel in Hong Kong would usually happen in mid March. That is the moment that Hong Kong celebrates the arts.

We have thousands and thousands of people come into Hong Kong and celebrate art in its commercial form, in its public form and in its institutional form and discuss the power of art and culture itself to influence us positively.

Drew:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Keri:

So since that canceled, we have gone out and created a campaign, and have gone to every single art stakeholder in the Hong Kong community that would have done an activation around Art Basel or around art week in Hong Kong, and invited them to become a part of this campaign, and created a brand new digital touch point so it’s a digital platform where they can share what they would have done in person but in a new way. Our partners include education facilities and media groups and so forth who are pairing up with art institutions and such to create the art experiences or podcasts, or webinars, or showing art in a different fashion so that anyone in the world can now experience that Hong Kong’s art is open, it is active and it is resilient.

So the knock on effect there is that not only are we enabling art and culture businesses in Hong Kong to continue business when they are businesses that really rely on, or historically have relied on, in person communications.

Drew:

Sure.

Keri:

To get that message out, but also enabling anyone within Hong Kong or around the world to turn the news off and listen to something inspiring and engaging and positive at this time. That is an industry wide example that any industry can think about. How can we firstly use collaboration, secondly use the power of good, the power of positive, and thirdly bring people together in service and create that impact which then has a positive knock on effect to so many people around the world.

That’s just one thing that we can look at engaging in a different way of thinking. So instead of thinking my bank account’s empty. I can’t pay my team. My clients are falling away like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Instead of thinking down that line which leads to a negative thinking cycle that really is just needing to do, instead think how can I be a proactive positive change maker? How can I enable my team to step up on behalf of our client and think through what can we offer that’s new or different. How can we amp up our services in other ways at a time when our traditional services perhaps aren’t in such demand?

How can we be involved with our clients to initiate conversation, to come up with pivot campaigns that then get us more business because we’re behind those pivot campaigns?

Drew:

Absolutely.

Keri:

So any positive action leads to positive new business, whether that be in the short term or long term. I think, as agency owners, that is what we can do. I truly and strongly believe in karma. I know that, by doing good things, good things will come back. That might not be enough to save my business, but it will be enough for me to know in one year, in five years, in 10 years, that I did the right thing when this happened. That alone is okay.

If my business falls, I’m okay with that. It wasn’t my fault. I’ll do anything I can to not have my business fall.

Drew:

Well, and it sounds like you’re already beginning the rebound and things are starting to pick up. So again, I think that’s a hopeful message that-

Keri:

Okay, I’m physically now going to lie on my wooden floor here.

Drew:

Okay.

Keri:

It’s wooden. I’m touching wood with every part of my body.

Drew:

Okay.

Keri:

Okay, to say yes, let’s hope that we’re in rebound. It might not be the case and I do not want to be celebrating too early. I think it’s really important that we look back historically and say when does recovery happen. It happens after 14 days of no cases. 14 days of no cases, that means that we’re clear. That’s 14 days of no new cases. I think that that’s really important.

So we in Asia are far away from that at this moment in time, but the market, people don’t stop shopping. I might have been sitting in my house for a week now, but I’ve bought things. They’ve been delivered to my door. I’ve supported my local restaurants that are still open and had food delivered. I’ve tried to buy through smaller shops rather than large chains to have stuff delivered to my house. Just anything that I can do to support my local community.

I’ve donated to causes and it might be one US dollar or 50 US dollars. But whatever I can do in those small part I’m still spending.

Drew:

Yeah. Well, I think that’s a great reminder to all of us that this, just like any crisis, whether it’s contained within a country or it’s more global, we come out of all of them and we come out of them with a new sensibility. But business still has to happen. Commerce has to happen.

Keri:

Yeah.

Drew:

So what I’ve been telling my agency owners is, your job is to do the kinds of things you did early on. Do cost containment, be smart about renegotiating contracts. Your job is survival. Get through this storm because we will get through it and there will be calm waters on the other side. We will be able to enjoy the kind of profitable years that we have in the past. We just have to survive that long to get there.

Keri:

Yeah. If we look back historically, for example with SARS in Hong Kong, it was 17 years ago. It didn’t reach the pandemic proportions, but for the Hong Kong economy it was massive.

Drew:

Right.

Keri:

We recovered very quickly. Why? Because once it had passed, every one else, everyone and I mean everyone, went out and partied like it was 1999.

Drew:

Right.

Keri:

I’ll tell you what. It was such a revival that everyone had that pent up energy, pent up spending capacity, and they went out and they spent it in droves. People came back to Hong Kong very, very quickly. That really helped with our economy. Yeah, this will pass. It’s just a period of time.

Drew:

The businesses that have had their revenue truncated because of this are going to come out of the gate hungry. They want to make up for lost time and lost revenue, and they’re going to need agencies to help them do that. So again, our job is to position ourselves, as you said, by not selling right not but by helping, and really helping them survive because, if we’re the partner that helps them get through this, we’re going to be the partner they turn to when they are ready to grow again.

Keri:

Yep. I still speak to clients that I spoke with back during SARS that come to me now because they remember the good that we did then.

Drew:

Right. Right.

Keri:

I think that that’s an important thing to remember as well is that you’re growing your own reputation as an individual at an agency, as an agency as a whole. You’re growing your reputation now as being someone that people can rely on and they’ll always come back to that person they can rely on, who steered them right. Don’t go out and try to sell your clients something they don’t need. Give them the right strategy that sees their business success and they will see you as a partner in that success.

Drew:

Yeah.

Keri:

We will get through this.

Drew:

Right. It’s what we should be doing all the time, but it is certainly something we should be doing in this season.

Keri:

Yeah. Absolutely.

Drew:

I am so grateful that you took the time to have this conversation and that you were very transparent about your own experiences. I know this conversation that you and I are having is going to be comforting in a lot of ways for the agency owners who are just beginning the journey that you’re in the middle of right now. To hear your attitude and to hear that you were able to keep your staff and that your clients are starting to … some of your clients anyway are starting to sort of reinvigorate their spending and their activities. I think that’s going to give everybody a lot of hope.

Keri:

Also that we’re winning new clients.

Drew:

Right. It’s interesting. Just today I’ve probably talked to five agencies that have landed new pieces of business.

Keri:

Yeah.

Drew:

So it’s not all doom and gloom. It is the lens that we look at this through.

Keri:

Yep.

Drew:

We get to choose that.

Keri:

Absolutely. Just something simple like look at your website for your agency. Does it talk about promoting in the good times or does it talk about how can I help you now? That simple thing can make all the difference. If you have crisis experience or if you know how to help either B2B or B2C through a situation like this or even a part of a situation like this, start telling people that. Make yourself available for business in this situation. That’s what I would highly recommend to do because then you’re enabling your team to show what can they do for clients right now.

Drew:

Right. Absolutely. This has been great. Thank you so much for the time. I know you’re crazy busy in your world right now just trying to manage all these things that are coming our way. I’m super grateful that you did this. Thank you.

Keri:

It’s conversations like this that keep me sane, so thank you very much for keeping me sane today. To everybody out there listening, you can find me through LinkedIn. Please do connect. I’m more than happy to have chats with anyone about anything during a time like this, if not to help with your businesses, but to keep me sane. So please.

Drew:

Yeah. So we will include a link to your agency and to your LinkedIn profile. Then also, just so the listeners know you gave me permission to share that document that you guys created.

Keri:

Yep.

Drew:

So we will share that in the show notes as well. This has been awesome. Thank you very much.

Keri:

Thank you so much.

Drew:

All right guys, this wraps up another episode of build a better agency. I hope you’re feeling a little better. I hope you are seeing that there is a light at the end of the tunnel and we are going to get through this together. I have said from the beginning that this is not something we have to navigate by ourselves. We can reach out to each other. We’re certainly trying to bring you people just like this conversation that will help you think about your business a little differently, give you some courage and hope to get through this, and also some tactics. I think there were a lot of takeaways from this conversation today that you should be thinking about applying to your agency if you haven’t already.

I will be back next week with another guest. But before I let you go, just a huge thank you to our friends at White Label IQ. It is so important that this podcast is here right now and that we are able to bring you these amazing guests. Having a presenting sponsor like White Label allows us to do that. So I would love it if you would reach out to them and thank them for their support of this podcast and let them know that it matters to you and your agency.

And if you are looking for White Label dev, design or PPC, they are knocking it out of the park for agencies big and small. So they’re happy to do little projects, big projects, one time projects, ongoing work. They’re just really delightful people to work with, good, good people and incredible skills. I’m super grateful that they are part of the AMI family and that they help me bring you podcasts like this.

All right, I will be back next week with another guest to help us navigate this crazy moment in time that we are sharing together, and remember that we will survive this together and we will thrive in those calm waters together. All right, I’ll be back next week.

That’s a wrap of this week’s episode of build a better agency. Visit agencymanagementinstitute.com to check out our workshops, coaching packages, and all the other ways we serve agencies just like yours. Thanks for listening.