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COVID-19, One Year Out

I don’t remember anyone asking if we were ready, but we did it. We survived a year of a pandemic. For me, it was the longest year of my life. Especially the winter.

When I reflect on the year, I vividly remember March 15th. I was chatting with (one of our many superheroes) Julie on Slack, and talking about how serious the COVID thing was getting. We pondered the appropriateness of having our team report to the office under the circumstances. Lock downs were happening around the world. I was skeptical – like, are we really talking about 100% remote, overnight? But very quickly, we came to a consensus. We would work remotely for the next two weeks, and come back when things settle down. We’ll “flatten the curve”, someone said. Then a year of remote work went by.

When the pandemic hit, we lost almost half of our revenue over a four week period. Now it may seem weird that a (ostensibly well-run) digital marketing agency takes in less revenue during an expedited digital transition across the economy. But that’s what happens when your positioning is in travel and hospitality, and travel stops. But through the strength of our leadership team and some government largess, we managed. The Canadian government acted fast and boldly, providing wage and rent subsidies for small businesses. I was grateful to be a Canadian business owner.

My role change

The pandemic coincided with some changes we made in the business. Starting January 1st of 2021, I transitioned to a role where I work on the business, not in it. The day to day job of running a business feels like you’re standing in a hurricane. You’re always in triage and putting out fires. Yes, you carve out time to measure and plan the future, but a lot of time is spent dealing with things that feel more urgent than they actually are. The changes we made gave me the opportunity to approach my work in a more considered way. My work is not defined by urgency. I can look at problems holistically to see out where I can add the most value. Having more control of my time lets me really dig into the work of improving myself and my businesses.

These changes were a long time coming, and nudged to the forefront by some unexpected health news. Largely by chance, an MRI for an unrelated surgery to fix an old sports injury detected a sliver of plaque in one of my heart arteries. It’s not normal for an active, healthy person in their 40’s. Testing revealed high cholesterol, which turned out to be hereditary. I was startled, but the reality is that my dad died of a heart attack at age 63. So I agreed to go on meds and work with a nutritionist to improve what I already thought was a healthy diet. It was really sobering, and changed my outlook on everything. It also made the transition to my new role more urgent, because I needed more flexibility with my time to accommodate a new lifestyle that required a lot of food prep and exercise five days a week.

It’s important that I give credit where it’s due though. My transition was made possible by the amazing support structure we have in the company, and the talent of the leadership team. I am fortunate to work with them. They’re extremely capable and provide strong leadership. This structure allowed us to distribute our decision making and apply the right talent to every problem. We are a company that leads with context – not control, with an established set of guiding principles. This approach strengthens our team’s decision making muscle, and it allows our leadership team to solve problems effectively, using their best judgement, knowing they have my trust and support.

Over a year into a pandemic, the company is the most structurally sound it’s ever been, and I’ve never been more optimistic about the company’s future with this team leading the charge. I’ve always been a fan of  the Iacocca principle: “hire people brighter than me and get out of their way.” The reality at this stage of our growth, is that we are hiring people who are a lot more skilled than I was when I was doing the work. I’m thrilled by it.

Realigning our values

As the business matured, and the pandemic cast things in a new light, I spent more time thinking about our values. What are the obligations we have to our employees and community, beyond profit and shareholder value? The initial spark early on for me was Yvonne Chouinard’s Let My People Go Surfing. Most business books are about tighter measurement, a different approach to sales, or a devotion to some business methodology. And here was the founder of one of the most successful brands in the world saying there is another way – that you can do what’s best for your employees and world around them, and go from there.

Recently leaders in the business community have been pushing this idea that companies have to do more because of the accelerating wealth gap. It’s hard to know whether it’s altruistic, or simply a recognition that future shareholder value relies on a workforce that’s not rioting, and an environment that’s not on fire. But after decades of union busting, tax dodging, and profit at all cost…it’s a start.

I’ve always been a reluctant businessman, because I’ve never been comfortable in the culture of business. Even less so in tech-bro and ad agency culture we often find ourselves in. Business has a way of sucking the joy out of work as it grows, because you go from doing work that you are good at and passionate about, to being an administrator. But when I transitioned to a new role (working on the business rather than in it), it rekindled my passion for my work. My job now is to make the business better for the people that work in it, and the world around it. I love this work, and I’m excited about the direction of the business.

More about those changes

The pandemic accelerated change in our organization, as it has in many. And the biggest adjustment for me as an agency owner was the embrace of remote work. I was never a believer in it, but I had to be OK with it pretty much overnight. I love to plan and deliberate the shit out of things, and that’s what I would’ve done here. But instead we worked backwards from fully remote and adjusted from there.

The results were surprisingly good. And personally I cannot see a future where we work in an office full time. It feels outdated. I’m not saying we’re ready to go without an office. But I feel strongly now that the optimal workflow is one that has people working on focused work from home, and collaborative work in the office.

Working remotely objectively improved the lives of our employees. It gave them the flexibility to move out of Vancouver, where home ownership is out of reach. They could be somewhere that provides the lifestyle they want, especially after the forced introspection we had during the pandemic. There are tangible benefits like eliminating commutes, better work life balance, and living where you want to be. Building home equity. Those are all important. But what I’m really excited about is the hopey changey stuff. Like employer branding. Looking at our values and our “why” through the pandemic lens. Clarifying our purpose. Accounting for the impact we have on the environment (which is amplified by our positioning in travel). Our brand needs to evolve, so we attract the right people, who believe in our purpose and be part of something bigger. And I believe this is a space where we can punch way above our weight.

You’ve probably heard that Vancouver is one of the most expensive cities in the world. But it hasn’t stopped the world’s biggest technology companies from setting up shop here. So recruitment has always been one of our biggest challenges. The option to work remotely has broadened the geography for our hiring, though it’s also diminished because it does the same for our competitors. With everything going digital, this created a very tight labor market in our industry. It’s led to a fierce competition among agencies like us, with some operating more ethically than others. But on the whole it’s definitely made our company a better place to work, and folks are happier here.

But it’s not all good. It’s been a tough year for all of us, and we miss the connection to each other. We’ve been apart for over a year now, and we’ve never gone through a stretch this long without interacting face to face. It’s difficult to maintain and develop a culture without connecting physically and doing things together in the real world. This point really hits home when it feels so novel to see each other in real life, when you’re dropping off a laptop or watering plants in the empty office.

It’s even worse for people who joined the company during the pandemic, because it’s hard to get a feel for a company’s culture from a screen. It’s not from a lack of effort. We are trying to socialize with the digital tools that exist. But they’re clunky and not comparable to interacting in real life. And oftentimes the only solution is more screen time, when we’re already dealing with so much screen fatigue. We’re trying to get people to spend less time in front of the screen.

So all in all, things are good. We’ve always managed our finances very conservatively, and we’ve weathered the storm. We are back to full strength, and back on our pre-pandemic growth trajectory with our new Director of Sales, Linda, who is crushing it. Travel is ramping up, and our new leadership team is charging hard. Several new faces who have brought new energy and perspectives to the team. It feels like a new chapter in our now 17 year old story, and it’s clear that our best days are ahead of us. I hope you’ll join us on the next leg of our journey.