Did the pandemic teach us anything?

Written by Jon Ross
16 May 2022

The COVID-19 pandemic has proven to be extremely challenging for agency owners on many levels including but not limited to:

  • Keeping morale and culture alive throughout a remote work force.
  • Recruiting, onboarding, developing, and retaining talent.
  • Networking with the key sources of new business referrals.
  • Lead generation in general.
  • Staying closely in touch with (and clearly understanding the needs of) both staff and clients.

However, as challenging, and often painful as COVID-19 has been for agencies, we’ve also learned some highly valuable lessons from this experience. COVID has in fact shown us how to be better and stronger as agency owners and leaders.

Field Notes
Agencies with clear, credible niches have done well

Lesson 1 – Where there’s a will, there truly is a way.

The tough challenges, anxiety and unpredictability created by COVID-19 have often brought out the best in us as professionals and people. Self-confidence, tenacity, generating new solutions and an unstinting commitment to “Yes, we can” are just a few of the characteristics which have kept firms moving forward no matter what.

Unsurprisingly, we’ve found that these traits are also regularly exhibited by the leadership of the strongest agencies.

Lesson 2 – An agency’s culture matters. Mission, vision, plan, and values are its bedrock.

The pandemic has reinforced how highly important it is that agency owners continually remind staff that their work and the agency itself stand for something larger than themselves. Their time and talents are being put to a worthy pursuit. All agency decisions should be made and communicated through the prism of mission, vision, plan, and values.

Ongoing and consistent communication of these principles as well as transparency about the agency are expected and will be much appreciated by (and motivating to) everyone.

Lesson 3 – Agencies with a strong brand proposition are best positioned to be viewed as strategic partners by clients.

We’ve seen that many agencies with clear, credible niches have been doing extremely well during COVID. Knowledge-based positionings in healthcare, technology, financial services, public affairs, digital transformation, and inbound marketing are among the areas of specialization currently in high demand.

The most successful firms are also investing in new products and service offerings even more effectively differentiate themselves and increase their relevance to prospects and clients.


Agency culture must be the key weapon in the war for talent. The successful firms have continued to invest in competitive compensation policies, professional development, and a flexible work environment - all managed by inspirational leadership.

Lesson 4 – The deeper the senior team, the stronger and more successful the agency will be.

To be consistently considered as an important strategic partner by clients, it takes a deep bench of second-tier leaders with the experience to provide strategic thinking and compelling content.

The depth and quality of this team are critical to client retention, business development and long-term growth for the agency.

Lesson 5 – Recruiting, developing, and retaining top talent are more important than ever.

Research indicates that more than 50% of agency employees would consider leaving their current jobs. Attrition rates are increasing.

Agency culture must be the key weapon in the war for talent. The successful firms have continued to invest in competitive compensation policies, professional development, and a flexible work environment – all managed by inspirational leadership.

Another key lesson is to always be recruiting. Maintain contact with professionals you’ll want to hire when the time is right.

Lesson 6 – The business development process has changed, possibly forever.

Due to COVID-19, business development has meant less in-person networking and speaking engagements and more use of sophisticated technologies to generate leads.

These technologies include content marketing, developing large-scale prospect databases (where it now takes relatively little effort to create a list of 10,000 prospects or more) as well as the specific identification and pursuit of prospects who visit the agency’s website.

The firm’s website itself is also now even more important to business development. Make sure it’s carefully designed to quickly provide the substance of what prospective clients want to know most (brand proposition, differentiation, unique products/offerings, client list, senior team experience) and isn’t simply a superficial review of the agency.

Lesson 7 – Agencies should devote more time to developing organic growth from existing clients.

It’s no secret that it’s much easier to grow an existing client than to develop and pursue new relationships. Take the time to understand your clients’ challenges and issues – especially those that can be anticipated. Winning a specific scope of new work and crafting the solutions can be a very cost-effective generator of incremental revenue.

The smartest agencies invest in surveying their clients on a regular basis. Objective research conducted by a qualified third party (based on interviews, an online survey, or a combination of the two) will tell you what your clients truly think about your firm. Use the findings to identify opportunities for organic growth, solve potential problems before they become more serious or both.

Lesson 8 – The most successful firms sell value and not pricing.

Do NOT lower your pricing to get business. The strongest agencies got that way by focusing on the significant value of the experience and category knowledge which they offer to clients. They don’t rely on commodity pricing to win business, and neither should you.

Rely instead on developing ever deeper knowledge in your niche and a more differentiated (and compelling) brand proposition. Your agency’s future depends on it.

Lesson 9 – Getting together even when you can’t always be together.

For agency owners, deciding whether to keep office space remains one of the thorniest issues. This obviously has major implications not only during the COVID era but for subsequent years to come. And there’s no single answer or fool proof formula for solving this problem.

However, we’ve observed that many firms which have done away with their offices are now planning in-person meetings as COVID guidelines allow. For example, consider bringing teams to low-risk destinations for a few days of business meetings, team building and just informal reconnecting. You can fund this travel with the money saved by having no (or reduced) rent