With the arrival of autumn comes the gnawing sense our work lives will suddenly need to speed up.
September used to mean picking up we left off in June. But with the climate crisis, dystopian fears about AI, the war in Ukraine, the polarisation of our politics, and the greatest upheavals to work since the industrial revolution, September 2023 feels anything but routine.
There is a US military acronym to describe what many businesses will be dealing with right now: VUCA. It stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.
I’ve identified five things to remember as you start planning for 2024.
1. Prepare for the pause
One of the hallmarks of uncertain times is that projects are put on hold. The client calls to let you know that “unfortunately, everything’s had to go on pause… We’ll almost certainly need the work from you, but can you wait a bit?”
This type of “pause” is one of the most difficult challenges. If you make changes and the client “unpauses”, then you aren’t resourced. If you keep the team in place, how long should you wait? These decisions are nuanced judgments, although, in my experience, agencies’ natural optimism can get in the way of a sober assessment. So, plan realistically and be clear about what happens if a project pauses. Pricing has to connect to certainty and this is something agencies often fail to negotiate on.
2. Change your approach to business development
The shorter horizons of a project-driven world demand a different business development mentality. At the point of delivery of a project, agencies need to be creating the conditions and opportunities for the next one. This can feel counter-intuitive, but it’s a crucial muscle that agencies need to develop. Consultants are past masters of this and can move from one project to the next without those uncertain and costly gaps.
3. Ditch the retainer mindset
In a typical retainer agreement, the client pays the company a fixed monthly fee for a specified period. Such agreements cover headcount, not output. The commercial model has shifted away from this, but the mindset hasn’t.
Clients have held on to many of their “retainer-based” expectations, largely around team consistency and price. Surprisingly, so have agencies. We’re culturally wired to be always on, to think “in the bath rather than on the clock” as a colleague of mine once said. We’re schooled to protest about a lack of time. And yet time is a precious asset in the pause-ridden world. Intensity and speed are required if you’re to run a profitable and sustainable agency.
4. Keep up appearances
Sound financial management dictates that agency leaders should dial down their fixed resources and grow the pool of flexible talent. Scale down for the pause. Scale up quickly for the un-pause. But that’s only half the story. Quality control and service levels can be hard to maintain. A lean office may be less costly but it’s often less than inspiring for agencies and clients alike.
How can agencies maintain quality, culture and consistency? To get this right, you’d better have an awesome black book or a good handle on where your business is trending.
5. Data is your friend
In an uncertain world, modelling is crucial and data can help here–providing evidence and honing your judgment. It’s all about being adaptable and understanding the multiple jobs we’re juggling; attaching probability to revenue, looking at past patterns, and projecting forward two or three months into the future, while feeling like a solid, safe pair of hands for customers, talent and investors.
In today’s VUCA world, strategy needs to show that stability comes from empathetic and commercial leadership and being able to roll with the punches. And to understand that, more than ever, there will be Donald Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns”–but that you can still stay on course and even enjoy the ride.
Jason Cobbold is chief executive of BMB.