Essential Strategies for Agency Leaders in Times of Uncertainty

I've grown my agency through Brexit, A global pandemic, Recession and more.

We officially set up our agency in January 2019. Within these 5 years, we've grown and led our business through the following:

  • Brexit

  • A global pandemic

  • Multiple lockdowns

  • Liz Truss' epic 2-week fuck up of the UK economy.

  • Boom and bust of the DTC and eCom space from huge spikes in Covid shopping behaviours and subsequence drying up of aggressive investment in eCommerce

  • An ever-looming UK recession which 'officially' hit in 2024

  • Ukraine War

  • Isreal Gaza War

  • Cost of Living Crisis

I'm sure that I've overlooked a few things. On a personal level, I've navigated a house move, the birth of my son, selling the business to the staff, as well as other personal challenges you can read about in my mental health post.

Safe to say, I have navigated through uncertain times as a leader.

Leading an agency, particularly during uncertain times, requires resilience and calm. As an agency owner, you're not solely managing a business; you're navigating your team and, at times, your clients through challenges that can either weaken or strengthen your collective resolve.

Here are a few lessons about agency leadership in times of uncertainty.

Foster a Culture of Trust Through Consistent Messaging

Amid the ever-evolving agency landscape, be the constant your team needs. This includes being reliable and consistent, keeping communication lines open, and setting clear expectations.

We aligned client and delivery expectations through a standardisation project. This project sets the minimum monthly outputs a client can expect based on budget, eliminating uncertainty or ambiguity. This clarity also benefits our team, as they understand the minimum monthly expectations they must meet.

On a personal level, I started journaling more frequently to maintain consistency and prevent my emotions from driving my decisions. This practice allows me to think through and articulate my decision-making process more deeply.

By 2022, we had become a much more data-led agency. I wish we had made this transition sooner, as it helped considerably with the above. I'll write a future post about building a data-led agency as we've implemented some cool, innovative tracking.

In times of uncertainty, the last thing your team or clients need is mixed, inconsistent messaging from the founder. Don’t worry if you feel like you are repeating yourself; I struggled with this early on, thinking I needed a fresh message every time. Consistency, transparency and honesty are key to building trust with your team and clients.

Stay true to your Vision and Values

A vivid picture of the agency’s direction can boost, align and motivate your team. This vision should be both aspirational and grounded in achievable milestones.

From day one, NOVOS specialised in SEO for e-commerce brands, a choice driven by passion and the anticipation of industry growth. The global pandemic further accelerated eCommerce growth by at least ten years.

During this time, we greatly benefited and found ourselves in the right place at the right time. As a result, we didn't have to rely heavily on our vision or proposition since we were thriving. We hired two people a month for 14 consecutive months, riding a wave of success and growth - and everyone was on board.

However, when the lockdowns ended, the demand in the industry shifted dramatically.

Almost overnight, we went from being in the right industry at the right time to being in the wrong industry at the wrong time. Venture capital investment in e-commerce dried up, and many e-commerce and direct-to-consumer brands went bankrupt.

During these challenging times, we leaned more on our vision and proposition. We could have easily pivoted into finance or travel for higher profits, but we chose to endure the difficult 12-18 months, staying true to our values. Unlike many other agencies that were blowing with the wind, following the money around and not standing for anything, we prioritised a purpose over profits.

Communicate: Honestly, Transparently and Frequently.

In an industry often driven by client needs and market trends, it's crucial to be upfront about the agency's situation. This includes being honest about challenges and realistic about opportunities.

Internally, we increased the frequency of communication with staff. During 'peak' COVID, my business partner often sent the team reassuring summary emails. Our communications gradually evolved, which now includes the following:

  • All Hands: a virtual weekly call with the team. Typically, departmental updates, a client win, recent work or a business announcement.

  • State of the Union: A monthly company update covering all aspects of the agency, including monthly insights into the agency's financial health; good or bad, we always share the finances.

  • Quarterly Deep dives: a more detailed version of SOTU around a specific department, e.g. finances, marketing or ops.

  • Quarterly business reviews were introduced in 2024 and our first written-only comms. I'd send out a 1-2 page summary of where we're at as a business, how the last quarter went and how the next quarter looks.

Remember that everyone digests information differently, which is the primary catalyst behind the quarterly write-up. It's much harder to misinterpret a message when it's communicated in black and white via email or notion. It also ensures that everyone is getting the same, consistent message. If someone misses an all-hands or state of the union, the actual messaging may be diluted or different when passed on via another colleague later.

It’s okay not to have all the answers; no one expects you to have solutions to a global pandemic, the economy or wars. Saying so is an excellent opportunity for you to raise trust with your team versus coming up with solutions or plans that will change in a few weeks as new developments arise.

Strengthen Client Relationships

In uncertain times, clients look for stability. Be proactive in communication, offering insights and strategies that anticipate their needs.

Relationships are so important for agencies. We created a relationship score so we could take a data-led approach to client relationships. We focused on activities that influence a relationship—more on this in a future post.

Agencies have a unique perspective, gaining insights into multiple different businesses. This is a unique vantage point in difficult times; your clients do not have the same vantage point, so even simple comments like “everyone is struggling with demand or conversion rate this month” are massively reassuring for clients so they know it’s not just a problem with them or their business.

Invest in Your Team's Growth

Use periods of uncertainty as opportunities for professional development. Workshops, training sessions, and cross-disciplinary projects can enhance skills and morale.

During times of uncertainty, it's wise to preserve and build cash in the bank for a fallback and reassurance if times get tough.

So, during the lockdown periods, we looked to conserve some money and limit external training costs; instead, we dramatically doubled down on internal training. We introduced a weekly internal training slot so that every week, the team was learning from each other and growing as individuals until we got back to a point where we re-introduced external training again. We also used this P2P learning approach with other agency partners. You don't need to spend money to develop and train your team.

Here are just a few more points to consider around leading in uncertain times for agency leaders:

  • Empower Agile Decision-Making: Encourage teams to adopt a flexible approach to projects and client work, enabling quick pivots without sacrificing quality.

  • Reframe Uncertainty as a Way to Fuel Innovation: Encourage your team to view uncertainty not as a barrier but as a launchpad for creativity and new business models. Agency teams thrive on creativity, and challenging times can spur innovative solutions.

  • Resilience and Wellbeing: Beyond business objectives, prioritise your team's mental and emotional wellbeing. Initiatives like regular check-ins, wellness programs, and flexible work arrangements can maintain morale and resilience. During peak lockdown, we allowed staff to expense Bloom & Wild flowers to send to their families; we also did autumn photo competitions to encourage the team to get outside and go for walks. Looking back, it was a lovely touch and something I am proud we did during a tough time.

  • Read broader: On a personal level, I found reading broader publications outside of my discipline hugely beneficial during the lockdown period and continue to do so today. Again, your team needs to be the ones reading industry-specific publications; you should broaden and understand how the economy works and the trends and impacts of politics on your business. I tried a few but eventually settled on the FT and the Economist, which have helped me understand broader macro trends on finances, the economy and ultimately, my business. I also found this helped me to get perspective, it's easy to get consumed in your little world, but reading these publications reminds you the economy is impacting all businesses.

Leading your agency during uncertain times involves not only survival but also seeking opportunities for growth, both as a business and as an individual.

The strategies outlined here can help cultivate a culture of trust, innovation, and resilience, enabling your agency to endure challenges over time. As an agency owner or director, your primary focus should be on making confident decisions.

In conclusion, steering an agency through uncertainty requires strategic thinking, transparency, and empathy. You can navigate difficult times by building trust within your team, maintaining a clear vision, acknowledging challenges, strengthening client relationships, and investing in your team's development. As we continue to deal with unpredictability, these strategies can serve as a guide to ensure resilience and readiness for success.

Reflecting on this topic, consider when times were ever certain. We never truly live in certain times. There's always something happening, and if there isn't, the media will create uncertainty because that's their nature. As an agency founder, you cannot control this. Instead, concentrate on what is within your control: your skills, your mindset, the content you consume, and your communication with your staff.