Shifting from survival mode to strategic planning

Recognize that we're in this for the long haul and starting thinking more deeply about what your agency looks like in the future

It’s time. The past four months have been all about survival. That’s the way it had to be.

Whether your agency experienced a surge in activity or substantial revenue losses, you narrowed your view and did what you had to do to make it this far.

Many of you have taken advantage of the Paycheck Protection Program in the United States or comparable assistance structures for employers in other countries.

You clawed your way through some really tough times, but now realize they’re probably not going away anytime soon.

It’s a marathon not a sprint

Many of you may have thought that you were starting a sprint in March 2020, only now to recognize that it is at least a marathon, if not more, that lies ahead.

Until recently, I had been advising my clients to think in manageable chunks, like 90-day intervals. There was so much that was unknown that looking further out on the horizon seemed like a fool’s errand.

While we still don’t know exactly what 2021, 2022, 2023, or beyond may look like, we have an idea that things are going to be different than what we knew for a long time to come.

Even the most optimistic scenarios currently envisioned don’t see anything like a return to the 2019 world before sometime next spring or summer. Other experts warn that life as we knew it won’t be back until at least the summer of 2022.

Focus on what you can influence if not control

For most of us, the science and health details are over our heads. We may know more than we ever thought we would about virology and epidemiology, but even the folks who have spent their lives devoted to those areas of study have more questions than answers.

It’s time to stop worrying about what we can’t control and start focusing on what we can.

That means agencies should get back to the idea of thinking in terms of long-term strategic planning.

Develop a perspective on where things are headed — especially for your ideal clients — and start to make the necessary shifts now.

Consider what type of business you want to own. What are your personal goals? Have they shifted at all in recent months? What does the business need to do to help you achieve your own aims?

How about those ideal clients. Are they still the market that you want to serve?

What lessons have you taken away from the pandemic and related economic turmoil? How will they influence your planning process?

Opportunity abounds

There’s a lot of room for innovation here. You can take advantage of the opportunities created by 2020.

That doesn’t mean leveraging other peoples’ pain and suffering for your own benefit, but it does mean figuring out how all of these changes create new paths for your agency’s future success.

Many of the changes that we are seeing in other industries will likely have lasting impacts, with those who master the future normal first having a clear advantage.

Restaurants that have adapted to create new revenue streams and serve their customers needs in a socially-distant way outside of the traditional dining room environment will have a leg up on the competition.

Service providers who have responded to the needs of remote workers and develop new solutions that help improve productivity in a mixed-use environment at home will be positioned for a world in which more people spend more time working outside an office.

Educators who figure out online and hybrid learning models that can be delivered successfully and cost-effectively will better position their institutions for a world in which learning at all levels will likely change for good.

Commercial real estate companies that figure out how to build the types of safe, flexible spaces that employers will need for the next generation workforce stand to not just maintain revenue, but grow it.

What is your agency going to do to blaze a path for your own future success?

Progress occurs one step at a time

The challenge with strategic planning during an economic shock is that there is a tendency to overreact.

Even before all of this hit, many of my clients asked what industries they could serve that would be recession-proof.

The cold reality that we all discovered in 2020 is that no two economic disasters are exactly alike.

The pandemic had a disproportionate impact on industries that normally would not be the first to experience disaster — and are now feeling far more pain than they would in any “typical” economic downturn that someone might have forecast.

There are no guarantees in business, and your strategic plan shouldn’t be looking to find an easy way out.

A methodical approach to strategy

Your planning process needs to look at several key things:

  • What do you want to achieve personally?
  • How will your agency serve clients in the years to come?
  • Which services do you plan to provide?
  • What does your agency team look like a few years down the road?
  • Who is your ideal client in the future you anticipate?
  • What have you learned the past few months that will influence the behavior of your clients and your ability to work with them effectively?

It is important to stake your ground. Have a perspective and let it guide your planning process. (If you need help working on your agency’s identity and positioning, check out this free workbook.)

Don’t get bogged down by listening to some guru tell you what’s going to be. Develop your own opinion based on your experiences up to now and everything that you have been able to ingest in recent months about the changing world and economy.

Most importantly, you need to develop a true mindeset of service for your ideal customers.

What are their likely pain points and needs in the months and years to come. How will their businesses change?

This is where it can be very helpful to be a specialist in just one or two sectors. You can develop far greater expertise that turns your crystal ball into a forward-looking camera.

Clear your mind and get started on your new path

Many of you are starting to drag. You’re feeling burnt out. I am, too, at times.

Before you sit down to start doing meaningful future planning, you need to find the right head space to succeed.

Take a few days off. Even if it is just a staycation where you focus on something other than your agency, it will help.

You need to let go of your immediate worries and frustrations in order to make your planning successul.

Talk to colleagues and trusted advisors. Bounce ideas off of them. Find new perspectives on the future that you may not have considered before.

Then it’s time to dig in. Map out the answers to the key questions I outlined above.

Most importantly, stop thinking in those 90-day chunks and get back to meaningful planning that will take your agency business forward for the next few years — no matter what happens around you.

Chip Griffin

Chip Griffin

Chip is the Founder & CEO of Agency Leadership Advisors and a longtime agency owner and executive. He helps PR and marketing agency leaders build better businesses.