By: Scott Allison
Jan. 26, 2020, Heathrow Airport, London. It is always difficult to pinpoint a certain moment in time when a higher level of awareness kicks in. They say before an earthquake, animals in the wild will have an inkling of coming trouble. I sat at the airport waiting to catch a flight back to the U.S. and watched a BBC report on COVID-19 that said contract tracing had failed and the virus was loose in the UK. I instinctively sensed trouble approaching.
Allison+Partners co-founder Andy Hardie-Brown and I had just completed the European segment of our Town Hall meetings. We had been monitoring the virus since its earliest days as we kept in close touch with our offices in China. After returning to the U.S., the next big decision was whether to complete the Asia leg of our scheduled Town Hall meetings. We decided we would, and left for South Korea in mid-February. We arrived to find a well-prepared community in the earliest stages of the pandemic. The hotels checked temperatures each time we went in, but masks were not widely worn.
On Feb. 23, we headed to the airport to fly to Singapore. And for the very first time, we donned masks. Singapore was as delightful as ever, and it was great to spend a week with our team. But storm clouds brewed. My flight home through Korea was cancelled. All flights through Korea were shut down. On Feb. 27, I flew back to San Francisco. Customs at SFO was empty. However, no temperature scans or any reference to the virus. There was a sense of naivete in the air.
Although our team thought we were over-reacting, Andy and I decided to quarantine for 10 days prior to returning to the office. Ten days seemed like a long time. If only...
On March 10, I made it back to the San Francisco office and had a chance to speak to the team. I brought up the virus and said we should continue to wash hands and be careful. I did not think it would be that serious. For the next three days, the news became progressively worse with hints of potential shutdowns.
On March 12, we sent the team home early. And on Friday, March 13 – yes, Friday the 13th – we told everyone via conference call not to come into the office. By March 16, we had closed all offices in the U.S. and Europe, and everyone began working from home. Asia had gone into lockdown earlier. Thirty offices and 500 people just had their work life/home lives turned upside down. As one of my colleagues wrote in her blog post, quoting Winston Churchill, “If you’re going through hell, keep on going.” We were going to have to figure out how to keep going, keep our people safe and keep the client work moving.
We launched into days that began at 5:30am and often did not finish until midnight. The TV news ran day and night, and images of suffering from China, Italy, the UK and finally the catastrophic loss of life in New York and New Jersey kept pouring in. If we didn’t recognise the courage of our healthcare community in the past, we certainly did now.
As we all scrambled to set up shop at home, our problems were three-fold and changed quickly: Not everyone had the best set up to work from home, our clients needed enormous support and all our working parents were trying to figure out how to get their kids set up online. Clients struggled with the same issues.
We decided to convene a morning global partner call at 8 am each day. Every CEO would like to think they are prepared for any crisis. I can honestly say, we were not prepared for a global pandemic that impacted every office and every employee. The global team worked almost around the clock for the next two weeks to shore up our business and support all clients.
Allison+Partners Global President of the Corporate Division Matthew Della Croce took the lead and worked with his team to immediately develop programmes to assist our clients and their immediate corporate needs. In one weekend, we had created an entire COVID-19 communications platform.
Our IT team went into overdrive to get everyone up and running. Microsoft Teams and the ability to chat and do live video conferencing was a major blessing. And I credit our Chief Technology Officer James Duffy for insisting we had that platform in place a year in advance.
Global Chief Financial Officer Julia Farrell worked tirelessly with our finance team to get all of the costs out of the business with the exception of people and benefits.
Co-founder Scott Pansky led the charge on developing a programme for non-profits, since we knew they would be heavily impacted by the downturn. We offered a short term, 50% fee reduction to non-profit organisations.
Global President Jonathan Heit had moved his family to Tokyo for the year. They were now forced to stay shut down in their apartment as he continued to assist our Asia offices.
North America President Anne Colaiacovo pulled together all the GMs in the U.S., worked to create flexible schedules for anyone that needed them and pushed to keep client service moving forward.
Demar Anderson and our lean, but mighty marketing team jumped in and began producing weekly content that helped educate clients and colleagues in developing programmes to support COVID-19 efforts, in addition to supporting all of our new business initiatives.
Our learning and development team, led by Courtney Newman, shifted from live learning events to support online efforts and marketing initiatives.
Ashleigh Butson and our global HR department played a major role in providing resources and supporting teams during this emotional time.
In our industry, we quickly saw many firms respond with layoffs and furloughs. It became our own battle cry that we would not lay off anyone due to the pandemic. This was not an easy decision, as we anticipated a hurricane of client budget cuts. This wasn’t the case until mid-April, when the cuts came fast and furious. We saw a breath-taking drop in revenue from April to May. We continued to cut all costs out of the business except for our colleagues, and it was a white-knuckle time as we limped through May and into June.
What kept us going was the dedicated and hard work from our teams around the world that responded so valiantly and kept the client work going. The major challenge was assisting many clients with their now, virtual events. Global President of the Marketing Innovation Team Cathy Planchard led the charge. Our first big event was Impossible Foods launching a new cookbook. It was supposed to be an in-person event, but we moved it to Facebook Live. The event was a major success and the starting point from where we began in earnest to help clients with their virtual events around the world.
In a meeting with the San Francisco team in late March. I predicted we would all be back in the office by May 1. I may have gotten that day right, but I was off by one year. What seemed like a short-term crisis was headed into a marathon.
After a year in lockdown, what have we learned? The human spirit is shared globally and the resiliency of people and the ability to adapt and persevere crosses all borders. It hasn’t been easy, and I would be lying if I said it was.
The anxiety and emotional toll the COVID-19 pandemic has taken on me and every person in the company is palpable. We all greatly miss the many things we took for granted in the past. Most of our kids have now been at home for more than year. Parents have had to juggle getting kids settled on Zoom calls while trying to keep work moving. Single colleagues living in isolation haven’t seen family to simply give them a hug. We have colleagues who have lost parents, grandparents and friends. The sadness can be overwhelming at times.
The emotional recovery from the pandemic will take years if not decades. Businesses have been damaged and lost, lives have been changed, and we will be forced to tackle unprecedented and enormous mental health issues.
Someday, I will try and reflect and make sense of all that was achieved. For now, I can only be grateful to the many colleagues and clients that got us through. We made mistakes during this timeframe. But in a crisis, you must move fast and do the best that you can.
When we kicked off our 2021 Town Hall meetings in January, we noted 2020 was one of the most difficult years in company history. Yet, it was one of our best. The work was exemplary, but the kindness and empathy extended to all was even better.
Scott is global chairman and CEO of Allison+Partners. His vision to build a positive and entrepreneurial environment where talented people at all levels could do great work and thrive has proven to be a key driver of growth for the business. The agency has an award-winning culture and employee retention rates that sit consistently above industry averages.
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