Amy Williams, CEO of London-based ad-tech company Good-Loop, thought she’d have a U.S-based sales team by now.
A January 2020 infusion of $1.6 million in seed funding from You and Mr Jones, an investment firm owned by former HAVAS CEO David Jones, would help pay for a sales team introducing Madison Avenue to their brand of “ethical” programmatic video advertising.
“I’ve always found the U.S. to be a market where you chat about the Yankees with your client—you need to be there,” she says.
But then the Covid-19 pandemic hit. With America’s pastime, and basically every other human outlet on hold, she needed to improvise.
Today, Williams’s U.S.-focused salesperson works from London, Zooming, emailing, and calling prospective clients. In recent months, she has also built a U.S. advisory board from relationships she developed pre-pandemic. She met one advisor, the head of marketing for Chicago-based Merrick Pet Care, at SXSW last year. Fair Share Consulting CEO Eamonn Store, former CEO of the Guardian US, where Good-Loop runs ads, is also an advisor.
“This is the first time we’ve been able to crack the U.S.,” she says. “With the lockdown, we’re no more foreign than people down the street. It’s a huge cultural change in how you do business.”
The ability to grow businesses digitally is one example of leadership during a pandemic. From working at cost to joining the social justice movement, small and midsize advertising companies, on both sides of the Atlantic, are working to keep their employees and clients “safe, sane and healthy,” in the words of Marc Landsberg, CEO of Chicago-based creative agency Social Deviant.
The pandemic has reenforced the core message at Good-Loop, which in 2019 earned its B Corporation certification, an international standard for companies committed to positive social and environmental impact.
Brands pay Good-Loop, which was founded in 2016 and employs eight people in London and seven in Edinburgh, to “wrap” their existing video ads with charitable messages. The company’s ad-tech platform places ads on trusted news sites, systematically avoiding sites that the United Nations has called out for hate speech, Williams says. Both Good-Loop and Social Deviant participated in July’s Facebook advertising boycott, driven by concerns over the prevalence of misinformation and divisive rhetoric.
Good Loop’s U.S. launch occurred when a Bose ad went live across American news sites in May. The company wanted to promote its noise-cancelling headphones, now a precious piece of equipment for business people with noisy children running around the house.
“They wanted to advertise in a way that was empathetic to the situation and kind,” Williams says. “It meant that every time you engaged with a Bose ad, you donated to Save the Children.”
Good-Loop has also won Cheerios’ business stateside. As Americans learn about food insecurity in the news and via public service announcements, the cereal brand is donating to Feeding America when people watch its ads.
And while the company’s charity-empowering service and do-good messaging seem ripe for the times, Williams and the company’s co-founders had to make a tough call earlier this year to avoid lay-offs.
“During the first few months of lockdown, sales slowed down so many of our non-revenue generating roles were less busy,” she says. “To help us manage this, and to mitigate risk, the founders and several other team members temporarily reduced our hours, until momentum and confidence picked back up.”
For his part, Social Deviant’s Landsberg offers a unique take on running a small business during a pandemic. He is the former CEO of MRM, the Interpublic Group digital agency; and Arc Worldwide, the digital arm of Leo Burnett, owned by Paris-based holding company Publicis Groupe.
“Nobody deserves to lose their job because the pandemic is happening,” Landsberg says, referring to the industry’s mass layoffs. “Our number one goal right now is to protect the wellbeing, sanity, safety and financial solvency of everybody who works at Social Deviant.”
He has been able to retain his 22 employees by following his four-step approach to leadership: set a clear strategy and vision; “over-communicate” it internally and externally; build a leadership team with clear roles and responsibilities; and be “really decisive.”
In mid-March, he and his leadership team created a virtual “war room” to craft their disaster plan.
“Hope is never a strategy,” he says of ad agencies that have let people go. “They didn’t control their costs. They chopped the number one cost—people —because they didn’t make provisions as leaders. So who suffers? The talent suffers.”
Social Deviant applied for the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program loan, which came through in May. The company also cut fees in the spring, choosing to work at cost, to retain business. Its client roster has actually grown, with new clients including Crocs; mySongbird, a startup livestream concert technology; and Elevate Growth Partners, a tenant-focused brokerage and technology company.
Deviants got creative.
“We’ve produced 150 pieces of content,” he says, noting the company’s Covid-19 advertising response kit as one example. “From Instagram to Facebook to our website, every single Deviant contributed. Idle hands are bad. They’re really bad in a pandemic. At that time [during the lockdown] work was a sanctuary.”
When George Floyd died in Minneapolis police custody, things got real.
“It was just one thing after another—social justice, diversity, inclusion, in an election year. It was an unprecedented number of variables weighing on people,” he says. “Every time something happened in the world, we’d have a meeting. Hey, George Floyd was murdered. Let’s talk about it.”
He has let shining stars rise.
While a group of employees reopened the company’s West Loop production studio using CDC guidelines, Brittany Applegate, senior manager of brand engagement, sparked discussion. She led a webinar on advertising during the pandemic, educated the team on Black Lives Matter, and now heads up the company’s new Diversity, Equity and Inclusion group.
Although the federal government has ceased racial sensitivity training, a topic during Tuesday night’s presidential debate, ad agency McKinney has also adapted its business practices as pandemic-related health issues and social justice movements converge.
“Not only has the pandemic been shaping everyone’s world in the last six months, but the whole social justice movement has almost overtaken the pandemic in its importance for the country,” CEO Joe Maglio says.
With 150 employees in Durham, N.C., Los Angeles, and New York, Maglio has been a proactive manager during the health crisis while putting DEI issues in focus.
“We’ve taken a revenue hit probably like everyone else,” Maglio says. “The first or second week of March, we immediately looked ahead and my CFO and I said: ‘What do we think our clients are going to need to do? Which clients are the most vulnerable to a situation like this? Which will do OK or even better?’”
Both McKinney and Social Deviant cut travel, even before the official lockdown was announced. The cancellation of the Cannes Festival of Creativity, a large expense for agencies wanting to treat their best creatives, helped to offset a reduction in client fees. With employees working from home, there was no need to buy office snacks—every line item mattered.
“We were able, with our clients, to negotiate our revenue hits,” Maglio says. “It wasn’t dictated to us. We haven’t had a single layoff.”
Doing business in a pandemic would have been impossible without technology. Fortunately, the three companies interviewed for this story already had their virtual chops. Good-Loop’s London and Edinburgh teams continued to hum remotely, Social Deviant invested in its Virtual Collab Stack, and McKinney added an IBM Watson chatbot to its WTF intranet, so that employees could get answers to their Covid-19 questions.
But a purely virtual work environment has had its downsides. While Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has said his employees can work from home “forever,” even when offices reopen, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings has called remote work a pure negative.
“I’m a little closer to the Reed Hastings side,” Maglio says. “In certain cases, when you’re talking about creativity, there is no replacement for people in a room looking at a wall together. You can apply all the technology you want, and we’ve done it well…but at the end of the day, it would be hard to convince me that we can be 100% as good.”
After running a summer internship with 17 people, including a young team that created work for an upcoming Little Caesars campaign, the company is also making an important executive hire. Maglio is currently interviewing people for a new position—head of diversity, equity and inclusion.
At the same time, the company has joined the #CommitToChange movement initiated by 600 & Rising, a non-profit launched in June to promote Black talent in advertising. The company last week hosted a webinar on How Young, Gifted Black Creatives Can Break Into Advertising while Maglio has penned an open letter on his company’s website that features a graphic showing his own company’s lack of diversity.
Of people in leadership positions, 56.5% are men and 43.5% are women. In all, 91.3 percent of those leaders are white. Of the company’s creatives, 76% are white.
It’s a transparent and courageous move, one that beckons the viewer to follow the company’s evolution.
It harkens back to something that Good-Loop’s Amy Williams says about leadership. “It’s the ability to tell a story and then bring people on that journey with us.”