Whether we wanted it or not, 2020 was a year for introspection, hustle, experimentation and in some cases even growth. In the early months of the pandemic there was a running meme that singled out COVID-19 as the reason for many organizations to finally embrace digital transformation. We thought it an opportune time to check in digital agencies on the front line – we spoke with seven design leaders from the Society of Digital Agencies (SoDA) to discuss their key learnings from last year and how these have put their agencies in a better position to face whatever 2021 might throw at them.

Three elements came up time and again during our conversations. They are deeply intertwined with one another, and cannot function in a vacuum. They are:

1. Company values and leadership go hand in hand

2. Self care engenders resilience

3. Collaboration is the true differentiator

Read on to learn exactly what lessons talented agency leaders are taking from 2020 as they embark on this new year.

Company values and leadership go hand in hand

Great leadership requires caring for and connecting with your teams. Company values are too often just clever sound bites until we’re called out to act on them, like the claim of being a “people-first organization.” 2020 tested the extent to which this was actually true, and those that wholeheartedly embraced it came into 2021 with more conviction and a stronger work culture.

“The best thing we have done last year was to put our people first. Very early on we committed to making zero profit over a 12-month period if it meant we would not have to make a single redundancy,” said Cain Ullah co-founder and CEO of London agency Red Badger.

“Luckily for us, the summer period has been one of our most profitable periods ever, and we haven’t had to call on that commitment. However, it guided our strategy, our behaviors, and our communications with all of our staff. We invested in them and did our very best to look after them. As a result, I feel the company has become closer to a family, and will benefit from that in the months and years to come.” 

For Agustin Linenberg, co-founder of Buenos Aires-based Aerolab, the process of turning “company values” into decisive actions started by looking inwards.

“We took a hard look at our company values to turn them from a nice slogan you hang on walls into a filter for making better decisions. When one of your values is people first, you make every decision based on this purpose, and that makes everything easier, especially in times of uncertainty. As a leader, it reinforced the importance of accompanying my staff and the whole company, decentralizing decisions and initiatives, which helped us more than ever to work as a team and take care of each other.”

Self care engenders resilience

Resilience, as a corporate concept and a personal virtue, has been heavily studied and written about in recent years. But in practical terms, it was 2020 that prompted agencies to understand and appreciate what being resilient really means. It’s one thing to talk about it and a completely different one to see its impact on your company first-hand. Several of our interviewees have pointed out that coming through the dumpster fire of 2020 together as a team has strengthened their culture and proven just how much they can handle together.

“Our company culture was genuinely tested and stood strong,” said Ann Ystén, CEO of Stockholm’s Perfect Fools. “Knowing that we handled the situation with grace gives us the necessary confidence to handle the challenges that 2021 will offer. Working from home went really well and moving forward we will make it a regular part of our way of working. However, it also made us realize how important it is to see people in the eye, without a screen in between, to know how they feel.” 

But as a company is tested by challenging times, it’s important to remember resilience is not a static quality. It takes constant cultivation, said Pablo Vio, co-founder and executive creative director of Toronto’s Jam3.

“Team resilience, passion and genuine care for one another got us through some of the toughest early months of the pandemic. I couldn’t be prouder and luckier to be surrounded by such kind and talented team members,” he said.

“Where there are restrictions, there’s always opportunity, and this past year has taught leaders to think differently and react quickly. And to celebrate each other’s effort we ended the year with a bang! A zoom holiday party that was actually fun where we pulled out all the stops: comedians, magicians, music… and people stayed all the way through until the early hours of the following day.”

Image credit Jam3.

And for some agency leaders, the pandemic itself had a silver lining. It brought them closer together, and showed them what resilience truly means in the face of adversity.

“2020 has made it clear that resilience comes from people working in teams and taking care of each other. We directed such focused energy against a single situation that it felt invigorating, and freeing at times,” said Wesley ter Haar, co-founder of Amsterdam’s MediaMonks and executive director of S4 Capital. “There was so much we had to figure out on the fly, that it’s truly impressive that few balls dropped. It reminded me how quickly we can move and the momentum that complete focus creates.”

Collaboration is the true differentiator

There’s been a lot of talk about the need for organizations to be agile, flat, decentralized, nimble, and 2020 acted as a global testbed for these concepts. Team collaboration, the central engine of a great creative culture, was forced to evolve like a Pokémon after a mighty battle.  Agency leaders found that great collaboration in a remote environment was not only possible but in some cases even desirable, and more efficient. 

“We took everyone that was an associate director and above, a significant portion of our company,  and created what we call an extended leadership team. They’re all involved in high-level strategic decisions and initiatives. By removing the division between executives and everyone else, it encouraged more cross-account, cross-team, and cross-discipline collaboration. It also made everyone feel included in major decisions while stuck in a WFH environment,” said John Roescher, co-founder and CEO of Austin-based Handsome.

“This all-hands-on-deck mentality led to stronger organic account growth, better work, and a stronger culture. Before the pandemic we were very office-centric, now we’re in a position to work with anyone, anywhere. This opened opportunities to hire and work with very senior people who would otherwise be off-limits. Clients have also enjoyed working so closely with such strong, senior talent in a small, independent shop.”

Acknowledging the benefits of all of these new found collaboration opportunities has given them more ways to tackle difficult projects, and potentially improve team collaboration once people are allowed back into the office. “Collaboration and resource sharing got better because of WFH, and it made our team stronger,” added Marc Wesseling, founder and director of UltraSuperNew, based in Tokyo and Singapore. “Being a fast, agile, and independent agency created many opportunities during a challenging year, and has set us up for a potentially great 2021.”

And for Sebastian Mueller, co-founder and COO of Singapore-based MING Labs, the biggest realization of the pandemic is that, yes, creative collaboration is truly possible at a distance.

“For those that still needed any proof, 2020 demonstrated that collaborating on creative projects completely remotely is actually possible, and often more efficient than coming together in the same space. COVID-19 and lockdowns have forced us to move creative collaboration, like workshops, fully remote and in turn, we have created new tools and formats to make the most out of it. Being in the same location makes it fairly easy to tune into how everyone is doing, whereas in a remote environment suddenly the effort to check-in with one another needs to be conscious and frequent,” he said. 

Crisis can awaken our super powers

In the early 1800s, Jane Austen wrote, “It isn’t what we say or think that defines us, but what we do.” In an industry enamored with communications, messaging, and thought leadership, it’s an important reminder that actions, big and small, are our legacy. Dealing with the pandemic has inevitably left a few scars and bruises on many leaders and their organizations. But it has also been a gift designed to teach us urgent lessons about ourselves, our teams, and our businesses.

2020 was a year of action and it revealed, quite directly, where agencies, their leaders, and their cultures were strong vs. exposed, relevant vs. milquetoast, vibrant vs.withering – all either well-positioned for future growth or desperately in need of reinvention. The year also accelerated some very positive trends around the adoption of digital business, the importance of digital customer experience for building brands, the power of diverse teams able to collaborate across countries, time zones, cultures and any other barriers we might perceive. But perhaps most importantly, we were reminded of simple, human lessons around gratitude, humility, generosity, and the value of slowing down enough to closely observe and better support our communities and the people around us. 

Crisis can help awaken our superpowers and bring our most heartfelt priorities into stark relief. Let’s take these lessons from 2020 and use them to tackle the year ahead with renewed energy, optimism, and the hard-won wisdom we earned last year.

With thanks to the following design leaders that contributed to this article: