We talked to Fergus Bailie of Bailie Group on how the agency has created an entrepreneurial organization of collaborative specialists.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Fergus Bailie: Apart from the feeling that we are now extras in Groundhog Day, we are all good! The biggest challenge has been not seeing all our family – parents and siblings – in Ireland since the pandemic broke earlier in the year, but we will all be back together soon.
Tell us about you, your career, how you joined Bailie Group.
Fergus Bailie: I am CEO of what is a family-owned business. I studied Law at Durham Uni, then joined PWC, where I gained my Chartered Accountancy qualification – spending three years in the audit team and then one year in merges & acquisitions. That gave me a solid grounding in finance and commercial aspects of the business.
I joined one of the Bailie Group companies in 2006, initially as a project manager, before progressing to Commercial Director after a period, then MD of one of the group companies (CDS). I am now Group CEO.
My dad founded the company back in the 1970s, and for 30 years, it was a Group of printing companies. Fast forward to 2020, and it’s pretty different – we are a Group of communication agencies and consultancies providing a diverse range of services including digital, insight, training, cyber, PR, and we are still involved with print – transactional and print management.
How does Bailie Group innovate?
Fergus Bailie: First up is there is no hierarchy of ideas – all ideas for innovation are equal and judged on their merits, not who championed them. And we start with the customer problem – what are the challenges and blockers that our customers have which, if solved, would help them achieve their communication objectives?
Once identified, we have a variety of ways we innovate – from hack days and specific training in new skills sets through to allocated funding for Discovery and Alpha projects to create MVPs to test hypotheses.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Fergus Bailie: We have had a mixed bag across the Group. Some areas have been pretty hard hit due to the sectors we serve – automotive and higher education clients experienced a number of early challenges, for example, and such areas have had the biggest impact in terms of revenue across the Group.
Other parts of our business have been fortunate due to continuity projects in digital and defence that have allowed us to continue largely unaffected in these areas.
A by-product across the business has been a slowdown in new business opportunities as companies work through a cycle of protecting cash, then reprioritizing their business objectives, and aligning these to future investments. However, we have started to see activity increase recently and are hopeful that we will see a return to some kind of normality in 2021.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Fergus Bailie: We had clear guidelines at the outset of the pandemic that we committed to – our team’s safety would be our overriding priority, and we would unswervingly adhere to Government guidance. That has allowed us to make consistent decisions across the Group and has been our guiding light.
Clearly, any circumstances which impact people’s livelihoods and create uncertainty are difficult. However, having a transparent framework for decision making has helped maintain a sense of togetherness. We have also tried to communicate as often as possible to keep everyone in the Group in the loop regarding decisions. If there’s one thing I have learnt, it’s that you cannot over-communicate during a crisis.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety?
Fergus Bailie: We all suffer from stress and anxiety. Outwardly I would probably have the appearance of someone who is pretty calm and measured, but that’s not always the case. Most of my stress and anxiety is internal, and I keep it under wraps.
I have recently found it really hard to disconnect at the end of the day when working from home, and the natural anxieties caused during a pandemic have sometimes got to me as a result. To help, I have tried to create a commute – either a walk or run at the end of each day. I have also been reading more than usual and started to learn the piano (that seems to be adding to my stress as I am rubbish!)
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Fergus Bailie: Across the Group, we have different competitors depending on the service we offer – no-one does the same collectively across the piece, but we have specific people we come up against in digital, PR, print, and so on.
The key to staying in the game is to continually adapt to the changing face of the market. We are not doing the same things we did three years ago, and in three years, it will have evolved again.
People will always need to communicate with their stakeholders, but their methods and technologies will progress, so we have to stay on top of that.
Your final thoughts?
Fergus Bailie: The world has changed more in the last nine months than in the previous five years. Take some time to assess the impact on your business and look for opportunities. It’s easy to get sucked into the day to day tasks with any role, but try and carve some time out to see how you can take advantage of the changes we’ve all experienced and will continue to encounter.
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