First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Hadrien Brassens: It hasn’t been an easy year, to say the least, but my wife and I are doing well. We’re grateful to live in Sydney, where the pandemic hasn’t been too bad compared to other parts of the world. There’s always the risk of a third wave, but at the moment, life is almost back to normal. It’s been harder for my family back in France, who are facing a much worse situation and tough measures.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Reef Digital Agency.
Hadrien Brassens: I came to Australia as a young graduate looking to gain some professional experience and kickstart my career. This coincided with the start of the global financial crisis in 2008/2009, so I decided to stay a little longer until the employment market improved back in France. In the meantime, I fell in love with the country, and my career here took off. It’s been 13 years now, and I’m not going anywhere!
Having studied marketing and having a passion for all things digital, I spent my first 4 years working for a couple of digital marketing agencies in Sydney and specialized in Search Engine Marketing, which was booming at the time. Having an entrepreneurial spirit, I always knew I would start a company at some point. The question was what and when. In 2011, my friend Chris Redshaw and I saw an opportunity to co-found Reef Digital Agency that would help marketing managers and business owners harness the power of digital marketing to achieve their business objectives. We had humble beginnings but quickly found traction as the work we did had a big impact on our clients’ businesses.
Consequently, many grew at a rapid pace, and our reputation started growing locally. Through word of mouth and referrals, we gradually expanded our client portfolio and team size. Fast forward to today, and we’ve now had the honor of helping hundreds of different organizations to accomplish their goals online while building a talented team of 20+ and having our work recognized in awards from organizations such as Microsoft, the Australian Marketing Institute, and the industry publication Search Engine Land.
How does Reef Digital Agency innovate?
Hadrien Brassens: Our company began with an idea. Online marketing provides power and precision that separates it from everything else. But it’s also a complex place: the modern purchase journey spans search engines, social media, video sites, forums, blogs, review sites, desktops, mobiles, tablets, and everything in-between. Success is not just about one channel or one tactic; it’s about the customer’s journey and all the touchpoints on the way.
Our goal was to build an agency that understood and embraced this truth, helping clients make sense of all this complexity and predictably and purposefully drive growth and create lasting competitive advantage. The big idea behind our methodology is that the best results occur when everything works together, in harmony, one thing supporting another, like a sophisticated digital marketing ecosystem (or a Reef).
Over the years, our competitive landscape evolved into a crowded marketplace, and it became abundantly clear that just “doing” digital marketing wasn’t enough. It’s a fast-moving environment, and we need to continuously find new ways of out-smarting our competition in order to deliver the best strategies, solutions, and results for our clients. The pandemic this year has emphasized the need for innovation. We’ve got a great leadership team at Reef in which I have full faith in constantly identifying improvement and innovation areas. This is sometimes driven by a specific need for a particular client, or sometimes as a result of our own thinking and observations of the market. One of our core values is always going above and beyond, and never becoming complacent with what we offer, driving that urge to innovate.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Hadrien Brassens: While we have developed expertise with specific industries, we are not limited to any, and our clients span a wide range of businesses, from B2B to B2C to NFPs. We work with local businesses, enterprise/multinational clients, and everything in between. The pandemic has hit some industries pretty hard, and some of our clients were not spared. This was particularly true to those in the hospitality/hotel sector, travel including travel insurance, gym, and fitness (when government restrictions forced fitness centres to close down), cultural venues and museums, etc.
Naturally, we had a number of clients who needed to pause all their marketing and advertising activity overnight. Others were forced to shut down, or at the very least to reduce their budgets drastically. This had a sudden (and unforeseen) impact on our revenue, which consequently led to operational changes.
On the other hand, we also had clients who weren’t impacted by the pandemic, others that actually did very well, and some who had to rethink their products or services to adapt to the pandemic.
One of the early measures we worked on in March/April was the creation of a framework for crisis recovery thinking, planning, and actions. We called it the Defend, Adapt, Grow framework (Shout out to my colleague Matt Dove for driving this!).
· Defend – We’re in this together. What can we do to survive the crisis and keep doing business in the short term?
· Adapt – Changing and adjusting business. How do we adapt to the new climate and rebuild in the medium term?
· Grow – The future. Thinking, planning, and ideas for growth in a post-virus world.
This helped us guide our conversations with some of our clients in order to revisit and adjust their marketing strategy. We even created a community of marketers and business owners to whom we offered our Defend. Adapt. Grow model and help them navigate the difficult challenges the pandemic was throwing at them.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Hadrien Brassens: Like most businesses, our revenue was impacted by the pandemic, which had almost immediate consequences on all our financial decisions.
We haven’t had to part ways with anyone, which we’re grateful about, but we had to reduce hours in our team, limit spend on some new initiatives, cancel a number of non-critical expenses, etc.
The Australian government has also been very supportive of businesses to limit the impact of the pandemic on unemployment and business closures since the start of the pandemic.
My biggest lesson would probably be the following: When things are going well, do not take this for granted and think that it’s always going to be this way. Gather supplies for when the winter comes… To give you an example, a few years ago, we decided to transfer a small amount of money to a separate bank account every day to slowly build up a cash safety net. The sole purpose of this fund was to help us in case things did go South one day. Aim for at least 6 months of cash burn rate in savings. Your future self will thank you for it.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety?
Hadrien Brassens: I don’t know if it’s the laid-back Australian culture that has rubbed off on me, but I don’t tend to stress too much about things. However, when I do, it’s typically when the business is facing new challenges that aren’t yet solved. Therefore, if I want to limit or reduce my anxiety levels, I need to make sure any issues with our company is always being addressed and rectified promptly. This year, in particular, we’ve had to (and continue to) plan for big changes ahead to survive and adapt to the new economic landscape.
I am quite optimistic in nature and confident we’ll pull out of this pandemic stronger than ever before. Business aside, spending time with my wife and getting out of the city and into nature also help me relax.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Hadrien Brassens: Digital marketing has become a highly competitive space in the last 5-10 years. There are literally hundreds of competitor agencies in Australia alone, which vastly range in size and specialism. Some do great work and that we respect and others that also seem to take advantage of small business owners that aren’t savvy with digital marketing (too often, I speak to prospects who have previously been ‘burned’ by other agencies, there are some truly ugly stories out there). I believe that COVID and the resulting uncertainty in our economy will naturally clean up space a little. This will help the better agencies come out on top.
Having said that, competition is fierce and will continue to be fierce. As explained above, we have to continuously innovate to stay on top of our game. Many clients are ex-agency or have dealt with digital agencies before, and many have learned the tricks of the trade through online courses and are now becoming savvier. This is great for us as it keeps us on our toes, but what was done in our space 5 years ago just doesn’t cut it anymore. In addition to their understanding, their expectations have changed. The advertising space is becoming more complex with new metrics to track new advertising channels, ad formats, and technologies.
At Reef, we have a highly experienced leadership team who meets up on a weekly basis to drive changes in the way we operate, in the way we service our clients, and ensure that our work remains of the highest standards in the industry.
Your final thoughts?
Hadrien Brassens: We’re experiencing one of the greatest crisis humanity has ever faced, not just by the sheer size of it (it’s a global pandemic after all), but how everything has been impacted, and almost nothing was spared. The economy, businesses, health including mental wellbeing, family structures, freedom of movement, etc. It was completely unforeseen, and given governments were, for the most part, unprepared, it’s safe to say businesses were even less so.
Despite that, this year has also been the year where I’ve seen some of the most incredible initiatives, entire organizations pivoting their business models, shifts in whole industries, and new ways for people to connect and collaborate. It has helped us question the status quo, take notice of the things we had taken for granted. It has helped the world change at an incredible pace, and those who do not keep up will fall behind. But regardless of your situation, know that one day this will be in the past. I hope we’ll be able to look back and learn incredible lessons from it all.