We talked to Steve Brennan, founder of Bespoke, about managing a digital agency through the pandemic, and this is what he said about it.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Steve Brennan: Good, thank you. Obviously, there are challenges from lockdowns but upsides too, such as lots of quality time with my daughter and more opportunity to focus on fitness and wellbeing. That said, it will be nice to travel again when that becomes possible.
Tell us about you, your career, and how you founded Bespoke.
Steve Brennan: As a teenager, I would set up small business ventures. I always liked starting something from scratch and generating interest. Most were in print media or publishing, and some grew to give me a nice income for my age. In my early 20s, I worked for three years as a graphic designer, but for 20-years since, I have run a digital agency called Bespoke. Although the agency is 20-years old, it has had different iterations, different teams, different offices, and different focuses. So in that respect, it feels like it is always a startup in some way.
How does Bespoke innovate?
Steve Brennan: I think innovation is a buzzword that is misused and misunderstood. I’m not sure many businesses know the true meaning of innovation and how to apply it. My experience is it’s important to innovate in cycles, not to innovate continually. For example, it’s good to innovate our service delivery but to continually do that confuses the market. So a cycle of focused innovation, then consolidation, and then back to the beginning and start again is best. Also, innovation isn’t just about technology. We can innovate culture, marketing, communication methods, processes too. Not all innovation is visible to the outside, and some just make us more efficient.
How does the coronavirus pandemic affect your business finances?
Steve Brennan: We have seen an upturn, largely as a result of getting back to basics. Prior to the pandemic, we were experimenting with different services and saw some good results, but with hindsight, we were creating some distractions for ourselves. When we began working remotely at the start of lockdown, we switched focus back to marketing our core services as clearly as possible and to great delivery. It worked, and we just completed our best ever quarter for new business wins whilst in lockdown.
Did you have to make difficult choices regarding human resources, and what are the lessons learned?
Steve Brennan: I have seen the pandemic as a kind of business boot camp. Everything has come to the surface and has gone under the microscope. So all costs have had to be reassessed, and working arrangements have too. We didn’t use furlough too much, and we are largely retaining the same staff numbers. The small changes we made we may have made anyway. The lessons learned for me both from our business and from observing others is let’s do not need a pandemic to make us make bold decisions with our businesses next time.
How did your customer relationship management evolve? Do you use any specific tools to be efficient?
Steve Brennan: A funny thing for us was prior to the pandemic, we were encouraging clients to use Zoom for some of our 1-2-1 sessions, and it was incredibly hard to get IT departments to support the use of the software. Then suddenly, it ceased to become an issue. Loom has been great too for sharing updates with clients, especially where there are multiple stakeholders on the client-side who want an inside view on how their accounts are running.
Did you benefit from any government grants, and did that help keep your business afloat?
Steve Brennan: Not so much, we took the small grants that everyone was entitled to at the beginning, and they helped with the initial impact. Fortunately for us, we didn’t have to rely on them.
Your final thoughts?
Steve Brennan: For agencies, the fallout from the pandemic will take a few years to have its full effect. One of the impacts will obviously remote working. We have already committed to switching to hybrid working when we return to offices. But it will open agencies up to a global marketplace for skills too. I expect agencies to become the home of strategists and account managers, with delivery being outsourced nationally and globally.
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