by Adam Byars (@Ad_Mski) The world, our clients’ worlds, and our agency as we know it have changed forever. The question is: what are we going to do about it? These are the seven business lessons we’ve learnt as a leadership team.

Like many South African businesses, we started 2020 on a high note. And then it hit. Covid-19. And suddenly growth wasn’t the question – survival was. The status quo has changed. The rules of engagement have changed and, since they’re still being rewritten, no one knows exactly what they are or what they’ll be. We’re all being forced to adapt, recreate and rebuild.

But, because of the steps we’ve taken, we believe we’ll survive this unique crisis and build a business that is ready for any future adversity.

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Our seven lessons

#1: Assess your business from every angle

Generally, we’re so busy operating as ‘business as usual’ that we don’t take the time for a health check. As a leadership team, we called an exco meeting within 12 hours of the day President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a national state of disaster (which we call Day 1).

These were the key questions we asked ourselves:

  • How integrated were our teams?
  • Did we have the means, process and people to ensure we could deliver if a full lockdown and work from home (WFH) situation arose?
  • Could we manage the thought of a remote workforce?
  • How resilient was our culture really?
  • How effective was our creative product?
  • What cash reserves did we have in hand?
  • How effective was our leadership team?
  • Where would we lose business and how would our financial models absorb high-risk clients and lost deals?

These questions aren’t always easy to ask — or answer. We knew that we needed to be brutally honest if we were going to weather this storm.

You can’t survive a crisis without the full, unvarnished truth to work with.


#2: Embrace leadership

This might seem obvious — every business has a leadership team — but how many leaders really embrace their roles, for good and bad? Talent watches how leaders respond in a crisis, and they remember the actions you take today.

We identified key focus areas:

  • We needed our leadership team to be 100% accountable for everything that happened next.
  • We needed to be able to defend the business’s purpose, mission and culture.
  • It’s important for the leaders to be able to focus on the employee experience — this isn’t business as usual, and expectations need to shift accordingly.
  • We all needed to show empathy, awareness and mindfulness.

Talent watches how leaders respond in a crisis, and they remember the actions you take today to inform tomorrow.


#3: Preserve culture. At all costs.

Our most-important asset in our business is our people, and right now they need our support more than ever. Every company has a culture; the test is whether that culture can survive in a crisis situation.

Covid-19 has demonstrated that no one can prosper alone. We need each other.

  • We shifted to a WFH model as quickly as possible so that we could assess what it was like, making sure everything worked and that we could gauge our workforce’s needs.
  • We were then able to put a clear policy in place, including expectations and systems/protocols, to support the new ways of working.
  • We implemented a guardians programme that allocates one exco member to be a guardian of broader teams. These guardians are always available and focus on both work-related and personal matters.
  • We aren’t treating all employees as one. Some have more familiarity with remote working than others. Some need more support and guidance. Connecting with each team member personally has become critical.
  • We appointed an entertainment committee to drive cultural fun initiatives such as meditation and yoga sessions, a midweek braai, recipe-sharing and kids painting collages together.
  • Don’t forget to celebrate the little day-to-day achievements.

Covid-19 has demonstrated that no one can prosper alone. We need each other.


#4: Stay connected

Staying connected with your employees is critical — but so is staying connected with your clients. This is about genuinely and authentically caring about what your clients need and how you can assist them.

  • We began assessing the impact of covid-19 on each of our clients’ businesses.
  • We focused on understanding their protocols and pain points.
  • We understood that, in times of extreme uncertainty, hearing a familiar voice or knowing that you have a team you trust to reach out to can have a calming effect, even if you aren’t doing business together at that moment.
  • We focused on key outputs rather than usual activities. Projects need to be completed. Deadline stresses are continuing.

Our ability to deliver keeps anxiety down and ensures that business remains operational — even if it’s business unusual.


#5: Be agile

Our reaction to covid-19 was instant. We immediately put a ‘business unusual’ action plan and protocols in place.

  • We consolidated all of our teams into one space to contain staff movements and allow for easier communication.
  • Within 12 hours of our Day 1, our second agency at the TBWA\ building in Sandton was shut down.
  • Within 18 hours of our Day 1, 75% of our staff was instructed to WFH, armed with necessary equipment, tools and connections to enable them to do so.
  • We initiated daily in-office and virtual meetings to remain connected.
  • Within eight days of the national state of disaster, 99% of our workforce was already WFM, and 100% was working remotely before the lockdown was even announced.

We didn’t experience panic when the lockdown was announced — we were prepared, emotionally, mentally and operationally.


#6: Focus on your purpose

Now, more than ever before, businesses need to be relevant, and they have to be adding to their overall communities, countries — even the world.

  • One of our behavioral principles is that “everything now matters”.
  • We encourage our entire team to ask: How you can help? How do we apply our skills to the country at large? How can we contribute to solving the world’s shortages related to needs? We’ve launched reach communities across South Africa, matching would-be volunteers with donors.
  • We’re focusing on filtering relevant informative so that we can share it with our broader communities using
  • We’re brainstorming and workshopping key initiatives that our agency, and our clients, can play a role in.

If we aren’t useful in everything we do, all of the time, we cease to be relevant.


#7: Assess and adapt

The biggest lesson is that this isn’t a once-off process. We’ve no idea what the next few months will look like. That’s why it’s is so critical to continue to assess and adapt everything you do.

  • As problems arise, key stakeholders meet to discuss and resolve them in real time — we don’t wait for anything to blow over or sort itself out.
  • As a management team, our key focus is to find ways of curbing expenses and driving revenue streams while keeping the business operational.
  • Our focus now moving forward is to respond with speed. “Operating at the speed of thought” means we shorten the distance between ideation and execution to ensure maximum impact and relevancy.

We can’t sit around waiting for everything to return to normal. The world has changed.


Building a new business in a new world

We’re going through an intense period of growth, both intentionally and unintentionally. At the same time, we need to rebuild who we are, both as individuals and as a business, while trying to create a new sustainable economic model for a new world order. This won’t happen by accident. As a leadership team, we know that we need to step forward and make it happen, and we encourage the strong leadership teams in businesses across SA to so the same.

See also


Adam ByarsAdam Byars (@Ad_Mski) is CEO and partner of Grid Worldwide, a full-service ad agency part of TBWA\ South Africa. He is an experienced businessperson in the creative industry with a demonstrated history of working both locally and internationally in the marketing and branding industry.

This MarkLives #CoronavirusSA special section contains coverage of how the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, and its resultant disease, covid-19, is affecting the advertising, marketing and related industries in South Africa and other parts of Africa, and how we are responding. Updates may be sent to us via our contact form or the email address published on our Contact Us page. Opinion pieces/guest columns must be exclusive.

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