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Stay Home > Onboard a New Agency > Save Sanity Onboarding a new agency in a global pandemic.

I’ve always seen the external agencies I work with as an extension of my team. Building a rapport with them is so important to ensure they get our working culture and understand what I am after.

When I went out to tender for a new marketing agency at the beginning of 2020, I could never have predicted how different the onboarding process was going to be. In late January - early February I met with a handful of agencies to hear their proposals face to face. You only get so much from a first encounter, but those first impressions count. Luckily, I made my decision by my last week physically in the office, and was excitedly booking up meeting rooms for the kick-off sessions. And then BANG… we were all working from home, for the foreseeable future.

Adjusting to the ‘new norm’.

At first, I’m sure most people thought this was going to last a month or two whilst companies worked out how to manage social distancing in the work space, but that was 8 months ago, and I haven’t been back to the Canary Wharf office since!

By mid-March, I’d realised that this was going to require a real pivot in the approach to onboarding the agency – we were going to have to diversify into non-traditional methods of interaction and relationship building.

Inherently, ‘discovery’ workshops run as multi-day sessions, in-person, with copious amounts of tea, biscuits, and note taking. They’re an opportunity for a team to learn each other’s characters and nuances, and form a working chemistry. How were we going to translate that human interaction into virtual meetings, not just amongst ourselves but also with groups of stakeholders that I intended to interview as part of the brand project? People were already complaining of ‘Zoom fatigue’, so how were we going to cram days’ worth of workshops into hour-long slots, whilst holding people’s attention? This was before we had considered the required work-rounds for the tech dramas that come with virtual meetings.

But as the process went on and we progressed into the creative phase, we were more than accepting that Microsoft Teams had become our new meeting room. We were far more flexible about when we could meet and on what frequency. Collaboration was abundant, and having to work in this new way opened up a new level of communication between myself and the agency. It felt more transparent, which made me as the client more involved in the process and helped me to own the work internally when sharing it with my stakeholders.

Finding our ‘virtual’ groove.

During this time, despite the lack of face-to-face meetings, we:

• Completed a brand immersion process

• Co-ran multiple global workshops with stakeholder groups across the business, to get under the skin of who S&P Global Platts are, what we do and – most importantly – why we do what we do

• Built a campaign strategy around a brand campaign proposition

• Explored how to bring this to life creatively in art direction and messaging

And this was all done whilst building a strong partnership and working as an extension of each other’s teams. That has become fundamental.

You learn a new thing every day

In this new way of working, the team learnt more about each other as people than we’d ever have learnt in a corporate office environment. We have seen each other with no make-up on, in gym kit, eating our breakfast – all at the same time. We’ve inadvertently taken virtual tours of each other’s homes. I’ve led meetings whilst my two year old has clawed at the screen, sat on my knee and, in turn, I’ve met my account manager’s tuneful sausage dog, Maddie. This is now our new world, but we’ve made it work. We’ve REALLY made it work.

This process has been brilliant for me, the transparency between us has allowed for an honesty that I’ve never had with an agency – if I didn’t like something I’d say so without being overly apologetic and ‘British’ about it. And the agency took the feedback with no offence and made the perfecting tweaks to put us back on course. But that has happened on few occasions over the last 8 months because I’ve been taken on the journey and helped to truly shape the outcomes of the project. I’ve owned it.

Luckily, the agency feel the same:

Starting a relationship during COVID-19 has definitely been a unique experience. Seeing each other in our home settings removed barriers and we found a new magic in the virtual space. It came from sharing ideas earlier; unpolished and raw, and co-creating ideas together. We formed an open and honest partnership. And with the challenges of travel and diary management removed, we have been able to have more frequent check-ins, all supporting a stronger strategic and creative output. Working in such an open and collaborative way is something we will definitely look to continue as we return to a ‘new normal’. Sally Gillo, Client Partner, Six Creative Agency

Onwards and upwards.

COVID-19 has forced us to work differently, but I can’t see myself wanting to work any other way again. When we return to face-to-face meetings I cannot wait to give the team a physical high-five for all we have achieved virtually, but also for the new level of communication we’ve opened up and learnt to work in. I’d like to take this forward.

There will be lots of learning, yet businesses will swiftly forget the ‘COVID Times’ on their return to normal, for better and for worse, but this experience has taught me a lot about how I work best and what is possible when you truly collaborate.

I spoke about my onboarding experience recently on the Business Marketing Clubs webinar series: How the Coronavirus Crisis Affects Business Marketing, which is available as podcast playbacks here.

Written by Helen McKenzie. Brand & Campaign Manager, Marketing, (S&P Global Platts).

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