Resistance is futile, resilience is not in today's indie agency life

Katy is a pragmatic (often sweary) marketer. Named 4th most influential social media marketing expert by the Drum, Katy Howell, is CEO at social media agency - immediate future.

She regularly appears on BBC news, Victoria Derbyshire, TV and Radio programmes (without the swearing) and is billed as an authority on social marketing. She speaks at conferences, runs masterclasses, and guest lectures at two universities. She’s co-authored 3 books on social and is a regular contributor to the press.

Her expertise lies in helping large brands squeeze the pips out of social media marketing. Now in its 15th year, her agency works with brands including; Fujitsu, lastminute.com, Thomson Reuters, Post Office, Bargain Booze, Selfridges, Mission Foods, Google, Diageo, JD Williams, Sony Music, and many more.

The marketing world is topsy-turvy. Clients are changing the way they work and they’re adapting fast. While they look to bring teams in-house, agencies are navigating choppy waters with trust dipping to an all-time low. On top of that the world has gone a bit mad. Nothing we don’t know. A reversal seems unlikely for now, no matter how we protest. Right now resisting the changes is a futile effort. And frankly, it’s exhausting.

If resistance is not the best way forward, what is? We hear in the press and on the grapevine how network agencies are facing the challenge with mergers, redundancies, restructures and the repositioning of their businesses. They’re adapting to meet the changes at scale.

The impact is not quite the same for most indie agencies. Independents are more lithe, able to pivot fast and flex. They are punching through and blending into in-house teams to add value. The effects of the current business climate appears to be not so dramatic or drastic. But it is still painful.

A thousand teeny tiny cuts

Teams are having to flex fast around changeable workloads, current clients might be downsizing – resulting in changing priorities, project-based briefs make resourcing a headache, and Indies are constantly balancing people, cash and clients. Talking to fellow independent heads it seems the constant shifting is relentless. It can feel like a thousand cuts. None will kill you, but they do bloody hurt.

Right now, Indies need to be very resilient.

At the end of last year the Wow Company published a survey of independent agencies, looking at the mental resilience of business owners. Tying into the health and wellbeing movement across the industry, it revealed some eyebrow raising numbers. 94% of owners have felt anxious about their business at some point in the past month and 74% feel uncontrollable worry and anxiety. Wow indeed.

Stress can be a good thing sometimes. When it’s ‘good stress’ it makes us driven. It makes us more creative, helps us problem solve and increases confidence. It can even make us healthier according to Kelly McGonigal in her Ted Talk. Stress can build resilience. But…

…prolonged stress is not good. Prolonged anxiety impacts mental wellbeing as well as your immune system. It’s the root cause of burn out. There is a difference between resilience and constant worry. Protect yourself from straying into the bad stress – exercise, take proper breaks and talk to people. There is lots of advice. Follow it.

You’re not a network, so network

One thing I love about the indies I know is that they all pile in together and share. Even when they compete, they will gather to discuss similar issues and talk frankly about how they feel. The support network, whether organised memberships or random get-togethers, are an amazing way to vent, find solutions or share a burden.

But it isn’t all about the senior people at agencies. Sure they are often at the sharp end, but the whole company needs resilience. Indies are often like families, large or small, they are genuinely connected by a single agency purpose. The leadership teams are more visible and there is no faceless corporate behind the scenes. Yet often resilience isn’t taught as an essential skill. When stress becomes persistent no one notices – there’s too much to do and too much to adapt to. It needs to change if we’re to stop talent leaving agency life all together.

Sharing, collaborating and supporting internally is important. But in the days of email and WhatsApp, networking with peers matters as much as it ever did. A problem shared over a coffee (or wine if you’re me) is so much better than an emoji-filled messenger post. Getting teams out and about to meet peers is a must. Giving them permission to be open and helping them see they are not alone, can go a long way to reducing the negativity that comes with constant change.

I get knocked down, but I get up again Chumbawamba

I love the word resilience. It is a strong word. A word we should use more often. It conjures up images of persistence, of success in the face of adversity.

And for people like me, who entered the workplace in the 80s recession, resilience was part and parcel of marketing agency life. You learnt to bend, to hold-up, to survive through long working days (and nights), to spin multiple plates and to constantly solve problems. It made agency life exciting, unpredictable and an adventure (no two days were ever alike).

But that was then. Before digital opened up a million channels. Before social. Before we were endlessly connected through email and social. Something has to give. And I think the giving should be me and my fellow indie leaders. Give to our staff. To each other.

When our colleagues and peers get knocked down. When times get tough. When stress is too much. We need to remember to step in. I know on my bad days (we all have them) it’s my agency friends offering oodles of support that make it easier to stand back up and do it all over again.

Now seems a good time, without preaching, to remember to look up and see how our people are faring. Connect to our peers. Talk to our staff. Together we can be stronger, better and ultimately masters of resilience.

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