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Reflections of a CEO: lessons from a 'lost' year

By Greg Isbister | CEO & Founder

Blis

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March 3, 2021 | 7 min read

It’s safe to say that 2020 was the slowest and yet fastest year I've ever experienced. While the lockdowns seemed endless, the days moved at a breakneck pace between family commitments of homeschooling, pet care (a crazy dog and a new kitten) and a myriad of decisions crucial to the health of the business to be addressed hour-by-hour. These worlds would merge like never before – discussing cash forecasts with the exec team while my five year old son demanded ‘wipe my bum’ from along the hall.

Reflections of a CEO: lessons from a 'lost' year

Reflections of a CEO: lessons from a 'lost' year

It was undoubtedly the most challenging year of my career and our business. What happened in 2020 provided me with a set of valuable lessons that I'm sure will help me navigate whatever is ahead of us and, I hope, will be valuable for other businesses as we navigate through the last few months of lockdown.

In the face of a volatile advertising landscape, the Blis team had to come together as never before. We adopted an ‘all in it together’ mentality and it became our mantra. We quickly changed our business rhythm from weekly exec meetings and quarterly All Hands to daily exec meetings and weekly All Hands.

This enabled us to discuss, assess and react quickly to all the new restrictions and regulations, rollout flexible working, and communicate transparently with our team globally. There were, of course, lots of questions from the team – there was a strange state of everyone being both worried and fascinated about what on earth was going on in the world, what this means for the business and of course everyone's job security.

We didn’t have all the answers, but we were honest about what we didn’t know – and tried to explain all the various scenarios we had modelled to the team. The way we communicate as a business changed and this is something we will keep forever.

Lesson: Communicate with humanity and empathy

We did have dark times and didn’t get everything right, but we took risks that worked out for us. In March 2020, at the start of the crisis when new business dropped off, cancellations were coming in and we were burning cash. We asked our team to allow the business to be able to flex their days worked depending on the level of work in the business. If we could do this it would allow us to survive without putting anyones jobs at risk, but everybody would need to sacrifice their pay. All of our team volunteered – the whole global team – hundreds of people in dozens of markets, and signed a change to their employment contracts in the space of a week to allow this.

We also promised to make everyone whole for the salary sacrificed once we could do so, and we couldn’t say when that would be. When it came to the crunch, people weren’t just there for the paycheck, they were willing to sacrifice for what they believed in to keep the team together. That was incredibly humbling and still is today. It put great trust in the exec team and board and this responsibility wasn’t taken lightly. It was risky but it was important and, crucially, our board and shareholders supported us in this commitment, which we’ve now paid out in full.

I believe the repayment of the sacrificed salaries has been the best investment the business has ever made.

Lesson: Take risks and inspire the trust of the team

With everything to play for, we saw our teams globally rise to the challenge. We termed this heightened resourcefulness, bias for action and agility as ‘survival behaviours’, which have really formed the bedrock of Blis and our company values. To survive, we knew we had to be really useful to our clients and provide the most relevant products and insights.

Our engineering and product teams released new products that could reach entire households at home and also for prospecting in the face of lockdowns and reduced mobility. In response to the need to drive consumers online vs in-store to buy, we also accelerated click-to-cart integrations.

To provide the most useful insights, we shared regular reports on the changing mobility of consumers across the world. Amidst it all, we were even shortlisted for Campaign’s ‘Sales team of the year’ award in the UK, up there with ‘the big guns’ like Spotify and Channel 4.

Lesson: Speed matters

We also said goodbye to our London office. The lease was up in October 2020 and the landlord wanted to increase the rent in our large and, thanks to lockdowns, very empty office. So we said hello to flexible working and remote hiring and onboarding of new staff. This has created new opportunities – the ability to look further afield for the right talent – and new challenges – imparting the Blis culture and getting new team members up to speed without the benefit of in-person meetings.

But this too, is becoming the new norm, as we continue to learn that no challenge is insurmountable. We also created Rise: a grassroots diversity, inclusion and belonging initiative, which was borne out of tragedy, but has fostered greater understanding, collaboration and openness within our team.

Lesson: Find the opportunity in adversity

Amidst it all, while we tried to keep calm and carry on and be as pragmatic as possible, we also shared a laugh or two – you might call it trench humour – a much needed reprieve from the pace and intensity of everything that was happening both at work and at home. Home life has also taken on a new dimension, as we probably all underestimated the impact of working at home on ourselves and our families. Like many, I found myself jumping from work issues to family issues with no downtime. I never thought I’d miss my London commute, but I realise it was one of the only times where I’m forced to just stare out a window and think to myself for an hour.

Lesson: Keep calm and find time for a break

What comes next?

We definitely learned some valuable lessons during the start of the pandemic. Just as there was no playbook in existence for navigating 2020, this year is already gearing up to be just as unpredictable – with new lockdowns, vaccines and starting to prepare for the country to finally open again. At the same time, the digital transformation we’re seeing in the advertising industry is beginning its next evolution. We’re yet to see the consequences of Apple and Google's impending changes, but having come through the worst of the pandemic, we are more prepared than ever to meet the next set of challenges head on.

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Blis is the leading privacy-first, location-powered programmatic advertising partner. We deliver accurate targeting at scale without reliance on personal data, helping the world’s largest brands and media agencies drive key business outcomes through personalised and high-performing digital advertising.

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