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Interview with Columba

This week, Columba had a chat with Chris Pyatt from independent, creative digital agency Class Creative to find out how they’ve been getting on in light of the UK’s coronavirus lockdown. Class Creative are a Birmingham-based agency that specialises in web design, web development, and app development. They pride themselves in their enthusiasm and aesthetically pleasing work, and we can only praise their extremely high win rate in our briefs and ability to deliver great work efficiently. Clients include many well-established companies such as: England Cricket, St Modwen plc, SnowDome, Edgbaston Stadium and Ovo Energy.

The backdrop to our Zoom chat: a first dance soundwave print from NotOnTheHighStreet and a chilled sofa vibe.

How are things going at Class Creative?

I think we’re pretty much in the same boat as everyone else to be honest. We just need to do what they say, keep locked down, and hope we get the economy back up and running as soon as possible. We have clients in Milan and Madrid who had locked down before the UK so we did a dry-run the week before it was formally announced. The guys have taken to the whole work from home experience really well.

And what’s the outlook like for you guys? How’s the brief pipeline etc?

We’re OK for the next couple of months. Our year-end was March 31st and it was a record year at Class, so both our new work and support contract pipeline is solid. That said, come say July time, we might have some tough decisions to make, because new business enquiries are definitely quieter. I don’t think anybody in any sector is out there proactively pushing outbound at the moment, because it seems somewhat distasteful. We’ve never been a sell-hard agency but coming across as pushy is one of the last things any business should do right now. The feedback I get from marketing heads and departments is they want to push forward with digital and make use of this downtime however the finance teams are telling them to pause which I completely understand. To be fair, I’ve audited our P&L, looked through all our software, and non-essential expenses, and cancelled stuff we weren’t using or provided little value. I think businesses will use this experience to re-evaluate and get lean from a commercial point of view. Business planning, short-term cash flow forecasts – where do you want to be in three months and what sort of agency do you want to be moving forward? In these uncertain times the businesses that will survive are those who plan, make tough decisions early, and continue to provide value and transparency to both their team and clients.

And what about current clients? How have they been affected?

Yeah, so we have a massively diverse client portfolio at Class. We cover sports, leisure, finance, energy, PR, property… diverse but it’s all affected. Marketing and comms departments, we’re working with have actually got great band-width to do stuff with us, as opposed to previously, where they’re so inundated with their day to day activities. One of our PLC clients has had to pause a project and it does make you wonder, if they’re pausing, is it just going to filter down and grind SMEs to a halt? Having said that, I had a call with a FinTech client of ours. They deal with software integrations for the likes of Xero and QuickBooks and credit lenders like Experian. Obviously at the moment businesses are looking for finance. So yeah, they’re absolutely flying right now!

Do you feel like you were prepared for something like this as an agency?

 Retrospection is a powerful tool but I don’t think anyone was to be honest. Our internal processes are heavily cloud based so there’s continuity with how the guys work. Commercially,  we’ve always been quite tight on payment credit terms so we have a decent buffer in the bank. It might get more complicated in 3 months though. I’m not sure anyone took COVID-19 seriously. We were laughing it off at Cheltenham Festival with Fibre less than a week before lockdown having a big ol’ dance! Crazy decision that it went ahead looking back now.

Yeah good times! Now we’re all shut up at home! How is the team dealing with it?

Our guys have been great. As a team, we’re bonding better and have become closer, more honest and transparent. Each day we have a 9:45am hangout – 15 minutes just to chat and discuss what’s going on both work and personally. Mirek even brings his pet hamster into view. Fortunately, we’ve always used issue tracking software. So they’re always task orientated. If anything, I’m busier now because I’m doing less commercial stuff and getting my hands dirty in design work like the good old days 10 years ago! 

Great. So how has your approach to briefs and internal processes changed, if at all?

Internal process is exactly the same, albeit remote working. We’ve never been a sell-hard agency so it could be a case that we actually need to look at greater cost per acquisition spend and partner with more intermediaries like Columba. I think lockdown provides an opportunity to look at internal processes, rather than just delivery of a product: how efficient are our internal and external comms?

And how do you think this will impact the world of agencies overall in terms of marketing?

Only the fittest will survive, unfortunately. I think we might also see some of the bigger agencies absorb a few smaller agencies. If it continues longer, we might see agencies winding back their numbers, which is really disheartening after seeing record employment levels in the UK. As an agency we’ve spent 10 years learning and growing to a point where we hit a record year, but then coronavirus hits and you inevitably see a massive drop in turnover and profit.

It’s certainly a mad world out there. But what silver linings do you think we can take from this?

It does feel like we’re a closer team. Tech connects us more with colleagues, family and friends. I think society will come out of this stronger. You’ll look back in both work and life, and won’t take things for granted anymore. You’ll actually appreciate the niceties of life and business. I think the whole experience has made our business way more transparent – both internally and externally. The amount of conversations I’ve had this week, not just with intermediaries like yourself, but actually with the team and clients, where we’re reflecting on where we’re at financially is somewhat refreshing. We’re all pulling together, not just on a social level with all the NHS support, but on an economic level. I think businesses are now looking at how they can do more to help one another. 

And if you were going to give some positive, direct advice to people that were planning to weather this storm, that being In business one or two years, what would your advice be to them?

Focus on the clients or customers who are going to survive this as best to your knowledge. That’s it. Minimum viable audience. You need to focus on companies that you have an established relationship with, a solid customer base, track record and healthy working capital. Certain sectors will have Coronavirus-resilient products or services. Look after one another in the short-term for stronger long-term client relationships.

Yeah it can be really difficult to navigate. What are you doing at home to stay grounded?

Walks with the wife and learning Spanish mainly – now is the perfect time to learn a new skill or finally launch that side-hustle. I’ve started running again. I hadn’t run since my Ultra marathon last summer so it’s been nice getting back into that. I’ve got a mouse in my garage as well. So I’m trying to construct a mousetrap. A humane mousetrap. I’ll let you know how I get on! 

Right up until this point, you really came across well Chris. The reality is you’re in your garage with a mouse

Ha! The real problem is I can’t go to Homebase to buy a mousetrap because it’s non-essential and there’s tabloid press out there taking photos, saying ‘Look at this person buying a mouse trap!’ and it’s our moral obligation not to do that. But the mouse is getting it – big time. 

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