Don’t Just Survive, Thrive: Your Agency’s Recession-Proof Playbook

By Judith Carr-Rodriguez, Partner & CEO of FIG, an independent creative agency. 

There’s a saying that most of us have heard – real estate is always a good investment. Even in tricky times, most financial advisors would advise us to hang on tight to property for the greatest long-term return. At tough times, this takes nerves of steel. But it’s worth it.

The same could be said for how we run businesses, specifically, agencies. Yes, it’s volatile out there and it’s been unpredictable for the past three years. But if we are to avoid setting our industry back regarding talent and creativity and weakening our position with clients as well as output, our long-term strategic plans should serve as the roadmap to deter us from making knee jerk reactions based on one year’s economic forecast alone. This is a plea for agency leaders to approach this year with a farsighted mindset as it pertains to talent, creativity and innovation. At the time of year for predictions, forecasts and resolutions – let’s all think beyond just the next 12 months and instead focus on the next 12 years for long term success.

Talent: Stop the Pendulum Swing

First, it was the Great Layoffs of the pandemic and then came the Great Resignation with a scramble for talent quickly following. Now we’re seeing another wave of mass layoffs. It’s too much, it’s too knee-jerk.

Add to this, some leaders are scaling back on their DEI initiatives due to the economic uncertainty. This short-sighted approach will ultimately hurt their agencies’ relevance and longevity as well as set back significant progress that needs to continue in our industry.

Leaders should take a balanced approach – keep cool and take a long view. Farsighted agencies and brands will seize a rare opportunity to snag new, exceptional talent in the market due to layoffs at companies made anxious by economic uncertainty. Commit absolutely to fair pay and resources to support personal well-being in mind, alongside DEI, while continuing to invest in your culture of personal and professional growth. These areas are top of mind for candidates and companies that have consistently and genuinely prioritized these areas have a leg up on competition.

By prioritizing talent and truly living by company values, employees will be empowered and motivated to grow the business alongside leadership.

Keep Investing in Innovation

If we were to take a poll and ask, “how is innovation defined?” there’d probably be an assortment of different answers from everyone, so we must first look at what innovation is not. Innovation isn’t a tool, a gadget, technology, or process – it’s finding ways to do things like they’ve never been done before, which is no small feat.

At FIG, we firmly believe there needs to be an ongoing commitment to innovation that harnesses technology and creative data because these are the catalysts that help us arrive at our desired end goal of breakthrough creativity in the cluttered, media fragmented information age in which we live. We’ve consistently invested up to 10% of our annual revenue in innovation as it truly changes how we work and the effectiveness of the work we make.

The strongest and most enduring innovation typically doesn’t emerge when things are going well, but when pressure is applied. Agencies should use this time to adopt an iterative mindset, experimenting with innovation to find the thing that can set your agency apart. Adopting the mindset needed for innovation will serve leaders beyond just the present moment, it will sustain into the next 12 years and beyond.

Creativity: Man, or Machine?

With the amount of growing technology at our disposal to work more efficiently, there’s constant talk about how far is too far with AI in relation to replacing creativity – it’s absolute nonsense. Agencies shouldn’t view AI as a threat to creativity but instead see it as another option in the myriad of effective tools at the disposal of creatives to do great work. AI also frees up people’s time to focus on the higher craft, higher brain power aspects of developing work, campaigns and platforms.

Data and AI also work together in a synergistic way. By harnessing the effectiveness of data, combined with human insight, it pushes the boundaries of creativity, to ultimately create change.

A Call to Action for Brands: Never Cut Spend in Tough Times

As a last plea – brands should look long term too. Take for example, Airbnb, an organization that essentially turned away from performance media in 2022, invested most of their efforts in brand marketing which builds lasting success over time. Now, 70% percent of the company’s site traffic comes from direct, organic visits — that’s compared to 40% for Marriott and Expedia. This brand strength results in a net margin twice those of its hospitality peers. Airbnb also generates $500k in revenue per employee, more than most tech companies — and 10 times greater than hotel chains.

As recessionary times continue to loom, review your long-term ambitions and plans. Protect those at all costs. Long term thinking is key, not only for the next 12 months but for decades to come, when COVID-19, the recession and 2023 are all but distant memories.