'Lockdown has taken a toll' – How tough restrictions are affecting agencies around the UK

PRWeek asked agency bosses in Manchester, Liverpool, Cardiff, Glasgow and Belfast what impact tough lockdown restrictions are having on their businesses.

PR agencies across the UK are facing different business challenges with a significant proportion of the kingdom under different regional lockdowns.

As English regions such as Manchester and Liverpool come to grip with Tier 3 – the highest level of restrictions dictated by Westminster – businesses based in Belfast, Cardiff and Scotland face different, and even more intense challenges.

PRWeek approached agency leaders across some of the hardest-hit areas to find out how they are coping and what impact the restrictions are having on their businesses and the wider communications market.

Describe the restrictions.

Manchester was put under Tier 3 restrictions last week and, to be honest, it feels like we’ve been living and working under tighter controls now for many months, with our local rules. Political stance aside, Andy Burnham is fighting the good fight to keep the regions better supported economically if we need to tighten our belts once more.

How has your agency coped?

We reopened our office in late July with attendance optional. Our staff survey showed the vast majority missed the office environment, social interaction and, to be frank, just having some fun together and sharing the immediate highs and lows of agency life. Now we mix office and home days, with increased flexibility on hours to help avoid crowds. 

Since the first push on getting our office COVID-safe, producing staff guidelines and embracing attendance QR codes, the main challenge is keeping up with the impact of changing local restrictions. Clear as mud the instructions have often been! 

When on video calls, I’ve banned staff having cameras turned off. We live in a fragmented state at the moment and are lacking many social interactions, so seeing each other is a vital part of mutual support and keeping our mind, body and spirits up.  

What has been the impact on business?

Business-wise, we fell off a cliff in April and have been building back up every month since. In October we’re at 130 per cent of our fee target thanks to winning over a dozen new briefs. However we’re seeing lots of clients only thinking and committing short term at the moment, hence our campaign to educate brands on the importance of managing their reputation to bounce back quicker from recession. 

From conversations with peers locally, I sense we've bounced back quicker than expected, but looking beyond a short horizon is very blurry. This of course is very dependent on the sectors and services offered – those with a wider mix are faring better.

We welcomed and embraced the furlough scheme, which made a real difference in terms of avoiding losses through Q2, and we know we’re all still in for a tough ride into 2021 as consumer confidence is brittle and the small matter of Brexit quietly sneaks up on us. I remain optimistic about our own future as we run a lean, agile operation and continue to invest in quality people and our brand.

Describe the restrictions. 

We’re in Tier 3 restrictions. I think there's lots of rules within that, but I'd be surprised if anyone knew exactly what they were at any one time. Technically we're not allowed to meet with other households and we are encouraged, where possible, to work from home.

How has your agency coped?

We were definitely impacted, and without furlough we would have had to make cuts, so that was a great help for us. Because we have a lot of project-based work, that was a difficult time, but at the moment, we've been able to get back up to a stable point where we were before and our retainers have increased.

In terms of working patterns, we're making sure that there is a mixture of working from home or coming into the office – if needed. We're now in October, and we've already seen how this has impacted people's mental health, so we've got that flexibility. People are doing different things based on their situation and preferences.

We have a mixture of clients who are happy working virtually or prefer face-to-face. We make sure that it is a safe working environment and everyone is comfortable.

What has been the impact on business?

With these new restrictions there is the fear of the unknown. However, since the first time we've learned that the impacts on the businesses we work [with] aren’t too different and we’ve built that resilience. In the hospitality sector, it's a rough time for them, but at the moment for us and our clients, there's lots of opportunities in the pipeline. Businesses want to give it a go and get their names out there.

Initially, clients wanted to focus on their website and digital presence, but now it's a whole range of stuff. We’ve seen an increase of people getting PR retainers to build up strong brand awareness and communication plans.

Our outlook is positive, we have more retained clients and are very fortunate. In the wider region, comms is very up and down. I know some agencies really suffered and lost a majority of their client base – particularly those working with the hospitality sector, where their pipeline has vanished. I’ve also noticed people who predominantly work in digital marketing, their turnover increased by 3,000 per cent in March and April. It’s a real mixed bag.

Describe the restrictions.

Scotland is operating under a different system to the rest of the UK. We are encouraged not to travel outside and to avoid public transport. All licensed venues were closed until 26 October, and we are to work from home where possible.

How has your agency coped? 

Our team is close, so even though we’ve had flexible working in place for years, working almost entirely from home has had its challenges. We miss one another – obviously we miss the usual social get-togethers, but we also miss the things that happen organically, like over-hearing someone’s problem and being able to pitch in. But we’ve learned to adapt, mostly through creating different structures and spaces.

We’re always in touch, but respect boundaries when all notifications need to be turned off to make space for deep thinking and actively encourage our teams to speak to us about their wellbeing, putting in place support wherever we can and letting them know that we understand.

We’ve also balanced our Monday full-team meetings, which let everyone get a sense of our overall scope of work, with individual get-togethers, which exist just to check-in and see how people are doing. Basically, we’ve planned our channels – how we connect with one another, where, when and why. Because of this, finding ways to come together, our output is as strong as ever and there’s a real sense of momentum in the agency at the moment.

What has been the impact on business?

At the beginning of the pandemic, there was absolutely a "WTF is going to happen?" moment where the past 10 years of building the business flashed across my eyes. But we leaned right into what the clients needed and thankfully, as our portfolio and our offering is really varied, we were able to adapt campaigns.

Over the past six months we’ve probably done some of our best and most varied work – our first TV ad, two big OOH campaigns, we launched a beach bar, created lots of analogue entertainment as product bolt-ons and toured a yarn-bombed bus across UK care homes as a colourful message of friendship for The People’s Friend. We didn’t expect to do any of these things in February.   

This is our 10th birthday year and it’s not been the party we hoped for. But our whole team has worked their collective arses off, our clients have been great partners and, while there are still too many unknowns in the more distant future, a combination of furlough, new biz wins and developing new offerings means our outlook is good. I think that would be a similar story throughout the Scottish comms landscape.

Describe the restrictions.

We’re currently on a “circuit break” in Northern Ireland – schools, pubs and restaurants are closed – but with people based throughout GB and Ireland we are working with local restrictions across multiple locations. 

How has your agency coped?

Our offices remain closed and everyone has been working from home from the outset. As a global agency dealing with multiple markets we already had the processes and systems in place to support remote working. We trust everyone to manage their workload in a way that works best for them and encourage flexibility. No apology is needed for prioritising family and home-schooling commitments.

As time goes on we are well aware of the increased pressure on mental wellbeing. We encourage people to speak out, to humanise the issues we are all facing, and we signpost resources to offer additional support. We also have daily check-ins to ensure no one feels isolated and have mobilised a team dedicated to mental wellbeing and how we as a business can better support our people – we see this as a moral imperative.

What has been the impact on business?

We’ve done some of the best work of our lives in the past six months. Some work has been paused, but we’ve adapted plans and brought new agency services to bear with other clients, and seen significant growth by offering fully integrated solutions. For example, our work for the Diageo Bar Academy has won six major awards in the past six months and we’ve expanded our scope for clients such as Openreach and BSH. New business is more competitive than ever and we’re being more selective in what we actively pursue, so conversion has been higher than we budgeted for.

With activations on hold we initially put 15 per cent of our people on furlough and senior staff took temporary salary cuts, but we have everyone back now and are recruiting again to support growth in H2.  Like everyone else, we cut our operational costs to compensate for revenue uncertainty in Q1, but expect to be broadly in line with budget by year end. Agility, flexibility and service integration has allowed us to respond with the most effective solutions. I believe the very DNA of PR as a flexible, strategic and agile discipline has allowed us to adapt and respond to the challenges at pace.

Describe the restrictions.

Our national lockdown is a little more strict than Tier 3 regulations. We must stay at home, except for very limited purposes. Bars, pubs, restaurants, hotels and non-essential shops (including hairdressers, barbers, beauticians, tattooists and sports and massage therapists)  will close and we cannot visit other households or meet people we do not live with. Only key workers and people whose jobs mean they cannot operate from home can go to work. We can only leave home for very limited reasons, such as food shopping, picking up medicine, exercise. And we are not allowed to travel around Wales.

How has your agency coped?

For many businesses in Wales, lockdown is taking a toll, from the basics like adapting to homeworking, Zoom fatigue, and juggling work with childcare to bigger issues around office space and rent. They are the same challenges as in the rest of the UK, only our restrictions have been eased in a different way to other nations and we're now back into a national lockdown, which will again limit movement. 

What has been the impact on business?

I know some agencies have had to cut back considerably and there are lots of PR pros who have lost their jobs. We have seen job losses in the PR market over here. A very well-established agency in Cardiff has let many of its staff go and lots of people are now trying to find new roles. 

There are clients who are repurposing budgets to meet COVID needs, but internal teams are often maxed out, tired and having to deliver more work than ever before. Equally, some organisations have enabled secondments to resource teams, and we have one client who has brought us in to support a suite of campaigns and as an addition to the internal team. We also have another client in a sector that's been significantly impacted by lockdown – they were due to launch a big campaign and are now having to rethink their strategy in light of restrictions.

Times are tough, but now is the time for both clients and agencies to harness innovative solutions as they respond and recover. For those clients who cannot work due to restrictions, it's an opportunity to strategise for when lockdown is lifted and how to recover in 2021.

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