by Lisa Sisley on September 10, 2022
When 2009 started, New Boston Creative Group had been in business a little under three years. We’d grown pretty fast in a short period of time and felt invincible. Anyone familiar with the Greek tragedies knows what happened next. A worldwide recession will knock anybody off their personal Mount Olympus, pronto.
In January 2009, the phones stopped ringing. Our revenues that year were half of 2008. Eventually, we had to carry out our first layoffs. On top of everything else, our landlord informed us that, literally, the roof was falling in on our heads. Defective trusses. We had to vacate for several weeks midyear and 11 of us crammed into 1200 sq ft and made the best of things until repairs wrapped up. Oy vey.
Fast forward to March 2020. I don’t need to recap that for you. We very quickly dredged up the lessons we learned in 2009 and went into survival mode. Which made sense, but 2020 ended up playing out very differently than 2009 did.
2009: LESSONS LEARNED
- We cut the extras. Nobody went to any conferences, seminars or workshops in 2009. We ditched the gym membership, lunches on the company dime and after-work parties.
- We tightened our belts. The three owners took a 30% pay cut (and told our team this) and none of the employees got a bonus or a raise that year (although they certainly deserved them).
- We kept the crucial benefits. While there weren’t any extras, we didn’t cut health insurance or our employer contribution to it (one of the things I’m most proud of in my whole career), we didn’t cut anybody’s salary and we didn’t cut the retirement plan. We focused on why people need jobs and made sure we fulfilled our responsibilities to our employees.
- We reassured our team. After the terrible day in May when we had to lay off two wonderful people, we met individually with the rest of the staff and — while not promising anybody continued employment, which is never a smart move — we told them that we intended to do everything possible to not lay off anybody else. And we didn’t have to. We communicated regularly about the state of things. Not knowing is worse than knowing the worst.
- We made the best use of our time. At the staff’s instigation, we rebranded in 2009. We seized the breathing room to work on our own stuff and it was amazing.
- We strategized with our clients to benefit from the downturn. Some businesses and organizations took advantage of their competitors’ struggles to grab a bigger piece of the pie in 2009. We rebranded several clients, built them new sites and created new marketing plans. As things began to improve and customers were ready to spend their money again, they were much better placed than their competitors.
- We cultivated new markets. We hit the road in 2009 and 2010, building new relationships in Southwest Kansas, which weathered the recession remarkably well. We ended up doing some of our most rewarding work ever in Garden City and other western Kansas communities. That work and those relationships continue to serve our business well.
2020: LESSONS APPLIED
- We didn’t hesitate to do hard things. In the second week of March 2020, one of the owners was stranded in Europe and the other two of us spent a high-stress weekend talking to each other and our key clients. On March 16, 2020, our team came in, and then we all went home — with our Macs and monitors and files. We wanted to get as much control over the situation as we could and keep our people as safe as possible.
- We knew the team needed info and news. Having learned that people crave details and reassurance during times of turmoil, we set up daily morning meetings on Zoom. People who had never worked from home were suddenly isolated and afraid. It was a terrible time and we spent a lot of it trying to make each other feel better and not alone.
- The phones kept ringing. (OK, April was pretty quiet. But after that….) Clients maintained their marketing, they just switched it up, which was a surprise (a pleasant one, of course). They needed our help to assure their own clients and customers they were open for business and ready to go. So while the focus and messaging often changed, our clients persevered.
- We stayed loose. We did three facemask campaigns and were proud to do them (we believe in science here). Much of what happened in early COVID-times was definitely “flying by the seat of our pants” and we worked with people we never had before. A local PAC hired us to get an eco devo sales tax passed. During a pandemic. And we did it! 2020 caused us (and everybody, of course) to say, “Huh. Never thought I’d do THAT.”
- We rebranded…again. (Hey, it’s what we do.) Although we stayed very busy, workflow wasn’t always predictable. We formed a small team to rebrand the company, which coincided with a move to a larger space in our same building, once we came back in June 2020.
If you survive, the toughest lessons are usually the best. Experience can be a harsh teacher but it’s even worse to not to learn anything from it. Get through the tough stuff, don’t forget how you did it and pull those lessons out when you need them.