This week, Mumbrella reached out to Sharon Zeev Poole to gain her insights into leading a small agency through the Covid-19 pandemic. Have a read of her insights below:

Dear fellow small-agency owners,

This time just a couple of months ago we were onboarding our latest recruit, and I was in the midst of uploading a new job role to LinkedIn; what was to be my third hire in six months since being named PRIA’s Boutique Agency of the Year. Our office whiteboard was crammed with exciting campaign opportunities in the pipeline, and my team were pumped about a huge year of success ahead.

Well, I guess you know where this is going – week of March 9 is one that I will never forget. COVID-19 blasted through the door (not literally, thankfully) and the trajectory of our agency for 2020 was on a total and immediate downward spiral. Now a “good day” was one where we didn’t receive a call from a client asking to put their project on hold or wanting to part ways because their business ceased operating overnight. 

Within a week, the direction of our agency and its operations had diverted completely from our robust growth plan. Overnight, like many others, we had to frantically pivot client communication approaches and widen our business offerings to stay alive. It felt like a mad race against the clock as our minds went into strategy and execution overdrive.  From crisis comms, to content creation, video editing and webinar strategy to online tasting events, we were doing it all and at lightning speed. And it worked. Those calls stopped, we stabilised, and our team survived.

And now, as the tides start to turn with regulations being relaxed, we’re seeing the nation slowly enter into recovery mode. Sadly however, these few but long months may see many small agencies simply unable to just pick right back up where they left off and resume ‘business as usual.’

David vs Goliath

Understandably, all agencies have and will continue to feel the aftermath of COVID-19.  However, unlike larger PR/Marketing firms in Australia who tend to secure bigger-budget campaigns, as well as receive support from global counterparts, smaller boutique agencies generally aren’t as fortunate. Brands will be trepid about investing in PR, the new business market will be highly competitive and thus, we will need to rely solely on our own guts and determination to ‘win’ in this environment. The simple truth is this: You can make it through to the other side, but now is not the time to play it safe.

If you believe that the old ways of operating can simply resume as normal, think again. In order to compete against larger agencies and ensure your business can be profitable and survive through the recovery phase, extending your capabilities like you have never done before and pushing your creative limits will be the only way, as uncomfortable as that may be.

The classic bromide “We’re Here for You” that every brand is pushing out these days, is the agency equivalent of holding fast to classic PR tactics that essentially have no meaningful output in these times. While the goal now is yes, survival, the long-term implications of staying in your comfort zone, will inevitably lead to failure.

Unfortunately, you simply cannot guarantee that once restrictions ease that campaigns will resume, clients will return in droves, or that new business will flow in through your ‘sanitised door’. So, instead of panicking and allowing fear to cultivate amongst your team, you need to pick up some stones (and no, you don’t need to aim them at the big players!).

Like the story of David vs. Goliath, you need to approach the recovery phase like David – where most people would see a sword to kill Goliath, you need to find some stones. You need to look for a new angle, a different way of securing business; and this will mean going against the status quo. It will mean backing yourself, stepping outside your ‘business as usual’ zone and finding any opportunity to offer your new and extended services to the brands that need you the most.

Leadership vs. Loss

Steadfast leadership will be the deciding factor in helping your agency recover from this downfall. Believe me, being the owner of a small business comes with its challenges (cue night sweats, fevers and insomnia that were not a result of actually having Coronavirus).

So, how do you get through this turbulent time without losing everything you’ve worked for? The answer is simple: lead your team to think more strategically and creatively than ever because you simply can’t do it alone. Throw out any old habits and tactics that aren’t working and find ways your agency can provide genuine value.

The beauty of our rapidly changing social norms means that it doesn’t take long to figure out if a tactic has or hasn’t worked. Don’t be afraid to fail – but be very afraid to stop coming up with new ideas. The agencies that will make it through to the other side would have demonstrated agility, creativity and unprecedented ballsyness every day.  

Survival does not mean selling yourself short. You don’t need to slash your campaign fees in order to compete. But you do need to stop undervaluing yourself and limiting your capacity to achieve great things.  Yes, you will need to hustle. Yes, you will need to make cuts and hard decisions. But you will very quickly find that having to get up again, and again and again, is the best personal catalyst to building right back up to the top.

Success vs. Stability

Right now, the goal shouldn’t be success – the goal should be stability. And I’ll admit, I am definitely not wired to think that way. At the end of 2019, when Agent99 was headed into its strongest year on record, I suffered a huge personal loss when my dad passed away. During that haze, all I could (just) manage was keeping myself and my team stable.  And in some ways, professionally, this shock to the business world we’ve known, is no different.

Crisis forces leaders to re-evaluate their operations, and for me, I have had to put the idea of “success” on hold and instead think in terms of “stability.” Every day I have to ask questions such as, ‘How do I keep my clients ahead of their competitors, so they continue to be profitable and able to invest in us despite their own business challenges?’ ‘How can I keep my team intact, culturally happy and motivated?’ ‘Who needs our services most right now?’ ‘How can I minimise my costs, without impacting quality?’, and ‘What things are we really good at that we can leverage quickly and strategically?’

If I’ve learnt one thing from running an agency through troubling times, it’s that when your goal is stability, often this will lead you straight into your greatest success in the long run.

And if there is anything we can guarantee now, it’s that the communications industry will look radically different post-COVID. These have been difficult months for all agencies across Australia. So now, as COVID-fatigue sets in, the adrenaline starts wearing off, and you’re wondering whether you should throw in the towel, the answer is “hell no”! You cannot give up. You just need to keep fighting.

And I’m right here fighting with you. We will get through this – not just to survive, but to learn and thrive in the future, whatever that future looks like.

You can read the original article published on Mumbrella here

by Agent Sharon

Agent99 is an award-winning PR and communications agency based in Sydney. For more information about our services, contact us at

Further reading:
Diary of an Agent – the First 3 Months
Maintaining Your Mental Health While Working Alone at Home