Where to Start When Leading Through Crisis

Chad Kearns, Vice President of Marketing Services

I don’t take the opportunity to write about how I lead Portent as much as I’d like to.

As an agency dedicated to creating positive change and driving engagement for our clients, our attention has little room to slip as the brands we partner with look to us as guides through uncertainty.

Over the past five months, my role has shifted focus due to the environment we find ourselves in today. We’re in the midst of a global pandemic. We navigated a social justice moment that re-sparked a movement. And we are approaching what may end up being the most intense election cycle in many of our lifetimes.

Through that, we’re expected to keep the lights on and continue to push our clients forward. We’re expected to drive results for our clients. We’re expected to show the path forward for our people.

Running a marketing team is hard. Leading a marketing team through crisis is even harder. And to be honest, I couldn’t be more impressed with how our leadership team has led over the past five months.

Yes, this is a proud agency leader moment.

The environment we continue to find ourselves in for the foreseeable future demands a shift in approach from agency leadership across our country. It’s evolved for the better at Portent, and I want to share the approach we’ve taken because I don’t think it’s only relatable to folks who find themselves in leadership roles at a marketing agency.

We’ve relied heavily on these principles over the past five months to guide the Portent team. And while many marketing agencies find themselves in a fragile place as client budget drastically fluctuate, I couldn’t be more proud of this agency or optimistic about our future together.

Be Transparent

Yes, it’s cliché.

It’s cliché for a reason.

We opened up the books for everyone to see internally. We’ve shared all of the wins and all the losses. We’ve talked about what success looks like, and we’ve talked about what happens if things take a turn for the worse. We started doing live Town Hall events with anonymous Q&A sections. Our leadership team answers every single question.

Somewhere towards the end of March, I lost count of how many times I said, “I don’t know.” I’ve felt vulnerable saying that as the agency’s leader, but sometimes, “I don’t know” is the truth and the truth builds trust.

But this honesty is just one part of the puzzle; equally important is what follows. After I say, “I don’t know,” we figure out how to right-size a path forward to fit our needs.

Everything is on the table for everyone to see.

Provide Space

It’s time for more agencies to actually take care of their people.

I’m tired of meeting good people who have been taken in only to be spit out at the end of their agency career jaded by the industry as a whole.

No matter the role of the people on your team, the lives of those team members have changed significantly in the last five months. For most of us, the easy change to see is to a remote-based environment filled with Zoom calls and little opportunity for personal connection. But the impact this “new normal” has had on individuals stretches farther than our professional lives, and continues to evolve and change.

Why do we still expect our team members to work in the same way or need the same things they needed at the start of the year?

Since March, we’ve reshaped our approach to billable hours, time tracking, last-minute deadlines, and unreasonable client requests to better protect our people.

Our benefits have changed and will continue to change as we navigate uncharted waters. Proactive communication, effective prioritization, and better-disciplined project management keep us on track to get through what we must get through. The leadership team has hounded (in the best of ways!) their team members to take paid time off through all of this.

That approach provided everyone in the agency more space; to flex when they work and are in a flow, to flex when their mind isn’t with the agency and our clients, and to flex when the daily news cycle is too much to take an eye off.

Guess what? Engagement from the team is stronger than it’s ever been, and client retention—despite today’s environment—is as high as we’ve ever seen it.

Get Feedback

Lead with genuine empathy, and you may find that you receive more openness and honesty than you ever did before.

Remember that part about not knowing what to do?

The questions, conversations, and input we have received during this time continue to directly shape what we do and how we do it.

We’ve always worked to get feedback, but the cadence, openness, and directness of it has substantially increased this year. Thank you, again, to all of the Portent team who has helped here.

Looking Forward

And while we remain remote and dispersed for the foreseeable future, I think many would agree that in some ways, we’ve grown closer than ever as an agency.

Yes, there have been bumps along the way, and I don’t expect us to be in the clear anytime soon. But we’ll continue to be transparent, provide space, and get feedback as best as we possibly can. I mentioned earlier that the external environment caused us to change our approach to leadership and adopt new principles along the way. I’m an optimist; I believe we will eventually settle into a new normal free of constant crisis. And when we do, these principles won’t change.

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