How to steer your studio through tight economic times

There are different opinions on surviving tough times, sometimes within the same agency. We asked Studio Output’s Rob Coke and Dan Moore to chew it over

Rob Coke: I think the first thing I’d say is try not to panic and chase any work you can get. You have to keep your identity if you’re going to come out the other side with a point of difference from the competition.

Dan Moore: It’s about balance – if push comes to shove then you may have to take the odd cash cow, but as Rob says, don’t lose sight of what you’re doing and why.

RC: Having said that, pride can ruin your business. Regardless of your level in the company, muck in and do whatever it takes to get through a tough spell – if that means a bit of menial work you thought was behind you, so be it.

DM: You can always be another fee generator too – assuming you have design or illustration skills – so keep an eye in, even if you’re out of practice with the tools.

RC: If you haven’t got enough work for people get them on R&D, looking into new client areas or sprucing up the portfolio – anything that gets you moving forward rather than stagnating.

DM: It’s also a good time to let your staff know about aspects of the business that perhaps they’re not normally exposed too. I think people care more and get stuck in if they see where they fit into the bigger picture, and how they’re affected by it.

RC: If things get tight, do everything you can to keep people in a job. Trim costs elsewhere, reduce your own salary if you can afford it, even consider asking everyone if they’re prepared to take a pay cut – you’ll be surprised how people will respond if they know they’re helping keep their colleagues employed.

DM: Indeed, although to counter that you have to be prepared to make big decisions in these situations. One of your biggest overheads will always be staff, and if times continue to be tough, eventually people might have to go. If this horrible situation does come up, try and keep people as informed as possible and give them as much time as they can to work out what’s next for them. Try and put yourself in their place – it’s not nice!

RC: Look at what else you can cut back on, but don’t spend so long trying to save a few quid that you end up wasting your own more valuable time. Cash flow is going to be the big problem throughout this year, as anyone who has money is hanging onto it.

DM: It’s interesting to go through your monthly outgoings with a fine-toothed comb, no matter what your situation. There are always things that creep in that aren’t needed – it’s good to tone things up!

RC: Don’t use‘tough times’as an excuse to hold your staff back. It can be tempting to motivate people by letting them sniff your fear, but if you’re too ‘successful’ with your plan you might scare them into looking for work elsewhere. Bad news travels quickly and if people sense your business is in trouble, they’ll be on the lookout. Inevitably, a culture of insecurity will push people into the job market, and they might not return.

DM: I’m a strong believer in being upfront with people – the clearer your situation, the more sympathy and affinity you’ll have with the people around you.

RC: Remember, not everyone has to suffer through a recession. The agreed wisdom with these cyclical events is that they’re needed from time to time as a way of ‘adjusting’ the economy. What we’re going through at the moment is an extreme example of this, but if you’re a small agency you can actually benefit from clients reviewing their agencies and using the opportunity to trim the fat from bloated accounts. If you’re good at what you do and can think on your feet, you will survive.

DM: I think the key is being nimble, and willing to innovate and change. If clients are looking to get more from smaller agencies then find out what else you can do for them – if you’re prepared to learn new skills you can cross-sell new services, and move into emerging areas.

Dan Moore and Rob Coke are creative directors and founding partners of Studio Output, a creative company with studios in London and Nottingham. They’ve spent the past nine years masterminding projects for Sony PlayStation, the BBC, Ministry of Sound and Arts Council England.

Illustration: Mitch Blunt