Starting 2021 positively: Vicki Young
Vicki Young is the Founder and CEO of Nalla – a talented branding and digital specialists. Throughout 2020, Vicki dealt with becoming a carer for a family member and letting go of her East London studio space; all the while raising a young daughter through a global pandemic. Whilst there have been big positives – in October, Nalla were awarded in the CreativePool Top 10 Agencies List 2020 - she describes the time as “the most challenging in her life so far.” Her resilience is truly inspiring.
So here are Vicki’s thoughts on running a successful agency through a pandemic and coping when work and family life cacophonically combine.
So, what has lock down been like for you as a team leader? When we went into lockdown no. 1, it was a really challenging point for me personally. I had a one and a half year old at home, a really close family member that I needed to nurse through a big cancer operation and then daily radiotherapy as well as nervous clients holding or cancelling projects. So, for me, it was quite a crazy time of trying to balance leading and running a business, being a nurse and being a mum a one-and-a-half-year-old little girl.
I think as a leader, you’re the person that the team always look to for guidance, for positivity, for grounding.
I needed to focus on keeping my whole team aligned, motivated and focused as well as deal with all the crazy shit that was going on in my personal life. It was one of the most challenging times I've faced since I started Nalla 10 years ago.
It felt like spinning multiple plates, keeping the team motivated and on track, and also motivating my close family member who was going through cancer treatment so was incredibly ill and in really low spirits.
This lockdown is a completely different ballgame. Nursery isn't shut for one! The second thing is that my family member has finished their treatment, so they're feeling much better than they were.
Hopefully this year it'll be a case of looking back and being like “oh my God that was crazy!”
As a leader, I've been honest with the team and geared them up from a point of view of - this isn't going to be a walk in the park, this virus isn't just going to go away overnight but keep looking ahead. The pandemic’s impact will be long term for many of our client's businesses. We have large clients in the events space and we have large clients in the food and beverage space, both industries have been really impacted.
I firmly believe that 2021 will be better than 2020
I’m determined for Nalla to be the company that shows resilience, compassion, empathy, not just to ourselves, but to our clients as well.
Luckily our clients from other areas haven't been hit as hard, which has meant from a business point of view, we've got a balanced outlook. We've continued to strategically support some of our regular clients for free giving verbal support without a preassigned budget or promise of future work.
I think it's easy in agency world to be restricted by what's in scope and in budget, but I think in times like this, we need to be a bit – more human. Thinking about how we can support, rather than what is or isn't in that budget that has just been pulled.
Have you noticed any change in your team culture? Absolutely. I mean, for one, seeing each other would be wonderful. We met up for one meeting in that sweet spot in the summer where you could meet up with people outside. So, some us met up – we had to stick to regulations but actually getting together was fantastic.
Nalla had a beautiful big studio in the heart of Shoreditch. People loved working there and being there. But, once the break clause came up, I decided to vacate.
We were an agency that was very much founded on a studio so it was quite upsetting for me and some of the team. But other team members chose to focus on the possibility of moving into a new space that's maybe a bit more flexible and their mindset helped heal my heartbreak.
We're really lucky in terms of how the business is set up, as we can work remotely relatively easily. It was just a case of moving computers home and meet virtually instead. We used to run daily stand-ups in the studio which we have now restructured into Monday kickoff meetings, to not only go through the client work, but also to check in with the team. We ask everyone to choose one thing that they're going to do for themselves this week.
“So, what are you going to do to be kind to yourself?”
We’d always have Friday drinks at the pub – before only a few would attend but now they’re virtual everyone in the team gets involved.
We've had virtual bingo. We've had a version of Where's Wally? Which is spot the team member in the crowd. We've recently just had a online rave! Everyone had to get dressed in rave outfits, set a Zoom rave background, and just danced for half an hour, which was really empowering and really super cool.
As an agency we've also volunteered our time on projects that will make a positive impact, to be able to give something back in times of need.
We’ve had two internal projects; one has been our masks. We spotted that there was a challenge when nursery schools and nurseries reopened after the first lockdown. Young children weren't used to seeing people wearing masks and it was really freaking them out as all of the carers were going to be wearing masks. So, we designed a series universal print out at home character face masks, that just clip on over your normal mask to raise a smile in everyone and feel less intimidating for children.
We've been working on an exciting project that launched this month, focussing on the mental health of those in our sector
We've surveyed people throughout the pandemic and are completely changing how we operate to meet the requests of what people at the studio want. At the moment we work from home pretty much the whole time but everyone at the moment wants to do 50/50 moving forward.
The team don't want to lose some sort of office space hub - that place where we can come together, but they also like the idea of working from home. So, moving forward, we're looking at a much more flexible space; it might be using one of the co- workspaces, it might even be sharing with another agency - there's quite a few new approaches that we can take.
We are trying to be as considerate to everyone’s future needs as possible. It's very easy to think you’ve been dealt the worst hand, when in reality it's tough for everyone right now. Everyone’s needs matter.
Has it been manageable overseeing creative work whilst at home? It has been challenging, I won't lie. It's so much easier to guide and oversee projects when you've just got to swizzle your chair and be like, "Yeah, that's right." Despite having Slack, Asana, and also email and Zoom, it's still not the same as being face-to-face. So, yes, we have managed to oversee creative work and do some cracking work - but being in the same room is easier!
Has it been challenging? Absolutely. Is this getting easier? I would hope so, being able to come together at least a few times a week in 2021 would really help.
Have you worked longer hours as a result from working from home?
I try to keep a tight leash on working long hours because I think in this industry you can really burnout.
It happens every now and then, but we try to avoid people working late. Naturally, no agency is able to manage a workflow to perfection, where no one ever has to work longer hours than they need to. Same for any business, really. Client feedback comes in late and the deadlines shifted, it is a balance and it's a real challenge to try and keep everyone doing similar hours. So, I'd like to say generally there's not been such an uptake of that or a regular pattern, but I do feel that at times there have been longer hours.
With recessions you don't know what's around the corner and its even harder to judge what clients are going to invest in. So, if you're hitting a busy spot, it's a bit like, we've all got to come together and work hard because the busy-ness now might help us tide over the next few months that could be dryer. So, it's about always trying to keep that balance and that mindset.
what's the one positive that has arisen from the past few months?
We've actually managed to grow the business turnover, which is fantastic. There's a saying going around agency world: Flat is the new growth!, which is funny and true. As soon as this broke out my FD said
"Vicki. We're going to make a loss this year, and don't expect any sort of growth," and he looked at me like I was crazy when I replied, "No. I think we should still keep the same target. I don't think we should adjust it. I think we should go for it. Let’s remain positive, work hard, but give complete clarity to everyone that this is a real aspiration. And let's not kill ourselves over hitting this target!"
We haven't had to furlough anyone. We haven't made anyone redundant and we haven't cut anyone's pay. So, relatively speaking, from a job point of view, I feel like there's been quite a lot of security.
When the numbers were coming in at mid-year, My FD was like, "Okay. It would be good to break even. We should be happy breaking even." Now then the numbers are coming in towards the end of the year, I'm really proud with the financials that we've done. In terms of the creativity, I'm also really proud of the creative outputs that we're doing.
We've recently been awarded The Creative Pool, Best Branding Agency top 10. We came in at number seven, which was an amazing surprise. We were super, super chuffed about that.
Being acknowledged by the industry for doing beautiful creative work that generates results is really fulfilling and I’m really proud of myself for making some quite hard decisions this year and unshackling from a victim mentality.
Overall, despite 2020 literally having me on my knees at one point, I'm starting the year feeling really positive about what we've achieved creatively and financially as a studio and I'm excited about the future.