Carrying the 'tough' lessons forward

15 Apr 2024 by Steven Giannoulis

Client first 1 HR

As another financial year ticks over and we start to focus on the next three-year strategic plan, I’ve been reflecting on the learnings from the tough times we’ve been through since the start of 2020. Three key lessons stick out for me and they have become the foundations for our plans over the next three years.

The last few years have been some of the toughest to negotiate as a SME business leader. With a pandemic and the ensuing global financial crisis, short term survival has been the focus for many of us. There have been many casualties, both large and small businesses, and every day the news is full of new liquidations, retrenchments, and lay-offs. These are scary times, especially for those of us who operate in the marketing, communication, and advertising sphere which seems to be the first to have budgets cut when times get tough.

But tough financial times haven’t been the only challenge for leaders over recent years.  We’ve had to deal with rapid technological shifts and some significant changes in social and employment trends, fundamentally changing how we do business. AI’s doing parts of our job faster and cheaper. Our staff are no longer coming to the office and clients largely engage with us through our computer screens. As well as trying to survive financially, we’ve been navigating a strange new world, that is likely to get even more alien in the next few years.

As the financial year ends, we’re getting ready to launch our new strategic and business plans. These plans are built on the lessons from the tough times, with three key lessons at the forefront.

Lesson 1: Define the value you deliver

We’ve seen that during tough economic times shoppers have adapted the way they spend their money. Many shoppers have been looking for value through discounts, loyalty rewards, buying in bulk, buying alternative product, or buying from cheaper sources like Temu and Shein. Other shoppers have defined value in different ways, looking to support local business, sustainable products, and services, and by seeking quality.

Our clients have been similar, looking for new forms of value. We’ve adapted to what they need by better defining what value means to each of them.

With some clients it felt like the message has been ‘we want more but we want to pay less for it.’ Where preserving a valuable long-term relationship made sense, we found ways to deliver this. Short term drops in revenue are acceptable when the long-term value of a client warrants it. But with some clients, we accepted that a cheaper/lower-quality alternative was what they needed get through the tough times. We hope to work with them again when conditions allow.

But like our clients, we have an imperative to make the numbers work for our business too, so for most clients our focus remained on preserving revenue by delivering greater value. This meant creating extra benefits, support, insights, and services that have high perceived value for clients. Clients paid about the same but got more for it, supporting their drive to get better value for their spend.

And there is a group of clients who saw tough times as an opportunity to do more for their customers, their staff, and their other stakeholders. For them, we dialled up the thinking, and the quality of deliverables, to even higher levels. For them value was not measured in absolute dollars but in better outcomes and a better return on their spend.

Lesson 2: Leverage what you do best

While economic pressure often drives businesses to cut costs and to look to offer new lower cost products and services, we made the decision to double down on what we do best – strategic-creative thinking and design.

Along with thinking more broadly about how clients can benefit from it, we’ve also been thinking about new ways to deliver it. The result has been more strategic communications like investor, community, and stakeholder engagement; attracting and retaining high-calibre employees; and building connections with customers in new and engaging ways. Through this we’ve grown our capability in interactive digital experiences, spatial engagement and in VR and AR technologies.

We also took our strategic problem-solving skills, and our ability to tell engaging stories, and made them the basis for an innovation lab. By leveraging existing skills, we’ve developed new ventures – and new revenue streams - like a VR game and a learning and training partnership.

And as we look forward to AI and the systemic shift it will cause in our industry, our first thought is ‘how can we adopt it to strengthen our competitive advantage?’ 

Lesson 3: Communicate. Communicate. Communicate.

It has been, and continues to be, a time of great uncertainty. Everyone appreciates how difficult the environment is and everyone’s doing the best they can to get through it. We’re all in this together so we’ve talked about our concerns, our learnings, and how we can help each other.

We found real value in listening and sharing. First, with our clients to understand the challenges they were going through. For many we were able to better support them and that’s helped create an even stronger long-term relationship. We shared some of our challenges with them as well and have seen many clients seek ways to help. For example, paying us quicker to help our cashflow.

Staff are feeling the financial pinch at home and have the added stress of worrying about the state of the business. We’ve adopted a transparent approach, communicating openly and regularly about where we are at and engaging them in finding solutions. Despite tough times, we’ve had excellent staff retention levels and high levels of staff satisfaction.

We’ve taken the same open approach with our Board and our investors, drawing them in to help us find the best outcomes possible, for them and for the business.

Through this open communication approach, I feel we’ve built trust with all stakeholders that will see us through good times and bad.


The next few years are likely to be as tough as the last few. The economic pressure isn’t going away quickly, and the pace of change is not going to slow down. Having worked through the challenges of last few years, I have confidence that whatever happens in the next few, we’ll learn and adapt and not only survive, but thrive, in the next few years. Take a moment to reflect on your last few years – how will the lessons learnt inform the next few years?