Posted: 14 Nov. 2020

A new reality: How digital agencies are responding to COVID-19

L-R Wendy Thompson, David Kelly

New Zealand’s COVID-19 lockdown shuttered businesses both large and small. All of a sudden, physical operations had to be replaced with a digital presence, and companies with limited digital capabilities had to pivot, quickly, to reach their customers.

But how did this sudden influx of interest in digital affect businesses operating in that space? For SME website design agency Zeald and social media marketing agency Socialites, the impact of the pandemic led to a patchwork of challenge and opportunity. It also became an exercise in adaptability, as it was for so many others.

Ahead of the curve

David Kelly started Zeald back in 2001 with his brother and cousin, well before the internet became an integral part of our daily lives. Their goal was to enable businesses to expand into e-commerce – a concept that at the time, Kelly says, ‘was seen as a bit of a fad.’

It wasn’t easy – Kelly and his co-founders were technology experts but leading a business was a very different line of work. As the company grew, Kelly says, ‘the area of leadership and management wasn’t something we’d really studied. We had to learn by doing, and by having people really help us develop those skills.’

Still, as the internet age took hold over the world, Zeald thrived, securing a place on the Fast 50 index back-to-back in 2007 and 2008. Now, it’s the largest website design and digital transformation agency for small and medium-sized businesses in New Zealand.

Like Kelly, when Wendy Thompson started Socialites in 2010, she was ahead of the curve. While social media was already becoming a central component of people’s personal lives, the full power of advertising on platforms like Facebook and Twitter wasn’t yet the staple of business that it is today. Still, Thompson knew she was onto a good thing in developing a social media marketing agency, saying, ‘when social media came about, I could see that our intrinsic human need to connect with each other was going to be supercharged.’

Since then, Socialites have launched the social media presence of many of New Zealand’s best-known brands and have clients around the globe. They were awarded the 2018 Australasian Social Media Agency of the Year and were recently selected to transform hundreds of tourism operators’ social media strategies for Qualmark’s $5m digital enablement initiative.

A new way of working

Like so many others, when the first COVID-19 lockdown took place in New Zealand, things were really daunting for Socialites. As Thompson says, ‘in April we had a significant drop in revenue, which was quite scary.’ Many of her clients were heavily affected by the pandemic and temporarily paused their agency contracts as a result.

The team also found it hard to work remotely, missing the opportunity to be creative together in one place. As Thompson says, ‘we’re creative, we collaborate and we’re all highly social people here, so we really missed each other.’ 

For Zeald, the move to remote working wasn’t as difficult. With offices in both New Zealand and the Philippines, Kelly says, ‘we’ve been a distributed office for a long time, so conference calls and working from home was something we were already comfortable with.’

Instead, the challenge Zeald faced in the pandemic was one they assigned for themselves. Already set up to work from home, Kelly and his colleagues came up with an initiative that could harness that advantage and use it to give back to those who were struggling. Called the ‘Get Ecommerce Movement’ or ‘GEM’ for short, the goal was to help 500 Kiwi businesses get online with free websites and digital upskilling, to allow their trading to continue remotely and to get them started on their digital journey.

They targeted businesses that had previously relied on footfall through their doors to keep revenue flowing. As Kelly points out, ‘you would have thought that by 2020, everyone would have been online but there are still so many businesses that haven’t yet transformed digitally.’

The results made a significant difference, both to the businesses Zeald was helping and to the outlook that Kelly and his team had on their own potential. As Kelly says, ‘we started to realise the positive impact that we could have as an organisation.’

‘For many that we supported, when the lockdown came they thought their businesses were done. So it’s been amazing to see their resilience as they’ve taken on a digital approach with both hands and learnt new skills at the same time. Going digital really helps to set businesses up for new opportunities in an increasingly digital world.’

The initiative hasn’t stopped at the first 500 websites either – Kelly has kept it going and plans to give away websites to small businesses for the foreseeable future, balancing the GEM side of the business alongside Zeald’s regular client work.

Learning to adapt

When it came to the impact of the pandemic for Socialites, Thompson and her co-CEO Melanie Spencer created new products for the SME market and in turn a valuable new revenue stream. They also found the clients who had initially paused activity came back stronger and with more focus due to pandemic’s effect on social media – social media use increased over the first lock-down by 60% and has remained high.  

From a workplace perspective, Thompson made sure to stress the importance of mental health care whilst her team was working from home. Daily morning calls were mandatory and a ‘buddy system’ was set up for additional support.

From her perspective as a business leader, Thompson was also aware of how she needed to balance that responsibility. She says, ‘one of the things I’ve been talking about a lot about is the importance of looking after yourself, especially as a business leader. Put your own mask on first – your team need a lot from you, so you need to make sure that you’re not running on empty yourself.’

Thompson is proud of how her team responded in turn, saying, ‘they really had to work twice as hard to do the same amount of work, but everyone came together to support each other.’ A reflection, she says, of the larger national effort in keeping spirits up through a challenging time.

The Socialites team also had another change to adapt to. Socialites acquired Influencer Marketing agency The Social Club, completing due diligence and closing the sale during the first national lockdown. It was a big risk during an unpredictable time but as Thompson says, ‘we know our industry and always trust our gut. it’s been one of the best decisions – we’re really happy.’

For Thompson, taking risks and dealing with unknowns is just part of being an entrepreneur. She says, ‘when difficulties come along, entrepreneurs are at an advantage as we constantly live in a state of uncertainty and practice advanced crisis skills as part of our job descriptions - resilience, creativity, adaptability, pragmatism. As a business leader there’s always something to attend to; this time it’s a global pandemic.’

Socialites ranked 48th in the 2015 Deloitte Fast 50.

Zeald ranked 19th in the 2007 Deloitte Fast 50 and 31st in 2008.

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Jen Scouler

Jen Scouler

Senior Digital Content Advisor

Jen Scouler is a Senior Digital Content Advisor at Deloitte, working across the firm's digital communications and social media.