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Adwise en Google: Hoe leid je een agency in turbulente tijden

Roundtable bij Google: Onze strategie in de meest uitdagende tijden

Op uitnodiging van Google was Thijs Wolbers (Director of Innovation bij Adwise), te gast bij een Roundtable voor high-performance Agencies uit Oost-Europa. Hij werd gevraagd door Google om een presentatie te geven over de volgende uitdaging: Hoe ga je als agency om met de pandemie, en wat is de strategie om groei voor zowel de klanten als voor Adwise te bewaken - en te stimuleren? Thijs nam de luisteraars mee door de journey van COVID-19 in Nederland en deelde de lessons learned van Adwise als een van de leidende agencies in Nederland. In dit artikel nemen we jullie mee door de highlights van zijn Roundtable sessie. (Interview in het Engels)


Leestijd: 10 minuten - Auteur:

Thijs Wolbers

Director Quality & Innovation / Head of Digital Commerce 



What happened in the Netherlands?

"At the start of 2020, COVID-19 was still far away. It was evident something nasty was happening in China, but many hoped it would stay confined to Asia like SARS. 

Early February COVID-19 had spread to Italy and Austria, both being popular winter sports destinations for the Dutch. Some brought the virus back home and that coincided with the huge carnival celebrations in the south of the country. These mass gatherings turned into superspreader events. Infections surged, hospitals were overrun and we ended up in a semi-lockdown in March.

In May the spread of the virus seemed contained and life returned more or less to normal. When people returned from their summer holidays, infections went up again. Right now we are in the middle of a second semi-lockdown. We expect the second wave to last longer than the first one as people are gathering more indoors now and there is an increasing resistance to following the new strict rules. The country is getting more divided on the subject; this leads to heated debates on social media, anti-COVID parties and sometimes even fights. 

The debate is fueled by decreasing death rates (through better understanding and medication) and increasing economic and social impact. People with serious illnesses, like cancer, see their treatments postponed in favor of COVID-patients and that divides the medical experts on the subject as well.

On the upside, COVID-19 brought us a new word: the Covidiot."


How did clients react and what happened in the business?

"COVID-19 cast its shadow long before it hit our streets. Large online retailers started cutting down on their performance campaigns as their imports from Asia stalled. We saw the same thing happening with our clients too. COVID-19 sent us into a semi-lockdown in March. That triggered a surge in online sales in almost any business. Overnight performance marketing turned into a delicate balancing act. Online retailers wanted to cash in on this opportunity, but without disappointing customers with ‘out of stock’ messages.

The balancing act accelerated the deployment of smart technology for almost all our clients: we need to match stock with performance marketing real time. So, we hacked Google Smart Shopping. What the heck is the hack, you might wonder. We created an extra smart layer that links up to date warehouse data to smart shopping campaign insights. This drives a dynamic performance campaign that optimizes sales without running the risk of bumping into out-of-stock messages.

They say: every crisis comes with opportunity. COVID-19 has also opened up new business for us. Clients started investing in digital skills for their staff. Our Adwise Academy provides a wide range of training courses and workshops. We transferred all these into remote learning overnight using Zoom and other tools. We also added new courses that specifically target the new normal of 2020. The economic support of the government includes personal education budgets for developing future proof digital skills. That created an extra rush in Adwise Academy courseware.

All together, it has been a challenging time, but also a time of innovation, recreation and opportunity for everyone."


What's your vision on pandemics related to digital and brands?

"Steve Jobs said upon returning to Apple: 

“Rather than cut cost and lay off people, we'll innovate our way out of trouble.“Steve Jobs

We couldn’t agree more. Freezing up and waiting is the worst way to get through this. We believe any organisation should grab this moment to rethink their business and look for new opportunities to evolve. The best innovations are created by challenging the ultimate status quo. It often starts with simple questions such as "what if ...". Just imagine how you would like something to be, without getting bogged down in the details of realizing it. In the end you can achieve almost everything, even things that might seem impossible at first.

Our key advice:

1. Focus on digital transformation
Going digital has become a prerequisite to work together, now physical contacts must be limited as much as possible. Think digital is also a must to keep your business afloat. Internal and external processes have to work location independent. And employees should enjoy working together even if they are miles apart

2. Think beyond your business
Manage your time effectively right now and don’t get stuck in doom scenarios. Look at what you have and what is happening around you, specifically outside your direct line of business. For example… food delivery services are short on staff, while catering business are out of work and students can’t attend classes. Suddenly there is a huge target group with potential. Embrace opportunities like these to emerge from the crisis stronger.

3. Let us think with you
Adwise offers free brain power to companies that are struggling. Our thought leaders team up with C-level executives to help companies and organizations with business and marketing strategy, transformation / digitization and disruption. Together we will find new ways to innovate your way out of trouble. Like Steve said."


How did you react as an agency?

"From day one our strategy has been: fast forward together. We handed free insights and knowledge to all our clients. We also started a series of blogs and podcasts with fresh ideas on how to handle the crisis. And offered free brain power to companies that are struggling.

At the same time we focused our marketing and sales efforts on industries that would generate short to midterm revenue. We quickly transitioned the Adwise Academy into a full digital learning environment to cater for a huge demand in digital skills. All these efforts combined have helped our clients to make their business COVID-proof and even develop new revenue streams. What’s good for them, is good for us.

Internally we fast forwarded our way of working. We facilitated working from home with extra hardware and Zoom licenses. From the start we have been transparent about our agency’s KPI’s to our staff through weekly management updates.  We transformed our physical agency into an online community with virtual get togethers, pub quizzes, digital escape rooms, etc. We also kept a close watch on employee sentiment."


Which industries were most affected by the pandemic?

"Obviously any industry related to close personal contact was impacted in a very negative way. Just think of events, music, catering team sports, etc. The same goes for their suppliers and the suppliers of their suppliers. It’s like a shockwave that fans out from Corona Ground Zero. Since Adwise hardly has any clients in these industries, the shockwave did impact us a lot.

On the other hand, the pandemic impacted many businesses in a very positive way. Online shopping surged. Ordering food and groceries made the long awaited jump forward. Traditional businesses also moved into online shopping and services. Anything related to working remotely skyrocketed. That impacted Adwise in a positive way too."


What is your/your team's overall work-from-home experience and what are your biggest lessons learned for remote settings?

"Like the late Johan Cruijff - the famous Dutch football player, I am sure you know him - used to say:

“Every disadvantage comes with an advantage.“Johan Cruijff

So let’s talk about the good things first. The team say they are more effective. They enjoy more focus in their work and feel less distracted. Though I must add... many of them are still young and don’t have kids at home yet. 

The flexibility in planning your day is also greatly appreciated. At Adwise we strongly believe in making people responsible for their output and leave up to them how they achieve it. We’re not a managing-by-being-all-over-people type of agency. We simply trust them to do their job. And that works. On the other hand… casual conversations over a cup of coffee are dearly missed. Some teams try to make these conversations happen virtually. They set up video calls and you can talk about anything except work. 

We’ve always encouraged our teams to work wherever they wanted. Sometimes they did, but often they didn’t. Now working anywhere has become the standard and people have accepted their newly found freedom.

So, all together… I think it has been a positive experience for everyone at Adwise."


The Corona pandemic put a lot of pressure on all of us. What was most challenging for you as a leader? How did you overcome those challenges?

"The biggest challenge of working remotely a lot is… emotions. It is hard to read people’s sentiment in a Zoom call or Hangout session. You just can’t look them in the eyes like in a real conversation. The other way around poses the same question: can they read my intentions?

Doing new business is also a bit of a challenge. In a face-to-face conversation, we are really good at conveying our energy and enthusiasm. In a call, it is hard to strike the same cord. Another challenge was taking the lead with clients. Some were in real need because of the crisis. We went to great lengths to help them out wherever we could. On one hand, we had to move fast and act quickly, on the other hand, we wanted to keep our cool and be in control. The crisis became a bit of a balancing act in that respect.

At Adwise we have always been very involved with the people that work for us. Covid-19 has pout that into overdrive. We are keen to keep tabs on how everybody is doing. We are in this together and we want to come out of this together. Feelings are tracked over time through biweekly surveys, giving the management a sense of where the community is heading emotionally. We can reach out in time if someone is not feeling so great. The biggest learning for us... empathy makes all the difference. After all, Adwise is its people and the people are Adwise."

Thijs Wolbers

Hulp nodig tijdens deze pandemie?

Wij denken graag mee.


Thijs Wolbers
Director Quality & Innovation

Contact opnemen met Thijs

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