Interview: Jake Third, Hallam – ‘If you lose trust, it’s hard to come back from’

Jake Third

At the beginning of May, Jake Third was named as the new managing director of Nottingham-based digital agency Hallam.

His first big task has been to guide the agency through the choppy waters of COVID-19, dealing with client fallout and putting an immediate action in place that ensured Hallam would recover from the pandemic as strong as it was before.

Here, he shares his biggest COVID-19 lessons from the past four months that will shape him for the future, as well as his thoughts on the industry’s biggest talking points, including client loss, home-working and the importance of reciprocity…

How did you work with your clients at the outset of the lockdown?
We had calls with all our clients within three days to assess the situation after the lockdown was announced. The impact was instant and from those initial discussions we put a financial plan in place to accommodate for the fact that we were going to be losing approximately a third of our turnover.

With clients, there’s a need to balance between being compassionate with being commercially astute. We allowed businesses that had endured cash flow problems to pause retainers and worked on different clauses. For most, we paused our services for 90-days – giving clients a three-month timeframe in which they didn’t pay us anything. In one instance, we allowed one client not to pay their invoices that were outstanding with the view that we hoped they would remember that and continue working with us when things return to normal. That comes down to reciprocity.

Some businesses were hit far worse than we were and we wanted to help out as best as we could. It was also about sharing what we were learning, and we swiftly produced a COVID statement detailing our new processes and sharing our client experiences, and started sharing our specific COVID knowledge in our COVID-19 marketing hub. Companies remember actions like that.

How did this affect the company financially?
Once we had a full picture of our client situation, we knew we needed to save a big chunk of money each month. The next part was simple. We scrupulously went through the management accounts and identified where we needed to make savings. That included training costs, commissions, events and we just went through it all with a red line. We also asked our staff to take a voluntary 10% salary deduction.

“For context, the thing we are proudest of at our agency is our team culture. Our biggest determination was to save every role and we took the view that could be achieved if we all took a small pay cut and utilised the furlough scheme as we needed, rather than any one member lose their job. As a business you have to be able to put your case across for something like that and the only way it can be achieved is through complete honesty and transparency with the entire team.

“Every single colleague voluntarily agreed to the temporary pay reduction, while most colleagues said they would be happy to go on furlough if asked. That act alone summed up the culture we have at our agency – one where we would all do anything to help and protect each other.

How did staff react to working away from the office?
“The line that differentiates an individual at work and at home has disappeared. People are struggling to make the psychological switch and because of that there is a natural tendency to work longer hours unnecessarily. There’s no doubt it can be damaging and that’s something we’re incredibly conscious of here at Hallam.

“Two of the themes that have come off the back of this pandemic has been mental health and burnout, and alongside protecting everyone’s jobs, this has been a big focus of ours. We launched a mental health first aid programme in May and trained up four colleagues to provide active and empathetic listening skills to help any member of the team that may be struggling.

“We tell our colleagues to take a rest and we also run regular workshops on mental resilience. That’s something that is constantly evolving and we’re listening to our team to find out exactly what they need right now during this time and are doing everything we can to deliver that.”

Will working from home now become the norm for Hallam?
This is an interesting topic and I know there are different takes. From our perspective, the first thing we have done is extend our working from home policy until the end of 2020. We’re not going pro-remote working, but we’re also not going pro-office either. Instead, we’re pro-flexibility.

“We recognise that our colleagues are different – some like working remotely, some like being in the office – and we’re giving them that choice.

“Remote working is a great thing when you have got the choice to do that. People appreciate having diversity in their day and we’re committing to give our colleagues that in the future.

The top three COVID-19 lessons that have shaped Jake Third for the future:

Tackle the biggest issue head on – Go directly towards the biggest problems – the ones you are scared of – and face it directly and honestly. I firmly believe that if you put the best solution together you can and articulate that with transparency that is the optimum course of action to getting the best result to a problem. There’s no use hiding from it. Tackle it head on. Be honest and do your best. Your colleagues will see that and even if they don’t think you made the right decision, you won’t have it held against you. If you bury your head in the sand, you’re not reacting quick enough. It sugar coats the situation. You lose trust. If you lose that, it’s a hard thing to come back from.

A one-size leadership approach does not fit all scenarios – Leaders need to be able to flex their style. I naturally lean towards consensus building, but that doesn’t work at all times. Sometimes a firm hand is required and colleagues need to be told what direction they are going in. That tends to only be required during a time of crisis, but that’s crucial and as a new managing director that has been a big learning curve for me.

Be transparent about everything – I firmly believe there should be no level of information within a company and its staff that should be hidden. Leadership teams should share 100% of the information of the team and if you’re not doing that, it’s because you have got something to hide. I don’t mind talking about our profit margin or how much money we have got in the bank. By adopting that approach, you are able to justify your decisions because you’re providing context.