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One agency’s journey through lockdown

In what seems a lifetime ago, and sometimes yesterday, last October we hosted a 10th birthday celebration for Strike Media on a rooftop in Soho. Just prior to that I had bought my first home in Kent and moved out of rented accommodation in London. I then bought a little Mini to tear around the countryside in, my first car in 14 years, and then on Christmas day proposed to my now fiancée. In January, we found out we were pregnant, with identical twins no less, and then at the start of February we moved Strike HQ into our own space for the first time in Covent Garden, having previously shared leases or floors. A few days later I hit the ripe old age of 40. A lot had happened in a very short amount of time and all of it positive. Then as we all know, the proverbial hit the fan and lockdown ensued.

Lockdown begins
A friend of mine in Milan had said to me not to wait for Boris to make up his mind and get out of town, having seen what they had been through over there. I had a think and pushed the button on 16 March. Our team were asking when we could expect to be back? Three weeks? Four weeks? I didn’t know. No one knew. I played the weirdest five-a-side football match that evening and headed home.

We work predominantly in the film sector running PR, marketing and brand campaigns for clients big and small. As we watched the daily reporting on the coronavirus it soon became very clear that cinemas needed to close for the foreseeable future and, as such, a big chunk of our work was now in stasis. Luckily, we still had clients VOD clients so not all of our work had gone but it was nowhere near what we needed to support everyone and survive.

Fears for the future|
My brain was trying to understand the situation. I won’t lie it was a very confusing and troubling time. Would we survive? Would I have to make people redundant? Would we lose clients in the short term and further into the future? The more unanswerable the questions are, the more the brain goes into a circle of repetition, strain and panic. I had a few sleepless nights, one even drew a mild panic attack as everything got on top of me, plus the added stress of the twins growing.

Furlough scheme
Obviously, the furlough scheme was good for retaining staff and making sure they were okay, at least financially. I am a caring boss and I didn’t want to see them affected by this as much as I could help it. We are a small team, but I genuinely regard them as my family. What was tricky was we still had some work on the books so I had to make decisions about who was on furlough, when they should come off and, in the interim, go hell for leather to create some income for myself. I also had to pick up the reins and getting my hands properly dirty with projects, rather than just being the glorified head of admin I had become. I also had outgoings to cover – accountant, the office, the HR, insurance, some pocket money for myself – furlough (£500 a month) did not cut it for me, I knew I needed to work. We still had to earn.

On top of that, I decided early on I would top up our team to 100% whilst on furlough. The £10k grant for every business in government support? Yeah right. What a joke of a claim that was – in fact, just today I received a decline for a discretionary grant. Seems Westminster had enough for 400 companies. Four hundred. In Westminster.

There was no time to rest on our laurels, I had to go out and show some leadership and I had to show my mettle too.

At 4am an idea pinged into my head about how we could help our industry come through and hopefully make a name for ourselves in the process. We have a huge database of journalists and a sound industry database to boot, so we set to creating a weekly home entertainment newsletter and some order to what was coming out film wise, so that everyone had a reference point to check on. Likewise, news of what was coming out and what wasn’t was changing constantly, almost hourly, that there was nothing solid to rely on. Well, now there was. We have just released our 22nd weekly edition.

Work leads
We got such an enormous amount of love for what we had done from both sides of the industry. We were giving small titles the opportunity to have their time in the spotlight and created leads for companies we didn’t even work for. This also gave us some more work leads which helped us through the situation up until this point which is of course gratefully received.

We also performed free publicity for a number of Covid start-ups to keep ourselves sharp but also do our bit to help society too. Having been through my own hell around five years ago with a balance disorder and all that came with it, mentally, I had seen the benefit of support with anxiety and struggle and these propositions really took my interest and I wanted us to help. We are also now involved in a celebration of cinema magazine to be distributed later in the year.

The battle continues
At the start we may have made it to June. I’m pleased to say that it is now August and we have battled through to this point. We still are not out of the woods but we have climbed the reputation ladder, got a host of new clients, some amazing coverage away for it and put ourselves in a much better position when and if things get back to a new normal. Flexible furlough has been a godsend, but we know the hard work must continue to make it after October when the support goes away.

Twin update
Whilst all of that has been going on, we nearly lost our babies to a rare condition eight weeks ago, but the heroic NHS saved their little lives. I won’t go into too much detail but look up Twin to Twin Transfusion to see what we were up against. I’m pleased to say they have made it through the worst, as have we, and the pitter patter of tiny feet will be here by 25 August latest. Last time I looked, we were only eight weeks pregnant and was deciding where to hang pictures in my office, now I’m wondering where my clothes are supposed to go and whether the lack of sleep has been good training.

Written by Wez Merchant, founder and managing director of Strike Media

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