NAVIGATING VUCA WITH THE NEW ZOO REPUBLIC

In January 2020, and post our acquisition of the Step Change Digital and Creative divisions, I started on my first blog article for our new and improved agency.

I chose “VUCA” as a theme and started penning some musings on how businesses and agencies might navigate marketing and business successfully in today’s VUCA world. 

VUCA, for those not familiar with the acronym, was first coined in 1987, drawing on the leadership theories of Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus, to describe or to reflect on the Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity of general conditions and situations.

This blog took a back seat over the last 3 months as The Zoo Republic and our management and leadership team (MLT) needed to operate in a real-life and a very extreme VUCA environment.

I have lived through several crises as an adult. In 1987, my first job was a mail boy for a large national law firm in the CBD. (Yes, I am that old, they still delivered typed letters to investment banks, law courts, and barristers 5 times a day as well as hand-delivered incoming mail to all the solicitors via a “pigeon hole” system!).

That same year, the stock market crashed and our firm was in Australia Square and the Stock Exchange was 20 Bond Street over the road. A guy climbed onto the Australia Square Plaza building (the small square one, not the 50-story round tower) and played “The Last Post” to the crowd who were standing in the street watching the share market go over the cliff. I was too young to be majorly affected by that or to really understand it. 

In 2001/2002, we had the .com crash. Again, not a major problem for our industry (advertising and marketing had not had its “digital evolution” back then) and we came through relatively unscathed. The GFC was the first crisis that really belted us.

We were incredibly fortunate at that time to be doing a lot of work in quite “recession-proof” categories; particularly alcoholic beverages and telco. We were also still doing a lot for ready-to-eat cereal and snacks and also quick-service restaurants. We made it through - however, towards the end we took some real beatings and through those tough times, we learned a lot. 

It is fair to say that this time is different — very very different. One might say it is a “once-in-a-100-year crisis”. 

And it’s nothing anyone alive has ever experienced. Our MLT and I (with an average of 10+ years working together) have been incredibly fortunate to be able to collectively draw on what we have learnt from past crises to help navigate this current one. I am very proud to say that the whole agency is doing an excellent job. 

Internal Comms: The Zoo Republic’s Rallying Cry 

We announced our agency COVID-19 Plan to staff on 28 March. From our experience in times of crisis, communication is key. Our plan provides crystal-clear clarity around expectations, communication, and commitments from the MLT.

In short, it's our Playbook for the next few months. We review how we are tracking against it monthly, or more often if necessary. Every staff member is making sacrifices on so many levels right now, driven by a united aim that no man or woman is left behind (i.e. stood down).

Our rallying cry has been lifted from an astute combination of lines in a recent blog by one of my favourite writers, Professor Scott Galloway, which was:

“Bees, wasps, ants, the naked mole rat, and humans are a thriving superspecies because of a remarkable attribute: cooperation. This superpower is never more evident than when under attack from an enemy.

As Russell Crowe proclaimed in Gladiator, "Whatever comes out of these gates, we’ve got a better chance of survival if we work together. If we stay together, we survive."

So at the moment, our rallying cry is “Support each other and survive”. 

It's powerful, inclusive, and we are doing it. And at the same time as looking internally, we are also reaching out to all our business partners to see how we can help. Short- and medium-term, we are attending to some immediate needs and we’re also taking proactive ideas to them based on our understanding of their business and their current pain points. 

Looking Ahead 

Longer term, our teams are starting to reimagine how the post-COVID-19 business world is going to look, along with the cultural and societal insights that will re-shape the future. If you’d like to discuss any of your short, medium, or long-term needs, then please get in touch.

Our agency was built on the notion that there’s a better and smarter way to treat people — our staff, our business partners, our suppliers, and everyone we interact with. My former co-founder and I wanted to take everything we knew about running an agency and doing business, and then carve out the bad to focus on the good stuff. This has been a constant focus for the last 20 years, and I would suggest (rather proudly) why we have survived for 20 years as a “feisty independent.” 

On some days, it’s hard not to feel pretty crushed by all of the bad news spinning out of the major news outlets. Indeed, watching what we humans do to each other and the planet, it can be hard sometimes to keep the faith in humanity. But I do. We must. Times of unease require us all to care more thoughtfully and intentionally for one another.

So I will close my first article for the new Zoo Republic with a sign my mother (a primary school teacher of 30+ years) put on our family fridge; curiously smack-bang at my eye height, not our young daughter’s. 

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Wishing you and your loved ones peace, calm, and good health in these uncertain times.

David Lo
David Lo

Dave is the Owner and CEO of The Zoo Republic, the longest-running independent brand and business activation agency in Australia.