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What I got wrong in 2020

Because 2020 is still full of upheaval, fears, surprises, it may not be possible to harvest the true learning and meaning-making of a year-end retrospective.  Real hindsight will probably come in some years still.  However, being clinical about what we mis-diagnosed is a provocative exercise that can help us grow our lucidity.  This month, Thinktank is inviting you to reflect differently: what didn’t you see coming this year and what has that taught you?  How can this insight make you sharper in 2021?

2020… the year that launched a thousand memes. The year that has its own Wiki page.  A world gone mad. Markets kicked off in the first days of January when a US drone killed Iranian general Qasem Soleimani and you were reminded of the famous movie quote “fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night».  This early turbulence gave nothing away on what would ensue.

Devastating Australian bushfires, West Coast USA wildfires, cyclones and other natural calamities reminded us the wounds we have inflicted on our planet. The rise of ‘parallel narratives’ from populist politics have multiplied so fast and furiously, we all seem to have entered the Matrix, a world of mirror realities underpinned by “alternative facts”. Serious stock market crashes, massive sociological imbalances epitomised in powerful grassroots movements #blacklivesmatter and #metoo (Weinstein’s conviction finally), and plethora of antinomic headlines (Meghan and Harry quit Royal family, Kobe Bryant dies, …) created a polarised and volatile world, with growing disparities and precarity.

And that’s even before the COVID-19 global pandemic bombshell, the grinding halt to travel and events (the heart of Mediatree’s work), global lockdowns that infringed on billions of people’s free movement, and the devastation –the utter sheer desolation and despair of the populations decimated by 1.6 million deaths of those who succumbed to the coronavirus.  With it comes a global recession and a profound shift to remote work for most employees around the world: two unimaginable consequences even as late as March.

How do you make sense and steer your strategy in the midst of all of this? How do you harness the good, the bad and the ugly situations and make critical decisions for the greater good? How do you keep yourself and everyone safe?  How do you do a lot with very little?  This year we stayed present, doing our best, being nimble, creating immediate virtual channels that keep the team together, anticipating the trends…. and watching the cash very closely.  But more than any of those, as this year draws to a close, acknowledging what we got wrong and learning from it fast might in fact be a powerful engine to steer us through 2021.

  1. This outbreak is not ending anytime soon
    The SARS outbreak at the turn of the century and the Swine flu pandemic of 2009 disrupted our business, but the impact globally ended up being marginal for our work. When COVID-19 broke in Europe, we planned on business getting back to normal by September. Wrong.  With Christmas cancelled and lockdowns getting more stringent, this new world order is here to stay.
  2. The COVID-19 crisis helped us find the opportunity
    Many events and hospitality companies have sadly shut their doors in 2020. The world over, the industry has been hard hit with calamitous reports. Early in the first lockdown, as our clients continued to cancel/postpone their events and we saw sales fall off a cliff edge, it seemed COVID could be an overwhelming, insurmountable issue and that our fate could be fast sealed.  In April, we did not imagine that all our Fall 2020 roadshows would be executed from a proprietary digital platform our team developed. Virtual IPO work, virtual large events and engaging presentations through our pop-up studio were simply never on the cards when lockdown started.  Rather than dwell on the enormity of the problem, and relying on a 22-year old proven business model, potentially missing the urgency of ramp of change, we zeroed-in on 3 things:  1) a focus on our specificity (our niche, our financial event/IR DNA), 2) an urgency to pivot a mature business model and 3) a real drive towards innovation. The crisis is by no means over, and our future is still to prove; however, we are reminded of the importance of believing in better, looking inside ourselves and being willing to find transformative solutions that break with long-established precedent.
  3. Being grounded didn’t turn out as we thought
    WFH, grounded, and the ‘new normal’ virtual collaboration seemed unsustainable at first in work that requires travel, the presence and physicality of the team, from the daily morning scrum to the pre-event countdowns with total team participation, as well as cross-pollination between logistics, account management and production teams. Our Shoreditch office has always been a hub, a hive where people come in and out and collaborate and learn from each other. We never imagined not seeing each other for so long could still keep us connected, productive and innovative at first, and yearning for physical engagement in more recent months (zoom fatigue, isolation…).  The new normal is still a seesaw, and we are OK now with not knowing what the post-COVID workplace looks like.  For 2021, our only certainty is that we will face uncertain and volatile times, and our approach will be iteration.
  4. Everyone is finding it hard; everyone is anxious
    This year has impacted on each of the team’s mental resilience and tested people’s patience more than we could imagine. We could not fathom the psychological impact of working teams being split into furloughed and retained workforces, and how the transition back would work. Mindsets needed to stay flexible and open as the expectations were constantly reset as new government rules came into effect every few weeks, sometimes on very short notice.  We are all back at work now—full time from home– but this crisis has created anxiety, even if it looms far beneath the surface, there is a fear, for all of us, about quarantining if we travel onsite and more generally what the future holds.  Our system is absorbing a lot of the uncertainty and anxiety of our clients as well, since they often can only give us go/no-go at the last minute.  In this climate, we realise the extent of our interdependence and the importance of compassion in our work.
  5. Growth is paramount
    Unlike past crises, where we could ‘batten down the hatches’ on a lean structure and wait things out, this one required us to push the accelerator of top-line growth. We under-estimated the opportunity and might have made more of it—something that is counter-intuitive when we focus on managing costs and cash. When so much comes at you, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that growth is the only engine.