In Conversation With… Yellow Fish on managing relationships and agency culture during lockdown

The Covid-19 pandemic has been challenging for all event agencies. But imagine your new managing director started only a week before lockdown and your CEO and founder gets locked down in a different country! That’s exactly what happened to the team at UK creative agency Yellow Fish.

So, we caught up with Founder & CEO Maria Valentine in Ibiza, along with her new Managing Director Laura Pace in Brighton, to find out how they are getting through the crisis and managing to keep the agency’s strong team culture alive…

Talk us through what happened when Laura joined the agency and your early experiences in lockdown?

Maria: “We did a really comprehensive search and were thrilled to have Laura join us. I only had a week with her in the office, and then I had to fly over to Ibiza to move house. It was only meant to be for a week, but I thought it would give Laura a really good chance to get to know all the team without me being there. Now its four months later! Spain went into lockdown before the UK did, and I have my elderly father here, so it made sense for me to stay put.

“We literally had a week together physically, and all that time that we would have spent on-boarding to go through the history of the business, our clients and our case studies never happened. We had to just go straight into HR issues, damage limitation, postponements and cancellations. Laura was literally thrown into it.”

Laura: “It’s definitely been a baptism of fire for sure. Even in that first week, we were hearing murmurs from clients about postponing events, so from day one we were thrown together in trying to get a handle on the situation and work out what was the right thing to recommend to our clients.

“Very quickly the pandemic escalated globally and we realised we had a much bigger situation on our hands. So we went from postponing events to Q3 and Q4 to thinking 2021 is when live events will come back realistically, what that meant for our clients, and how we can be a partner to them during this time.”

How have you managed to get into a good working relationship/routine with each other being in different countries?

Maria: “We had to address situations that maybe we wouldn’t have expected to quite so quickly together – those hard discussions like furlough and losing business. We have had to work really hard together, getting to know each other very quickly and dealing with all of those difficult situations. On the plus side, its actually felt really natural and that’s when you know it’s a good fit. Having someone else with Laura’s experience going through all of that with me has been brilliant. Laura also brings new ideas and looks at things differently.

“And it’s not just the professional side – we’ve also had personal challenges. We both moved house exactly as this was happening, so Laura has had building works going on and two children stuck at home and I’ve had my 86 year-old father with me all this time. Its understanding we’re human and all trying to get through this situation with even more challenges thrown on top.”

Laura: “Maria has really been there for me as a guide. There is no way I would have wanted to go through this situation without a partner in crime. There is so much to discuss constantly and we call each other whenever we need to talk. It’s worked in a very natural way and has felt like a collaboration from the beginning.

“With Maria’s knowledge on the corporate side, and my experience on the consumer side, we have been able to quite quickly innovate into a new space of where we think the business should go. Post-coronavirus everything is going to look very different in terms of how event agencies partner with clients in the new world.”

Have you pivoted to offer virtual events?

Maria: “By the very nature of the situation we are in, we are having to look at virtual solutions and different ways of delivering for clients. We had delivered virtual solutions before, but it certainly wasn’t the core of our business. Yellow Fish is all about live experiences, so it’s been both challenging and interesting to work out how we transform that into the virtual space while putting our Yellow Fish perspective on things. Laura’s consumer experience has been really valuable.”

Yellow Fish is known for its strong culture. How have you managed to maintain that and keep the team engaged while they have been stuck at home?

Maria: “Yellow Fish is all about the team and having a strong, fun culture, and that is very important to me. We do weekly lunches including everybody who is on furlough. There are team chats so we’re in touch all the time. It’s about keeping the team informed, because this a very worrying time for everybody and neither Laura nor I have all the answers.

“We can’t tell you what Yellow Fish is going to look like in six months or a year. But I think as long as you are communicating with the team at all times, and the honesty is there, you can get through it together. This is such a bizarre situation we all find ourselves, and no one knows when things will go back to normal. I hesitate to say normal because there is no normal anymore.”

Laura: “Everyone has been so open to trying new things and getting new processes in place for things to work virtually. I walked into an agency that has such a great ethos and team and Maria has been great at continuing that. Lots of people are tightening their purse strings but Maria has carried on with weekly yoga sessions that the whole team can tap into.

“It’s about that virtual experience piece. We are talking to clients about that, but we have to live by what we stand for and look at ways of connecting virtually as a team. We have had a virtual quiz, afternoon drinks, and virtual drinks with hotel partners so we can socialise a little bit. I even managed to have a socially distant bottle of Prosecco with one of our event producers the other day too, just to get to know people as and when I can. That’s very important and we have to prioritise that as well as getting through the work.”

Maria: “You miss that banter in the office and the working together and collaboration, but a lot of good things have come out of it – the working from home shows that it can work. I was bit old school and liked to have everybody in the office, but this has completely changed my whole thought process around that. Getting the job done, accountability and the work/life balance is most important.”

What’s your key focus right now?

Laura: “We have fast-forwarded looking at our positioning. It’s probably something we both would have liked to look at in six months to a year. What is the right positioning for the world we are going to be in post-Covid and how are we going to support our partners and clients no matter the situation? We can support clients in understanding the experience and outcome they want to create and then look at what platform is right for that context, whether that’s digital, hybrid or live event. I think the future will be a bit of everything.”

Incentives are a key part of the Yellow Fish offering. Do you think incentive travel will bounce back?

Maria: “Incentives were my first love and I definitely think they will come back. Engaging and rewarding people with travel experiences will always be there, but it’s going to take time – you’ve got to build that client confidence back up again. Companies will need to motivate people in the workplace more than ever. But there are many other ways of incentivising your workforce in the interim, until people feel comfortable with travel again, so it’s focusing on those for now. But I do believe that everybody is going to be technology fatigued and we’re all going to be desperate for human and emotive experiences again.”

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