'Onboarding-in-Place.' Starting a New Job in a Pandemic

My crazy first days at Cactus

Monday, March 23, is a day that will live forever in my professional life. 

I showed up for Day One at a brand new job. Which is always a little awkward, of course—I don't care if you work an office job or lay asphalt for a living. But layer in a global pandemic, wild swings in the stock market, entire business categories frozen in place, and, as you might imagine, this particular first day was next-level weird. As friends in my network reached out to say congrats, what invariably followed was, "Whoa! Starting a new job during all this ... What is THAT like!?" 

So I thought I'd share a few thoughts from this first week on the job. 

I just joined Cactus, a killer 50-person full-service agency in Denver, as president and CMO. I couldn't be more excited to start this job, to get into the office and start talking to our team, get the lay of the land on agency operations, our roster of client partners, our process and our various capability areas. But of course, everyone else on staff had been working remotely for an entire week, so the only ones in the office were me, our agency founder, Joe Conrad, and our head of business ops, Kris Byers. 

I picked up my computer and keycard, filled out all the HR paperwork, and set up a desk that I probably won't be sitting at for a while. In fact, during the time I was in the office, Denver mayor Michael Hancock issued a stay-at-home order for Denver residents through April 10, which was followed two days later by a statewide Colorado stay-at-home order from Governor Jared Polis. That said, it was a super-productive first day of onboarding, and we had a little fun with a safe, social distancing photo post on LinkedIn. 

So for the past two weeks, I've been working from home alongside my Cactus compadres: conference calling, Gchatting, Slacking, Hangout-ing, Zooming and Google Doc-ing my face off. And while digging into a new job remotely isn't how I would've chosen to start, I have to say I'm taking away a lot of positives from these early days of what I'm calling "onboarding-in-place." 

Mostly, I've been amazed and inspired to watch my new teammates rally and completely dominate the WFH game. Replanning every media plan in the joint, pivoting messaging strategies for clients, re-concepting creative, bagging shoot plans or shifting to edit-only ideas—doing whatever it takes. And doing it all from home, many juggling little kiddos at the same time. I feel super blessed to work with this wrecking crew of ad pros, with every agency discipline in the shop delivering on client commitments like it was just a regular day in the office. Watching these guys attack the remote work challenge we all face, delivering the goods as one agency even though we're apart, it kinda makes me fall in love with the advertising business all over again.

An old college buddy called me on day two to riff on an idea he had for a COVID-19 PSA campaign. He wanted a big, simple idea à la #BostonStrong that would get us all to step up and take collective action—and he wanted to do it in a way that celebrates who we've always been as Americans: fierce, strong, and able to face down the world's greatest challenges. Within 48 hours, a SWAT team of Cacti had built out the idea for "The Cure Is US" initiative—a campaign website (www.thecureis.us) to raise awareness and get people donating to COVID-19-related causes, #thecureisus graphics for social sharing, printing and making stuff, an automated email responder to send pledge-takers exclusive graphics, a phone background screen to remind you to disinfect your phone, and tons of other fun, engaging and smart stuff.

We've seen thousands of visits to the site and pledges taken so far. People from every corner of our creative community have reached out to offer their services and support. And even though we have zero media spend, celebrities like Bo Jackson, Pete Alonso, Nolan Arenado, Charlie Blackmon, Trevor Story, Amy Van Dyken, Mikaela Shiffrin and many more made cell phone videos for The Cure Is US to spread the word and stop the virus.

Finally, I'll always remember how I felt after our all-agency standup that Friday afternoon. Like everything else my first week, it was on Zoom, of course. I took a few minutes to introduce myself to my new teammates while they knocked back their adult beverage of choice, and, I wager, struggled to stay awake during my remarks. But what struck me most was how we opened the meeting. 

We learned a colleague's mother had passed away earlier in the day, and because of pandemic protocols, he wouldn't be able to travel to grieve with his family in person. In fact, he was right there on that all-agency Zoom meeting (how he did that, I have no idea.) Our founder addressed it head on, and we started the meeting with a wonderful moment of silence to honor our colleague's mom. As the seconds passed, I got goosebumps, feeling the presence of something bigger than all of us. I knew right then, this is my new tribe, I felt like I was home. 

It was a first week that felt like a month, in the best possible way. I was bone-tired at the end of each day, the good kind of tired. When you feel completely immersed in your work, and that you're doing something that will make a difference. It's true what they say about the character of individuals and organizations revealing itself in crisis situations, and the one we're living through now is no different. And while I hope to never see anything like this awful virus again, the chance to see what our agency and our people are truly made of during this time—it's lifted me up, and made me that much more excited to be a part of Cactus.

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Jeff Graham
Jeff Graham is president and CMO of Cactus.

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