How Agency Marcus Thomas Is Managing a 'Soft Opening' of Its Cleveland Office

Is your agency or company managing a reopening process? We'd like to hear from you about what your plans are.

As some states begin to ease restrictions on at-work activities for non-essential businesses during the Covid-19 pandemic, Muse is checking in with companies in the creative industries to hear about their reopening plans.

Today, we speak with Heidi Modarelli-Frank, partner and svp of PR at Marcus Thomas, an agency with 165 people in its Cleveland office.

Muse: What's your broad plan for reopening the agency?

Heidi Modarelli-Frank: Last Monday, Ohio governor Mike DeWine allowed the opening up of some non-essential businesses, including offices, with guidelines. However, the state is still requesting that office employees continue to work at home as long as they can. To stay within those guidelines, Marcus Thomas began what we're calling a soft opening this week. We're still encouraging people to work at home. But if people need to come in, they can, provided they play by a series of guidelines to keep everyone safe and healthy. Some people need to come in for equipment. Others want a couple of hours of quiet away from kids to get work done. And some people who live alone just want to see other humans in person. We're doing whatever we can to help give people mental and emotional relief they need from social distancing while also keeping them physically safe.

What specific precautions are you taking?

We've implemented a whole series of procedures. For example, if you come into the office, you have to take a daily health assessment and submit your temperature to a private portal. Of course, anyone who has a fever or displays any symptoms of Covid-19, or has been exposed to someone with the virus, can't come in. We're implementing hands-free door entries and placed health stations at each of our doors with hand sanitizer to use as you come in and out of the building and extra masks in case people don't have one. Anyone who is in any common space in the building needs to wear a mask at all times. We're cleaning regularly throughout the day and we've posted cleaning guidelines near high-touch areas, like coffee stations and restrooms. We've also done other things like cut capacity for each of our conference rooms to ensure people can safely maintain a minimum six-foot distance at all times. We've eliminated large gatherings and meetings as well as communal lunches for the foreseeable future. During the soft opening, we also have eliminated guests of any kind into the building, including clients and vendors.

How much of your staff will keep working remotely?

The overwhelming majority of employees will keep working remotely. Critical functions like IT and accounting have rotated in the entire time and will continue to do so. Other than that, we don't expect to have more than a dozen out of our 165 people in the office on any given day. For one thing, the case trends dictate that as many people who can stay home still should do so. Also, as long as there is no school or daycare, it's really unrealistic to think that most working parents can come in. Everyone has different circumstances, and we're trying to be empathetic to all of those situations.

When do you expect production to open up that will allow you to shoot again? Will it look a lot different than it used to?

We have completed a couple of small shoots that required only a person or two where the participants were able to safely meet social distancing standards. It's hard to say how bigger productions will evolve. I think various producers and studios are continuing to work through their reopening plans right now. Every state is in a slightly different position, so there may not be a uniform answer across the country.

What other limitations will the agency have to deal with that didn't exist pre-pandemic?

Travel, of course, is still restricted. In-person experiences and events are all on hold. We had plans for some clients that entailed in-person media events that won't happen this year. I think we all will be challenged to think creatively about how we can help our brands deliver value to people in new ways.

The other challenge is finding opportunities to maintain personal client relationships. We aren't currently having in-person meetings and outings, so we've been trying to come up with ways to maintain those connections from a distance. For example, we have a monthly lunch meeting with a group at one client's office. This month, we sent lunch to their homes for them and their families and had the meeting right after the lunch hour. We've tried to keep virtual face-to-face with clients as much as possible. Clients are in the same predicament as we are. We're all working together to get through it.

We've even done new-business pitches virtually. It definitely is a different situation when you aren't in person to read a room or play off your teammate's chemistry.

What have you learned from WFH that you'll retain as an agency going forward?

One learning is around how well we can work together from afar. If managers are empathetic to people's situations, and trust them to do the work in a way that accommodates their situation, they'll do it, and they'll do it well. We expect that this experience will open up the opportunity for more people to work at home in the future, long after social distancing is behind us. However, it will be a whole other learning experience if we get to a point that we have, say, half of the people in the office and half at home. That will be a new situation to adapt to.

A second learning, or maybe more like a reinforcement, is about the work itself. I think the situation has really forced brands to think hard about how they can be relevant to people. There's still a lot of noise out there without a doubt, but we're seeing clients being very thoughtful and selective about what they're communicating, thinking about people first. 

Have any particular processes, tools, platforms or services proven useful for the agency during quarantine?

Fortunately, over the past couple of years, the agency has invested in several tools and processes aimed at keeping our teams connected and projects moving forward efficiently—things like AgencyAgile, Workfront and Microsoft Teams. We've had a process where teams check in daily, and we continue to do that working remotely. It already was a habit, and it helps keep teams connected as we work physically apart.

Broadly speaking, what kind of work are your clients asking for right now, and how will returning to the office help you deliver it?

The work and the asks have shifted over the course of the pandemic. And it varies based on the extent to which the pandemic has impacted the client's business. We're doing a lot of social listening and research to understand what's on people's minds as they move through this crisis. The two question we've been working through with clients are: What do people need right now, and what value can we bring them? 

For example, for one of our banking clients, as branches started closing and people needed to understand how to access their money, it was really important that we turned off any promotional or brand messaging and focused our efforts on providing helpful information. For another client that's a children's hospital, we recognized that their "customers," parents of children, were really struggling as they dealt with balancing school-at-home, working and all of the other stresses that come with being in a pandemic. One thing the hospital could offer parents was reassurance that they were doing the right things, and not to get caught up in being perfect. So we created a spot that taps into the emotional pulls and stresses parents are feeling, reassures them that they're doing their best and essentially gives them permission to breathe. 

We've been going through that process with many of our clients—helping them understand how people's journeys have changed during this crisis, and what the brand can provide that's helpful and relevant.

Where do you see the industry and its creative output in 6-12 months?

To make any finite prediction in this environment is probably foolish. It seems impossible to put a timeline on anything. There are too many forces we just can't control. One thing that is for sure is that we're already seeing companies and agencies struggling. No one wants to see that. Yet, many will come through this fine, and others will be stronger than ever. From a work perspective, we've seen great brands focus on being people-centric during this crisis, trying to find ways to solve people's problems and meet their needs. We're hopeful that pattern will continue and become the new norm, and that the industry will shift away from one-sided communications. 

While there might be a desire to flip a switch and suddenly return to business as usual, that's not likely to happen—or at least, it shouldn't. People's attitudes, experiences and needs will continue to fluctuate as this pandemic persists. Brands will need to listen closely to people to understand their changing needs and adjust efforts as they go.

Tim Nudd
Tim Nudd was editor in chief of the Clio Awards and editor of Muse by Clio from 2018 to 2023.

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