A decade ago we had the Arab Spring and the Syrian Civil War, two decades ago in 2003 the US and UK went to war in Iraq, and three decades ago Europe was responding to the fall of communism. The point is that uncertainty is always there, major events happen every year and businesses are constantly having to find ways to adapt.
I’ve heard it said by some business leaders that we live in a “VUCA” (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) world. This is certainly true, but it’s also nothing new. The world has always been volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous, and it goes through peaks and valleys where it becomes either more or less “VUCA’.
At the moment we’re in a peak VUCA period, and it’s difficult to say whether it might get worse or better in 2023. On the one hand, there could be a resolution to the conflict in Ukraine, in some countries indications are that inflation is tapering off and certain economic forecasts suggest more of a shallow recession in Europe. On the other hand, China could launch an attack on Taiwan, inflation might stay at high levels and the recession might uncover fundamental flaws in the economic system that lead to a more prolonged economic decline.
In other words, we’re dealing with what we’ve always been dealing with – “uncertainty”. But that shouldn’t scare us, because it’s common ground that we’ve all walked on and, by now, we should have a grasp of how we tackle uncertainty. Certainly from my own experience, there are some methods that I have found have always worked.
Be Less Unpredictable
The first is to make things less unpredictable. If I assess what I do on a day-to-day basis for Incubeta and for our clients, so much of it is about making an unpredictable world more predictable. For example, when the pandemic originally hit in 2020, I worked with our teams to look at the impact that similar economic shocks had caused previously. We were able to use this analysis to first estimate what a recovery might look like, and second predict the type of products and channels that might grow over the period.
There were things that remained unpredictable. By way of example, we found it challenging to put timeframes next to anything until a vaccine had been developed, but by assessing historical data we were able to accurately predict many things that helped both our own business and that of our clients.
We have more data at our fingertips than ever before, and in almost all cases there are previous examples of events that can be used to build an estimation of what might happen in a current scenario.
A second point of advice that I would give to any business leader would be to emphasize the importance of being agile. The nature of unpredictability means that you need to be able to respond quickly when something unexpected happens. Far too many businesses miss out on opportunities simply because they don’t respond quickly enough.
Marketing agencies like Incubeta by their nature are supremely agile businesses. We work with hundreds of clients with different goals, objectives, customers, and challenges. We have learned the importance of being agile, and of being able to act quickly on the behalf of our customers.
Increasingly we’re using technology to help our clients be more agile. We work with airlines to enable them to automatically change their marketing activity based on route availability or real-time data, we help retailers model their stock levels so that they don’t invest marketing investment into products that will sell through anyway. When the Queen sadly passed away last year our teams were able to pause client advertising activity with the click of a button.
Beyond technology, businesses need to be more comfortable with delegating decision-making. If you don’t trust your teams to make decisions without a drawn-out approval process then you should ask yourself whether you believe you have hired the right people. As a leader, it is always tempting to seek control, but this prevents businesses from being able to act quickly and take advantage of opportunities.
A third and final piece of advice that I would give to business leaders would be to remain positive. Negativity is contagious and usually makes the situation worse. Whilst uncertainty is challenging, especially when that uncertainty relates to issues that are likely to cause headaches for businesses, those issues are not binary. In other words, going into a recession doesn’t mean that everyone stops shopping. It doesn’t mean that all products sell less than they did before.
Opportunities in a challenged economic climate might be fewer but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any opportunities. Case in point over the pandemic many businesses were able to scale their digital operation. Lower energy-consuming alternatives such as heated blankets and electric heaters have seen their sales soar this winter. The key is remembering that opportunities still exist even in the most challenged environment. To my point earlier, this is easier for businesses than ever before due to the prevalence and availability of data.
Barack Obama’s first Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel famously said of the 2008 financial chaos, “Never let a good crisis go to waste”, and there is a lot of truth to this statement. For many businesses, economic downturns are the point at which they have the platform to re-evaluate what works and what doesn’t and are able to drive positive change in the business.
When people ask me about what I am most proud of working for Incubeta I always point to 2017. We had lost our biggest client (by a mile). It would have been very easy for us to become negative, to spiral into a decline, but instead, we regrouped and reshaped our business into something much stronger. That ultimately became the foundation of the business that we are today. This required us to show bravery, we didn’t freeze hiring, and we didn’t cut back on our investments, but we did put pressure on ourselves to change and to become a better business.
In an always uncertain world, it is important to remain in control. I believe the best businesses work hard to make the world a little more predictable by assessing the data that is available, that they embrace what is uncertain by remaining agile, and ultimately don’t allow themselves to be consumed by negativity, understanding that even in times of strife there are opportunities for growth.
Want to learn more about driving business growth throughout uncertainty? Keep your eyes peeled for our upcoming global event, where Incubeta will be taking to the stage in Dubai to dissect key global challenges and help brands do more with less, drive efficiencies and think outside the box.