For Marzipan Media, 2020 started much like any other year; in fact, it started rather well because our Business Development Manager, Gregor, who’d joined us at the end of October, and our CEO, Calum, hit the ground running with sales at the start of the year. In addition, our social media partners were making a good job of keeping our channels up-to-date, the website was finally getting close to looking the way we wanted, and our customer care team had been working hard on getting our client retention rate to an all-time high of over 98%.
In late February we started hearing stories about a virus in China, so when our Operations Director, Heather, went to London for a meeting in early March, she went by train rather than catching a flight as she usually would. At the time it seemed a somewhat unnecessary precaution and several people suggested she was overreacting: little did we all know that three weeks later the government would be forcibly closing virtually all businesses and telling everyone to stay at home.
When it became clear that some businesses ‘might’ need to close due to the virus, we’d contacted the copyright bodies to ask for dispensation to stop charging any clients who had to close due to covid. Both bodies gave permission for this, so at least we knew we wouldn’t incur copyright costs ‘if’ any of our clients had to close. At the insistence of our Office Director, Henrietta (who’d appeared with a job lot of hand gel that smells like a brewery), we’d been operating social distancing from around the second week in March, but sent the staff to ‘work from home’ on Monday 23rd. Two days later they were all put on furlough as virtually all our clients closed down.
By the end of that week, the only venues remaining open were supermarkets, a chain of pet food stores and a few shopping centres in the UK (essential businesses), and our clients in Australia, who were a few weeks behind the UK in terms of covid spread. By the time our Australian clients were going into lockdown, our clients in Germany and other countries in mainland Europe were starting to re-open, so things weren’t quite as dire as we’d feared at one stage. Even so, it was a tough few months and we were grateful to receive deferments or payment holidays (or even, in some cases, a waiving of all fees for the period) from the vast majority of our suppliers. Those goodwill gestures, a CBILS loan, and the government’s furlough scheme, helped us through that first lockdown.
Many of the clients who remained open requested the addition of social distancing messages, playing out over their systems on a regular basis, just helping to remind customers to keep their distance, to wash their hands thoroughly and, later, to wear their masks. This, at least, kept us busy for a while, when there wasn’t much else we could be doing. Our screen media clients were suddenly playing a continuous cycle of content extolling the virtues of wearing masks and requesting that people help to protect the NHS.
Our garden centre clients were told they could re-open in May (many with new social distancing messages in place), and other retail, leisure and hospitality venues followed on as we went through the summer months. As each client told us their re-opening dates, the couple of staff members not on furlough were kept busy calculating the closure periods to credit off the relevant invoices.
During the previous winter, by coincidence, we’d been considering investing in SIP phones that would let staff work from home, or from the road. With it clear that staff were going to have to work from home for the foreseeable future, such a system had just become a necessity rather than a ‘nice to have’, and so our new phone system was installed in July. We’ve had some hilarious situations of accidentally cutting people off or putting them on a hold we can’t seem to get them back from, or even, in one case, somehow managing to connect two very confused callers to eachother. With Debi and Dorothy from our client care team leading the way, as always, we seem, however, to have mostly got the hang of it now – six months on!
Most of our clients had reopened by the late summer, and Gregor and Calum were once again bringing in new business. There were even more calls for social distancing and ‘wear your mask’ messages and hospitality was starting to find its way towards a new normal, though in Scotland we were frustrated to find clients being told they could play animal noises or running water at whatever volume they liked, but weren’t allowed to play music in case it made people talk louder! We heard from lots of venues that the lack of music actually made customers lean closer to avoid their conversations being overheard, so thankfully the government eventually saw sense and the rule was changed in early December.
For a while it looked like the country might muddle through, and Fraser and Michael, in the studio, were kept busy with requests to update playlists and start getting profiles ready for Christmas, but then covid rates began to rise and the regional lockdowns began. Keeping track of which area was in which tier (and even what the tiers meant, given the differences between the Scottish and English systems) became the new weekly challenge, and the sound of the government’s covid briefings could often be heard emanating from the office of our Chairman, Finlay. The headache of crediting the resultant closures is still to come: at least in the first lockdown we knew we just had to credit all sites from the 23rd of March to the re-opening date, whereas this time every site in an estate could be different.
With Christmas approaching and another nationwide lockdown looming, we put all staff on ‘flexible furlough’, but at least that’s allowed this time around, so that we don’t have to have one or two people trying to do every job. The whole team are working limited schedules that allow them to look after those clients who are still open; the rest of the time they’re home-schooling, caring for vulnerable family members, reviving old hobbies for which there wouldn’t normally be time, or playing with their new puppies. Being on furlough isn’t all bad.
2020 was certainly not the positive year of growth we’d hoped for but we’ve come through it in a better position than many, thanks to the strength of our team, the resilience of our clients and the support of our suppliers. We don’t know what this year will bring but we’ll get through it as we have done for the past 55 years. We wish all our clients the very best for 2021 and will continue supporting you however we can!