Escape Zoom: With 2020 hindsight, how can business leaders plan for a happy new year?

The challenges of 2020 will live long in our memories. COVID-19 and the resulting lockdown measures instantly changed our daily lives and shrouded our future plans, embarking us on a rollercoaster year that was unimaginable just 12 months ago. But are we wiser now?

To close the year, Propeller Group chairman Martin Loat hosted another Escape Zoom session to investigate this question, and to ask what are business going to have to do in 2021 that they had no idea would be needed just this time last year.

The session was kicked off by the inimitable Tess Alps – soon to retire as Chair of Thinkbox after a long career in media and advertising – who shared her perspective on how this year has changed us. 

Tess Alps, out-going Chair of Thinkbox and council member at the Advertising Standards Authority

I’ve done so many things this year that I never would have imagined doing previously. Like presenting to a virtual room of business leaders in my slippers. But here we are.

These are seminal times. COVID continues to have a tragic impact across the world, Brexit is about to become a reality, and the effects of climate change are clearly beginning to bite. 

But while these wider issues are on all of our minds – it is not what we are at this round table to solve. We are here to discuss the unexpected practical challenges businesses face as a consequence of this year. I think we can break these challenges down into three key areas; people, places and profits. 


It’s important to think about the impact on people first. Some people – typically introverts like myself – have thrived in lockdown and with home working, whilst others have found themselves climbing up the walls in frustration. 

It reminds me somewhat of those nutritional tablets given to astronauts in sci-fi movies. Whilst they are fundamentally filled with the basic vitamins we need as humans and will keep us alive – they are missing two key components: the more subtle micronutrients, and of course the sheer pleasure of food. 

For some, those micronutrients come in the form of serendipitous meetings or watercooler chats, the creative stimulation of the sounds and sights of a journey and day at the office. For others, the micronutrients are the privacy, the less busy schedules, the space to think deeply and clearly. 

The first thing to recognise is there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Businesses need to be prepared for a flexible solution that caters to the different nutrition different people need. Having lived through lockdown we all now have a clearer idea of what we miss and what is important to us. 

A challenge I am yet to see a business crack is effectively bringing both these types of people together. How can you integrate a team that is physically together with those working from home without the digital party being sidelined? 

Another enormous challenge is preserving ways of learning for those entering our businesses. So much in our industry happens through osmosis – taking in and absorbing what is happening in your environment – so how will junior members of the team absorb and embed themselves in our cultures? I think this challenge is bigger for smaller businesses who lack the resource to devote more time to ensuring this process happens properly. 

My final anxiety is those more keenly seeking flexible working will be women who feel the pressure of looking after their children. We can’t let this crisis undo years of progress towards gender inequality – and we must ensure the burden of parental care is shared and that it is not placing women at a disadvantage in work. 


Our colleagues will now have at least two places where they will be working next year. As businesses, we need to accept an increased responsibility for ensuring employees have a suitable environment for home working. 

Chairs, heating, wifi – all these must be regarded as necessary business expenses. 

Equally our offices will change. How many of us would have previously thought we would have too much space before this year?

We need to refresh our approach to these spaces. Solutions like hot-desking may allow for more flexible environments – but equally it may further deter those more introverted from coming into the office at all. 


The recession is here and we’re seeing big name businesses go to the wall already. The economy cannot be vaccinated from the impact of COVID, even if we soon will be.

Profits will be precarious and cash flows will be dodgy. We need to manage our risk. Agencies need to lose the embarrassment of asking for payment upfront – and equally we  all need to be responsible with paying our suppliers.

However there will be an abundance of short term opportunities. Whilst unemployment is rising a vast majority of consumers have been saving – and there is a lucrative opportunity for businesses to take the advantage of this. 

As Tess closed with her opening remarks, our Escape Zoom attendees split into smaller groups to discuss the subjects proposed by our guest speaker, before returning with their findings. 

Group A

Kieran Kent, Managing Director, Propeller Group 

David Coombs, CEO, Cheil UK

Tom Laranjo, Managing Director, Total Media 

Carl Uminski, Co-Founder and COO, Somo Global

Tom Laranjo of Total Media stepped up to give a summary of his group’s discussion – kicking off by highlighting the increasing importance of developing long-term client relationships. This year had wildly different impacts on different businesses depending on what sectors and industries they serviced, and David Coombs argued this underlined the importance of developing and securing long-term contracts and partnerships with clients, which can ensure a degree of security for your business during times of uncertainty. 

Onboarding staff remotely is a challenge all businesses are having to face – and Carl Uminski shared his recent experience of opening a brand new office for thirty new staff in Colombia and integrating an entirely new team without stepping foot on their continent. 

Whilst the logistical process of moving staff to work from home was relatively swift – all of the group identified that training, managing and motivating staff in the long-term from home is a critical challenge, especially for junior and mid-rank staff members. It is difficult to replicate the natural engagement you get with these colleagues in a physical office environment when working remotely. 

Group B

Jody Osman, Director of Business Growth, Propeller Group 

Paul Reynolds, Managing Director and Partner, MassiveMusic

Steve Wheen, Founder and CEO, Distillery

Annabel Venner, Marketing Consultant and former Global Brand Director of Hiscox Ltd

MassiveMusic’s Paul Reynolds presented an overview of his group’s discussion – kicking off with a point made by Steve Wheen on how this year has dramatically moved the goalposts and has forced us to recalibrate how we define success. This broader socio-cultural change has influenced how many of us think and our priorities – and this has a profound impact on how we do business.

Annabel Venner highlighted an interesting challenge for businesses which operate across multiple territories – as different offices in different markets will experience the pandemic in different phases and with different degrees of intensity. So whilst one may be in lockdown, another could be operating in the office as normal, creating a novel dynamic between different arms of the same business. 

Paul Reynolds pointed out that this has its benefits too. “At MassiveMusic, Zoom has accelerated change in many ways. Zoom doesn’t see borders – and so we are creating hubs where team members from around the globe, who may never have met, can catch up and collaborate”. 

Group C

Tess Alps, Council member, ASA

Jamie Moffat, CEO, Organic Agency

Ian Armstrong, Director Topaz One and former CMO Jaguar Land Rover

Alex Vaidya, CEO and co-founder, StoryStream

Alex Vaidya identified three key common themes in his summary which dictated the discussion. 

The first was a clear delineation between work and home life when working flexibly. The group agreed that whilst technology is key in allowing us to stay connected, it is blurring the line. James Moffat identified Whatsapp as an example: what was once a channel limited to friends and family is increasingly used for business communications. It is important for businesses to allow flexibility and encourage employees to find their own balance and develop healthy working patterns.

The second point relates to how the WFH experience can vary wildly depending on your age or seniority. Ian Armstrong pointed out that while he and his wife are able to both work from their own spaces at home, it is a much bigger challenge for younger people in shared spaces. 

The group closed with an overarching message from Tess Alps – “never waste a good crisis”. New challenges mean new opportunities for innovation and creative pivots. Alex argued that in many ways pitching over Zoom is easier: it removes the unnecessary formal barriers, and offers a window into each of our lives that allows you to speak with more authenticity and empathy – and this can be hugely advantageous in the sales process. 

Group D

Martin Loat, Founder and Chairman, Propeller Group 

Ben Regensburger, CEO, Peach Video

James Dunford Wood, Co-founder and Chief Experience Officer, Ometria 

Melanie Chevalier, Founder and CEO, Creative Culture 

Melanie Chevalier reported back on the final group’s findings, and found that despite the aforementioned challenges, there was a great deal for business leaders to be positive about. 

James Dunford Wood discussed the differing challenges faced by different verticals – and explored the crucial role of data in understanding how, particularly for retail businesses, the pandemic is changing consumer shopping habits. 

On addressing the difficulties in maintaining high levels of team engagement and fostering strong company culture, Ben Regensburger suggested businesses should take an approach akin to the classic marital ‘date night’ – do something with your team once a month or fortnight that keeps things exciting and fresh. You need to invest in your colleagues, make time and continue to build the shared experience of working together. 

Melanie built on this point and proposed an analogy between corporate culture and national culture, arguing that both respond to the same dynamics. Just as we exhibit our national culture when we are in a different nation, our corporate culture should influence our behaviour when working from home. “We are all expats from our own offices”, Martin Loat summarised.  

Tess Alps brought the session to a close. “I’ve been inspired by the positivity shown in this Escape Zoom session. We all know we must remain observant and ensure nobody gets left behind, but it is heartening to see that even a global pandemic hasn’t been able to stop us from developing as businesses and as people.”

“The underlying message is that times of mass disruption are also times of massive opportunity. There are undoubtedly more hidden challenges that lie ahead – but as long as we take the right attitude, and the lessons that this year has taught us, we can keep moving and driving business forward”. 

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