As the coronavirus spreads around the world, fashion companies are postponing shows and events and pulling back on advertising, while glossy magazines are putting their planned shoots on ice. As a result, public relations agencies are feeling the impact in all the fashion capitals.
Some are trying to weather the COVID-19 storm with a full team for the time being, but others have come to the difficult decision in the past few days that they need to cut staff.
Among the latter is PR Consulting, the New York–based agency run by Pierre Rougier and Sylvie Picquet-Damesme, whose clients include Narciso Rodriguez, Dries Van Noten, Loewe, Acne, Gabriela Hearst, Raf Simons and Moncler.
“We were forced to make the heartbreaking decision to lay off 32 employees at the end of this coming week in order to keep the company running under the current circumstances,” Rougier and Picquet-Damesme said in an e-mail.
They added that they feel fortunate to have been able to keep many employees in their positions and are now hoping that the federal government “will step up to the situation and support companies like ours through this unprecedented time.”
New York-based boutique agency Sequel, formerly Think PR, whose clients include W Hotels Worldwide, Free People, Missoma, Century 21 Department Stores and BoxyCharm, also laid off some staff and implemented pay cuts this week, but did not disclose numbers.
“We did have some layoffs and we also had to take some pay cuts. I think this is hitting agencies of all different sizes right now,” said principal Tracey Manner. “Marriott is a client of ours. They’ve been a client for almost 15 years. So it’s global news right now about how all these brands are being impacted, but what about their partners? Nobody’s really been talking about that.
“As a p.r. agency or a communications agency or a marketing agency or an advertising agency, you’re based on client revenue. The size of your team, your overhead — all of that is based on client revenue,” she added.
Manner and her business partner, Elaine Drebot-Hutchins, hope to bring all their employees back on board as soon as the situation stabilizes and in the meantime, she’s communicating with other agencies to see how they can help each other in a way that wouldn’t have happened before. “We have a wonderful sister agency in the U.K. called Aisle8 so we’re talking about are there ways where we partner together on certain brands where maybe we wouldn’t have done that before. It’s a time to be creative,” she said.
At another boutique New York firm, Bradbury Lewis, founder Patrick Bradbury hopes he, too, can stay afloat. He had to let his new office manager go a few weeks ago as the whole company was about to go remote and it had lost some business. Since then, two of his four-strong team have been furloughed. He is still paying for their health care and hopes to bring them back as soon as possible.
“We’ve applied for a payroll grant from the city and so the moment that comes in, which I have full faith that it will, we’ll be rolling again. These are people that have worked with me for a while and I think everybody is on board to try to weather it,” he said.
“The most important thing is there is a payroll grant that the city is acting quickly so it’s just a decision to try to maintain a little bit of cash flow because the only thing that will keep a business afloat is having any sort of cash flow. But the health insurance, I pay for that in full. I would just never take that away at this stage,” added Bradbury.
The COVID-19 crisis, which comes on top of his losing Outdoor Voices as a client after its founder and chief executive officer, Tyler Haney, was pushed out has made him reflect on how not everything is in his control.
“I thought we used to be able to control our clients by simply doing the best work we could do and one thing I’ve realized a few months ago is that our good work isn’t enough anymore. There are other factors that are going to make these decisions for us which is such a tough spot to be in,” he told WWD.
It’s a similar story at many other p.r. companies in Manhattan. In a statement, Linda Gaunt, founder and president of Linda Gaunt Communications, said that “these are unprecedented times and we are all having to make difficult decisions.” In her company’s case, due to some loss of business, it has been forced to streamline and cut a few positions. “That said, keeping our team in place is our top priority, not only because they are our biggest asset but because clients have expressed they need our expertise and partnership now more than ever,” she said. “We are working to reimagine strategies, we are supporting e-commerce and we are keeping our brands part of the conversation.”
Vanessa von Bismarck, a partner at BPCM, told WWD that, like most of its peers in the industry, the company has “unfortunately had to do some layoffs, most significantly in our fashion department.” Its beauty, sustainability, travel, wine & spirits, influencer and cannabis divisions are continuing to move forward.
“What we are now focusing on is helping our clients build their businesses in even more creative ways that reflect these extraordinary times,” she said. “We strongly believe that the fashion industry now has a chance to rebuild through sustainable innovation and technology. BPCM is working with NGOs and technologies on ways to future-proof the fashion industry so that instead of going back to ‘business as usual’ we go forward into a sector that is built for the future of a globalized world.”
As for KCD, whose portfolio of clients over the years reads like a “who’s who” in the fashion industry, including names such as Tom Ford and Alexander McQueen, managing director Rachna Shah, said it is “currently assessing the ever-evolving situation and have not made any decisions in terms of head count.”
In Paris, French PR Lucien Pagès has not laid off anyone so far. He said 15 staffers are temporarily unemployed, 12 are working half-time, and four people are working full-time remotely.
“We have had a lot of events canceled or postponed, which represents a significant loss in revenues; contracts that were about to be signed and that have been postponed; clients who will be unable to meet payments for some time, but fortunately, very few who have suspended their contracts with us,” said Pagès.
“However, we’re working very hard: conference calls and Zoom meetings every day with the team and clients. Our activity is different but just as intense. People need information and advice. What has totally stopped is sample traffic. No shoots are taking place at the moment, and brands can’t even shoot product for their e-commerce sites,” he said.
For the time being, Pagès — whose clients include Jacquemus, JW Anderson, Paco Rabanne and Schiaparelli — is recommending that his clients focus their communication on the here and now.
“It’s not the moment yet to talk about the aftermath,” he said. “A lot of articles are focusing on what’s happening during the confinement, and our designers are in high demand. People need to share right now, and if it’s done with intelligence and respect, my recommendation is for brands to participate.”
Flavie Costamagna, whose Magna Presse agency handles fashion and lifestyle brands, said she had put her whole team on short-time working.
“The digital teams still have a bit of work, the print teams less so,” she said. “My aim is to keep everyone employed, but I will have a clearer picture in April because there are quite a few clients who are hitting pause because they no longer have any business.”
While her restaurant clients, such as chef Jean-François Piège, have been forced to suspend their activities, Costamagna is looking for ways to help brands like L/Uniform keep alive their e-commerce sites. The brand recently promoted a cork-covered yoga mat to promote exercise at home, though it did not use the term “coronavirus” in the press release.
“We’re trying to strike the right tone,” said Costamagna. “It’s hard not to address it, and it’s hard to address it. You have to somehow find a golden middle, which is very challenging.”
She predicted a return to bespoke communications strategies adapted to each client’s specific circumstances. “We’re adapting to demand,” Costamagna said. “We’re navigating without instruments, and we’re all in the same boat.”
In London, Julietta Dexter, founder and ceo of The Communications Store, is trying not to let any members of staff go for now. Instead, 22 senior members of the 170-strong company, which has offices in New York and L.A., have taken a pay cut so that they can manage. For the month of April, there will be a companywide pay cut.
“It’s a very interesting time for me personally because when I set up the company 25 years ago, I set it up on the basis of a set of very specific values because I had a difficult time at work and those values were a passion of care, of strength, and of wisdom and that really is the foundational bedrock of our company and frankly of my leadership of the business for a quarter of a century. These times of crisis really make you dive back into your values enormously,” she said.
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