Brand Strategy

Emily sat down with our President…

Reflecting on a year’s worth of teachings, what was and where we go from here

In March 2020, the world took a turn. Some would argue for the worst, but others have been able to take the lessons they have learned and apply them to ensure this was not all for nothing—and what was seemingly a time we would hope to never repeat, has been an important vehicle for growth, progression and a test of strength.

At Harbinger, we have something called “Monikers,” which are distinct titles given to every employee, meant to set each person apart from each other, providing insight into their true strength and what they individually bring to the company. Deborah Adams is our “Pragmatist.” Pragmatism involves putting words and thoughts into action, problem solving and being able to predict and prepare for a variety of outcomes and make decisions accordingly. Based on the conversation we had with Deb, there is truly no other word that best describes her—and the pandemic has been a true indicator of how truly special Deb is as a leader.

As Deb looked back at the biggest lessons she has learned over the last year or so, some of the major highlights included:

  • Staying true to the core values of the company, always. “No matter what we did, we always needed to ensure it laddered back to three priorities: the health of our team, the health of our clients’ business and the health of our own business,” said Deb. This was something the Senior Leadership Team (SLT) at Harbinger set up during the first week of the pandemic, with every decision since being held up against our three commitments.
  • Be completely authentic and transparent. This is one that many companies may have avoided early on, but it was (and is) something that Deb emphasizes as an important part of leading people through adversity—both with employees internally, but also when it comes to clients.
  • Adversity makes us stronger. Over 30 years of business, there have been plenty of ups and downs, but this last year had its challenges and was the ultimate agency stress test. Everyone needed to be resilient and strong for themselves, each other and for the clients. These past 14 months have been a test of strength, and Deb can confidently say it didn’t break us, but rather exposed a level of excellence and determination across the entire team.

How it started

Although many tough business decisions had to be made, the honesty and transparency of the leadership team allowed them to garner trust from the team in regard to the process, enabling a mindset throughout the agency of “we’re in this together, and we will do what is needed to be done—no matter what it takes.” This is something Deb is most proud of. Because of this dedication to the business, clients could rely on Harbinger as trusted counsel through a difficult time, rather than just an agency vendor. Much of the success Harbinger has had with clients over the past year is, in part, due to the importance of internal agency culture and the honesty that comes from the top. Ultimately, everything trickles down.

Adapting to a “new normal”

Harbinger has always been a company that focuses on each individual’s strengths (hence, the Monikers). But the common strength across the organization has been the team’s ability to work together and stay on track during a time when lowering our standards may have been the easiest thing to do.

“It’s incredible to see how a team can mobilize together to get results for a client,” Says Deb. “Efficiency has always been key, but it was truly tested throughout COVID-19. We had to respond to situations quickly and effectively. Processes that normally took months were turned around within a few weeks. Ultimately, when something needed to get done, it got done. The pandemic essentially showed the team what they were truly capable of, and tested and proved our abilities as humans, which is something we will carry with us forever, professionally and personally.

On the client side, it was important that the company took a fresh look at the traditional approach to a marketing plan. The 12-month campaign may not work in a world where it’s nearly impossible to predict what the climate will be in Canada, or across the globe, within a month or two. By locking ourselves into ideas that are long-term, we would close ourselves off to the ability to adapt and be relevant in an ever-evolving environment. It’s important to encourage clients to take some of these lessons and apply them to how they might overcome certain barriers in the future. For instance, some clients were nervous to predict six to 12 months ahead throughout the pandemic. Now we tend to see more willingness to test-and-learn and are more agile than ever before, looking to optimize plans regularly. This has been an important lesson for the internal team at Harbinger as well as our clients, and one that will be reflected in plans moving forward. Coming up with contingency plans, flexible initiatives and shorter-term mini campaigns are just some of the solutions to this.

How it’s going

Although most of us will want to forget some of the loss we associate with the pandemic, there are some things that came from it that many will want to carry forward. When speaking with Deb, a couple of things stood out:

  • Regular 1-1 check ins. “We didn’t have much of this prior to the pandemic, but this situation has showed us how important it is to really ask someone how they are doing. We need to check in with our employees so we can support them beyond the stresses of pandemic life, but also the small things they might be going through in their everyday life. Staying connected is key.”
  • Sharing more internally. Culture, climate and technology are constantly changing, and sharing strategies and solutions that teams are executing on specific accounts can help us all stay consistent and can open our eyes to new ways of working to better all of our client’s needs and goals.
  • The importance of female mentorship. “When COVID hit, a number of agency women that would never usually lean on each other (due to competition within the industry) quickly formed a support group so that we could all rely on and look to each other to help guide decisions,” said Deb. This alone is a testament to how people band together during times of need to support even their largest competition in business. Everyone wants the people in their industry – whether it’s in marketing, hospitality or retail – to come out of this okay. And this situation showed us that.
  • Trusting your team. With a pivot to virtual business and engagement, the need to trust our team to ‘show up’ every day and be accountable for their work and to their peers can feel like a leap of faith. Having a genuine trust in the team’s willingness to contribute has shown a level of commitment above and beyond expectation, and a peer to peer support system and collaboration that we never expected.

Despite all the barriers brought on in 2020/2021, businesses that have been able to power through feel stronger than ever.

“The pandemic would be a terrible thing to waste,” said Deb. “We always need to look for silver linings in everything that we go through, personally and professionally. Things you were forced to do under specific, dire circumstances may end up being ‘Best Practices’ moving forward.”

At the start of the pandemic, our SLT admits they were a bit nervous. There was some overthinking and a lot of “what if” scenarios being tossed around, with limited parallels to draw from. But what many of us didn’t think about in those first moments were all of the things we would learn that would change the way we work for the better.

The pandemic allowed our SLT to take a deeper look at the Harbinger team and the skills each person brings the table to discover where we are strong and where we may be lacking. “This helped to manage resources more effectively by breaking out of the traditional model and roles to create new opportunities for existing staff and new staff, which changed the hiring process for the better,” Deb explained. The pandemic also showed us our strength, resilience and in many ways, brought us closer together.

While we can all finally see a light at the end of this dark tunnel, it was interesting to speak with Deb to see all the light throughout the journey that we may have missed if we hadn’t stopped to reflect on all of the good that has come from such trying times.

Harbinger is a Toronto-based North American marketing agency with expertise in product launches. We help brands get noticed and purchased.


Fortifying Your Shopper Understanding to Successfully Launch Functional Foods in Canada

View an archive of our latest webinar.

Watch Now


Are you looking to launch a food or beverage product into Canada?

View an archive of this webinar.

Watch Now

Recent Posts

Let’s Chat

Many of our clients come to us for an immediate need, but most keep holding-on for years and beyond!
Let’s connect and see how we can help you too!

Deb Adams

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.