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Advertising boss Sharon Henderson would often pop out to pick up a lunchtime snack at a little store called Bagel Love a minute's walk from her agency Federation.

It was a little ritual that was easy to take for granted in a world not yet ravaged by a global pandemic.

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But as the grip of the virus started to tighten around New Zealand and the bigger offices in her vicinity started to empty out, Henderson noticed that the crowds that used to line up for fresh bagels simply weren't there any longer.

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Struck by the stark reality of the strain the business was facing, Henderson decided to do something about it.

Just before the nation went into lockdown, the Federation boss approached Bagel Love owner Shirley Johnson with an offer to help the business navigate through the challenges facing the retail business.

Henderson and her team sat down with the business owner and looked at how the company could develop its marketing strategy to reach more bagel lovers once the lockdown ended.

Together they developed a raft of tactical ideas to better tell the story of Bagel Love and its New York-style pastries to as many consumers as possible and ensure the business can hit the ground running once the store can open again.

This pro-bono work is no small task for Federation. The independent agency has also been rocked by the drop in advertising spend during the Covid-19 crisis and has relied on $77,000 from the Government's wage subsidy fund to help pay 11 staff members.

"Every agency, as far as I can see, has applied for the subsidy," says Henderson.

"Even the largest firms in the industry have applied for assistance."

As someone who founded her business in the lead-up to the Global Financial Crisis, Henderson is acutely aware of how hard things can get when the economy goes south.

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This time, with a business well established, she wanted to ensure she could do anything in her power to help another business push through this rough patch.

Sharon Henderson, founder of Federation. Photo / Supplied
Sharon Henderson, founder of Federation. Photo / Supplied

"I think the arrival of Covid-19 will also herald the arrival of a different mindset. We will get through this by a creating a virtuous circle – and by that I mean being very mindful of the assistance we can provide businesses both large and small."

Henderson says it will take more than a "be kind" attitude to bring confidence back into the market.

"As business people, we need to learn how to be progressive and agile in how we serve each other. If we can grow a wider circle of businesses engaging with each other, this can help to grow the economy."

It's hard to say how much of an effect such an initiative might have if employed on a wider scale across a number of industries, but it has certainly made a massive difference to the team at Bagel Love, which this year celebrated its 12th anniversary.

"I don't really have the words to describe what this means to us," says Johnson.

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"We're a small business and to access this kind of support from an advertising agency would've been almost impossible. We simply couldn't afford it … They've just been amazing."

Johnson says that having someone sit down and discuss the strategy behind the company has made a major difference in how it will go about taking its story to market.

"To receive that kind of care and support feels a lot like love," says Johnson.

Bagel Love team Carl Ruwhiu, Karen Mills, Shirley Johnson, Jyet Hong, Casey Yeoh, Maddie Johnson and Daniela Gutierrez. Photo / Supplied
Bagel Love team Carl Ruwhiu, Karen Mills, Shirley Johnson, Jyet Hong, Casey Yeoh, Maddie Johnson and Daniela Gutierrez. Photo / Supplied

Like all businesses in the retail space, Bagel Love was forced to shut down its retail storefronts on Wellesley St and Karangahape Rd during the lockdown.

"We still had it good," adds the ever-optimistic Johnson.

She says she was lucky in being able to work through the lockdown by supplying a number of grocery stores, including Farro Fresh and a small group of New World venues, with bagels.

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"This has always been a smaller part of my business, but it ensured we didn't have to shut down entirely," she says.

For now, Johnson is getting ready to run her business on all cylinders again and she's already thought up a creative way to pay back the folks at Federation for their assistance.

"They've automatically joined the 'bagels for life' exclusive members-only club," says Johnson.

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Sharon Henderson's thoughts on the future

Biggest challenge:

"The speed at which Covid-19 took over. For most companies in New Zealand and across most sectors, this created an immediate and seismic shift in operating conditions. Everyone has had to develop a massive strategic pivot in their business to prepare for an entirely different post-lockdown economic environment, and there's no playbook for it. We're no different and have emerged into level 2 with new brand transformation tools and tech partnerships to help clients optimise the new normal for business and their customers."

The folks at Federation won't go hungry any time soon. Photo / Supplied
The folks at Federation won't go hungry any time soon. Photo / Supplied

Biggest learning:

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"The next year is all about first-mover advantage. Move slowly at your peril."

One year from now: "Our business will be focused on creating growth for New Zealand. It's what being a local, 100 per cent New Zealand agency means. You make future-focused decisions that create the best results for your clients, your people, your brand and your country, rather than transferring New Zealand profits back to a listing somewhere on the New York Stock Exchange. And yes, I'm saying that 100 per cent NZ companies will come of age over the next year."

Other ad agencies helping out

Federation isn't the only ad agency looking to help out local businesses around the country, with numerous firms launching initiatives in support struggling companies.

'Pay what you like'

Businesses who might be worried that they can't afford a website have been given an open invitation by independent design and advertising agency Run to pay what they want for the development of a site.

All business owners need to do is head to the paywhatyouwant.co.nz website and check the eligibility requirements to take up the unconventional offer from the firm.

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'Shop local'

Major independent ad agency Stanley St recently launched a major campaign in conjunction with a number of media companies (including Herald-owner NZME) urging New Zealanders to shop local.

Featuring a number of popular businesses around the country, the beautifully shot campaign emphasises the struggles local businesses have gone through and calls on Kiwis to keep their spend local.

In addition, the agency also developed a digital toolkit to help local businesses promote themselves.

"These are the businesses that make our towns special and unique," said Stanley St owner Greg Partington.

"They are hard-working people, often collaborating with other local businesses. These are the people that know us by name; they are our neighbours and in many cases our friends. Now is the time to say a huge thank you for keeping us safe by paying that back - Support Local, Shop Local."

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'Up and running'

Another great initiative comes from the folks at Lumo and Pitchblack Partners, who worked together to offer free billboard advertising to Kiwi businesses in the aftermath of Covid-19.

The team at Pitchblack has been helping with the creative development of campaigns, which are being distributed through Lumo's network of 23 digital outdoor billboard screens across Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, Hamilton and Tauranga.

"Lumo and Pitchblack are both independent and 100 per cent Kiwi-owned, so we know as well as anyone what it's like to operate a small business in New Zealand," said Tom Paine of Pitchblack Partners.

"We know nothing about vaccines, and knitting face masks would be a disaster, but we know marketing and can put our skills to good use remotely."