Jim O’Connell: Covid-19 forces agencies to reinvent their value inside and out

Jim O’Connell, president of New York-based Athletes First Partners, explores the fast-changing role of agencies to the sports industry amid the Covid-19 pandemic

Jim O'Connell

Whether you are a startup agency, or a much older and larger agency, there are certain essential characteristics needed in order to be successful.

Beyond the resources to keep the lights on, agencies need smart, creative people with high degrees of integrity. Agencies also need employees with big rolodexes and deep, trusted relationships. The ability to wow clients and consistently deliver results is a must.

Leaders of agencies are entrusted to ensure that their companies are ‘doing the right things’ (setting the appropriate goals) and ‘doing things right’ (executing the correct tactics).  

As a result, what’s the first word that comes to mind when asked to name the best quality of a successful agency?


Seems simple. We’d all agree that a successful agency, or any business for that matter, needs to be strategic in its approach. A game plan needs to be followed and objectives, strategies and tactics outlined.

What other words come to mind? Discipline and focus.

An agency must be disciplined to follow the path identified and ensure the right steps are taken to fulfil the business plan. What does discipline mean? Staying the course. Believing in the plan and following the correct steps to execute it.

The same goes for focus. An agency must focus on goals and tasks identified and not get distracted by outside forces or random daily happenings. Don’t chase the shiny penny and take your eye off the established plan. Again, this seems simple.

Then the pandemic happened. To make a grand understatement, we are living in a new time. A global public health crisis unmatched since 1918. People following stay-at-home orders. Businesses closed or forced to fundamentally change their offerings. Workers in home offices with no in-person meetings or business lunches on the horizon.

The first question agencies had to answer when the pandemic hit was: what was appropriate? Should you call current clients? Should you pitch new business? If you weren’t selling N95 masks or other personal protective equipment, did you look tone deaf or insensitive in reaching out to people?

Here’s advice I gave my team when this started: reach out to friends, clients, prospects (hopefully, many of your clients and prospects are friends as well); don’t pitch them. It is not the time. See if everyone is safe and healthy and use the time to just connect.

Now, I believe we are at the point brands are willing to talk about planning. They may not know their budgets, and deals may not happen quickly, but it is time to start engaging again. We are in a new normal.

In this new normal, successful agencies – while remaining strategic, disciplined and focused – must be more adaptable than ever. They must change how they sell and what they sell.

Most obviously, agencies must adapt to working remotely. While many agencies have offices in various locations, including different countries, there were always some employees working together: brainstorming in conference rooms; exchanging ideas in the kitchen; eating lunch together and bringing pitches to life.  

None of that happens now. We must figure out how to be collaborative, creative and productive remotely. Athletes First Partners had all ten employees in our Manhattan office. Now all ten employees are in our Microsoft Teams or Zoom office.

No one is pitching business or closing deals in a meeting room or over a fancy dinner. How do agencies adapt to wow clients over the phone or over video conference? The ideas truly have to live on their own, and without the aid of the personal connection or the nice bottle of wine at a high-end steakhouse.

Agencies must adapt their sales strategy to fit the current reality. What are they selling? For example, Athletes First Partners has a team focused on securing international deals, with a particular focus on China. Suffice it to say, there is not any international travel happening, and there are no international deals getting done. Those employees who previously spent their time mining the international space must now find another way to add value. Are these employees assisting their domestic brethren with existing business, or are they forging their own path and creating incremental value with new lines of business?

The ideas and assets we focus on are different as well. Areas like health and safety, digital first engagements, mobile, gaming assets and most importantly, cause marketing and social responsibility are now going to be areas to explain, understand and include in a portfolio. Spending the time now to look ahead, and make sure you are not just slapping an area of expertise on what you do, is going to be critical. 

Brands, leagues, teams, media properties are going to be more conscious of return on investment than ever before, so ‘fake it until you make it’ isn’t going to work. As one of our smart younger people pointed out, these were opportunities were on the back burner before March 12. This crisis has accelerated the inevitable in certain areas of business and they are now essential opportunities going into the future.

If live events were integral to your partnerships, you’d better adapt and find other ways to deliver value to your partner. The same is true if autographs, appearances, photoshoots or elements based on in-person contact were important: you’ll need to figure out how social posts or self-produced content can deliver the required outcome.

In summary, the adjective ‘reactive’ often has negative connotations. But this needn’t be the case, and especially now.

In this new world agencies have to adapt, and that means yes, they have to be reactive.

Jim O’Connell is president of New York-based Athletes First Partners, which was formed in 2018 by Dentsu. He previously held senior-level roles with Nascar, the National Football league, and Viacom. 

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