Uncommon's Natalie Graeme on navigating uncertainty and making work more flexible

Agency co-founder believes this crisis will compel more businesses to implement flexible working practices.

Graeme: 'In no way did we want to contribute to uncertainty'
Graeme: 'In no way did we want to contribute to uncertainty'

Next up in Campaign’s "Leadership in lockdown" series is Natalie Graeme, co-founder of Uncommon Creative Studio, who is trying to plan ahead for the young business while juggling Zoom calls and remote productions.

Where are you spending quarantine and how do you run your day?

Well, I’ve just put the washing out to dry – on a Wednesday. Quite clearly, the world has fundamentally shifted on its axis. 

No one day has been the same. It’s incredibly busy, but also completely different. The energy is more akin to our first few months starting up Uncommon, where everyone is finding new ways to make things happen within this totally new reality. Every day starts afresh and nothing is taken for granted.  

On a practical note, before lockdown we moved meetings to start at 10am to help everyone avoid the rush-hour commute; and now we do it to make the mornings slightly more manageable for those juggling home schooling.

I’m lucky to have a garden, which now looks even better than it did when I was on actual "gardening leave". So I try to create moments in the day to sit outside for calls and a coffee to break up the wall-to-wall Zoom. Although I’m massively craving a proper flat white right now. 

What were the biggest adjustments that you had to make in the first few weeks in terms of your work, your team and your clients/external partners?

Fundamentally, I learned that you can’t communicate enough with the team, clients and partners. There was a huge amount of uncertainty and potential for fear in the run-up to lockdown. First, questions over projects as insurers got to grips with what might be coming down the track, then understandable fears for personal and family health, then very quickly clients’ businesses adjusting to lockdown implications. In no way did we want to contribute to that uncertainty. So even when things haven’t been clear to us, we’ve kept communicating. The only thing that has been clear throughout everything is that we are all feeling our way through this, so we need to work it out in lock step together – our team, partners, clients and families alike. 

We’ve always worked flexibly and informally around each other. However, the newer adjustment has been having a complete reliance on tech to meet each other – which just emphasises what’s missing more than anything right now: the personal. The chit-chat getting a coffee. The casual check-in to see how people’s weekends were while you wait for the meeting to start and, more importantly, to make sure everyone’s coping WFH. Zoom meetings start on time (I’ve never been so punctual) and end with actions, but you need to create room for human connection across the screen. 

So while it felt a bit forced to start with, we’ve found unexpected and incredible moments to laugh, celebrate and just be sociable (shifting our Friday drinks trolley to a virtual one, among other things) and, beyond that, making sure we go out of our way to be kind and check in with people individually.

How has your business made savings and why have you chosen certain routes – eg pay cuts versus furloughing versus redundancies?

Just like our clients, our partners and I’m sure every business right now, we’ve looked across the board to make sure we’re sustainable for the long term. We are reviewing every cost from the big to the mundane, but most importantly adjusting quickly. As a relatively new and independent business, we’d not yet had the chance to get too stuck in our ways, so we’ve been able to quickly reprioritise. 

We’re obviously navigating the uncertainty and understandable fluctuations in revenue like everyone else right now. But I’m very aware we’re fortunate to have built Uncommon to adapt and work well within a more project-based world, which of course affects how we can plan ahead for the business. 

What has been the hardest part and what has been the most uplifting part of lockdown? 

Uncertainty. The fact that no-one knows the real impact this will have on our lives and the economy, even as we slowly start to emerge from lockdown. Our clients are understandably also responding in the moment as well, so it’s incredibly hard to plan too far ahead.  

But it’s also been very rewarding to recognise where we can really play a meaningful role, by helping brands positively respond to the crisis. Whether that’s partnering BrewDog on the idea to adapt its production to make hand sanitiser to give to those who need it most or relaunching ITV’s powerful mental-wellness campaign, "Britain get talking", in response to the crisis, it’s been an epic team effort all round. There have been a total of more than 250 ads produced through our studio under lockdown within the last month.

What are you working on?

Predominantly, I’m planning ahead and then replanning: long term, short term, worst case, best case. This is to help us stay ahead of what is clearly going to be a long period of uncertainty but also, more importantly, so that a lack of foresight doesn’t mean we lack the confidence to innovate and continue to invest in the right stuff. 

How do you find inspiration?

I’m a lover of Audible as an antidote to Zoom-filled calls. I’ve also started making my way through a bookcase full of real books I’d been accumulating for some time. The explosion of incredible theatres, concerts and art galleries throwing their doors open has been a really welcome bit of escapism from my couch too. 

Has the experience taught you something that you’ll change when you get back to working from an office?

More flexible working practices. We’ve always operated a super-flexible environment where people run their days how they need, working around each other and not feeling the need to be physically together to get things done. But this has shown that when you completely flip it, when working flexibility is the assumed default, it gives you so many choices, even if the best choice might still be to do the meeting in person once we can again.  

Even more personal and honest client relationships is an unexpected but incredibly welcome consequence of working this way. Not only are we all going through the same thing together and helping each other to navigate it, there’s also a huge amount of respect and support for each other's businesses. There is also an unsaid acceptance to ditch some of the formalities – hard not to when we see into each other’s homes on a daily basis and have the occasional child popping up on Zoom – as well as help each other to navigate health and business concerns. 

What change do you expect to see in the industry when this is over? 

I’m bowled over by how the industry has responded. We’ve all set aside competitive boundaries to share learnings, support and guidance. It has been phenomenal and long may it continue.

More broadly, though, many people I’ve spoken to have said it’s forced a much-needed moment of reflection. One I was actually able to get in my last period of semi-house arrest, in our enforced year out before starting Uncommon, and we know where that ended up…

So while most of us are just learning to put one foot in front of the other during this new normal, I am also extremely hopeful that our industry will return with collective renewed clarity on where we make a difference. I hope that we will look at what we can now afford to rethink and change before we have the chance to slip back into often-far-too-comfortable ways and, importantly, why what we do is important for the brands we work with but also the impact we can have on society.