#21interviews: Plan for a ballet of black swans

by Rachel Irvine. Coronavirus is coming with us into 2021 and we need to figure out how to restart and rebuild economies.

by Rachel Irvine. Imagine running a marathon only to get to the finish line and be told you’re not done. In fact, you have the whole damn thing to run again. Welcome to 2021. It’s not the news we want to hear but it’s the news we’re going to have to get comfortable with as we bid farewell to the utter hideousness that is 2020.

As much as vaccines are now being rolled out to protect populations against Coronavirus, we know that no magic fairy is going to appear at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve to wave a wand and end the sickness, the loss, the uncertainty and the economic damage. But many have convinced themselves that 2020 is an aberration. A black swan event that once played out will not repeat in our lifetime, so the world and business will get back to normal. This thinking, while comforting, is wrong.

As a business owner of many years standing, I know how dangerous it is to assume there’s only one hurdle between you and everlasting success. In 2008 I had a small but successful public relations agency in Moscow, Russia. While the global banking subprime lending fiasco was playing out, my business became a target for thugs who demanded a lot of cash in exchange for protection. In other words, if I didn’t pay a hefty amount of my revenue to these gangsters, they’d hurt me. I didn’t pay up. I had to pack my bags and leave the country. In the blink of an eye, I’d lost my entire business.

By 2015, Irvine Partners was well established in South Africa. The business was growing and thriving, but I had a business partner who didn’t share my vision, and a protracted and messy divorce ensued. Naturally, this took an exhausting emotional toll and threatened the stability of client relationships as well as the stability of the agency’s staff. In 2019, the agency parted company with a founding client that we’d had for nine years. While they were no longer our biggest client, the psychological knock on everyone at the agency was significant. Of course, the business has enjoyed many highlights along the way too. We simply never bank on any success or failure being absolute or infinite.

And then along came 2020

Whenever there is talk of Coronavirus being a one-off event, I’m reminded of a conversation I had with a big-shot banker in 2009 during the aforementioned subprime fiasco. The world was still reeling from the collapse of Lehman Brothers and banks everywhere needed eye-watering bailouts from taxpayers as the house of cards that was subprime lending became apparent. I recall asking Mr Hotshot Banker if this kind of calamitous failure could ever be repeated? “Oh no,” he responded, “We’ll never do that again. No. We’ll find an entirely new way to f*ck it all up.”

Inadvertently, it was some of the best business advice I’ve ever received. Why? Because in that glib one-liner I suddenly understood that the nature of life means we almost never see the crisis heading our way. We just suddenly find ourselves in it and choose how we navigate out of it. And navigate we invariably do.

Coronavirus is coming with us into 2021 and we need to figure out how to restart and rebuild economies, as we try to usher this most unwelcome of visitors out the door with a vaccine. We need to push on and lace up for the next marathon even though we’re all exhausted. That means treating your existing customers like gold and really delivering on your brand promise to them, even as you hustle for new business. And being smart with how you spend. We need to be mindful that once we’ve beaten this virus, a Utopian land of plenty will not be delivered. Our mindset and our actions need to reflect this.

As you look ahead and plan for the coming year, take comfort from the resilience of the human spirit, the possibilities born from impossible situations; and the knowledge that even a ballet of black swans will not bring down the curtain on us, wonderfully imperfect as we are.


For more insights from retail and brand leaders in the #21interviews series publishing 1-21 December 2020, ahead of 2021:


#21interviews LAUNCH: 2021 comes with a disclaimer, by Louise Burgers, Publisher & Editor, RetailingAfrica.com.

#21interviews: Brands need to get brave, says Bozoma Saint John, Global Chief Marketing Officer, Netflix.

#21interviews: The power of being purpose-led will drive brand value, by Karin Du Chenne, Chief Growth Officer Africa and the Middle East, Kantar.

#21interviews: Plan for growth in 2021, says Herman Botha, Group General Manager, PNA Group.

#21interviews: Next year will be all about authentic visual immersion, by Craig Bellingham, Founder & CEO, Studio[K]irmack.

#21interviews: Covid has created a brand vulnerability, says Elouise Brink, Senior Marketing Manager, Country Road, Woolworths Holdings.

#21interviews: Reimagining a better world without the inequality of ‘normal’, with Economist and Author of the post-pandemic book, FutureNEXT, Dr Iraj Abedian, talking to Retailing Africa Publisher & Editor, Louise Burgers.

#21interviews: Embrace technology at all levels, says Thabani Maluleka, Business Development Director for Rogerwilco.

#21interviews: It will not be business as usual, by Dave Nemeth, Trend Forecaster & Founder of at Trend Forward.

#21interviews: Lessons from an unprecedented year in retail, by Jonathan Hurvitz, CEO, Teljoy.

#21interviews: Beware ‘Covid fatigue’, by Guy Yehiav, General Manager, Zebra Analytics, part of Zebra Technologies.

#21interviews: Be deliberate in listening, says Zizwe Vundla, Marketing Director of Diageo South Africa, talking to Retailing Africa Publisher & Editor, Louise Burgers.

#21interviews: Critical factors for retail growth, by Enver Groenewald, Group CEO, Ogilvy South Africa.

#21interviews: The future of micro-commerce in Africa, with Vahid Monadjem, CEO and Founder of Nomanini, talking to Retailing Africa Publisher and Editor, Louise Burgers.



Rachel Irvine is the CEO of Irvine Partners PR and Integrated Marketing Agency. The firm has offices in the UK, South Africa, Kenya and Nigeria.


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