In today’s ‘Day in the Life’, Alistair Schoonmaker, founder & MD of new creative agency, Ultra Brand Studio, chats about working life during Covid, and what it was like launching a business during lockdown.

Alistair Schoonmaker

Please describe your job: What do you do?

I’m the managing director of a new creative shop, Ultra Brand Studio. We launched in lockdown (I know!) and creative duo, Will Battersby and Matt Bennett, are my co-founders. They are the creative brains in the business; my role is to obsess about the rest – our culture, our direction, our talent, our clients – pretty much everything that makes excellent work possible. It’s entrepreneurial so everyone gets stuck in, and I like that.

How has your typical day been impacted in the short term by the pandemic?

Launched under lockdown, I’m not entirely sure we’ve ever had a typical day at Ultra!

While the pandemic forced the issue for some companies, working with more agility is what we set out to do. Ultra was born in part from our need to be less constricted by the costly infrastructure and processes of the big networks.

Opening our doors in a WFH world has been hard. Our biggest advantage has been the fact we’ve worked together for years. We trust each other. And trust is a critical attribute. It’s made working with big brands remotely, easier right out of the gate.

That said, we are looking forward to the time where we can work together in a shared space, though not in the traditional, five-days-a-week-at-the-desk sense. We all have kids, and after half a year, we’re ready to build in a more concrete division between life and work. It’ll be good for all involved!

What are your favourite tools and techniques to help you get your work done at the moment?

Lists, lists and more lists. That’s my thing. It’s simple, you don’t need fancy-pants platforms or subs, and it works.

It’s useful to have some cloud-based way of getting it down fast so you can access it regardless of the device you’re using but I don’t have a favourite – Notes app is great, Evernote too. Whatever the platform, pick one and stick with it. Multiple platforms lend themselves to overcommunication, and that’s just time and energy sink.

Ditto when it comes to meetings. My ex-colleagues in Delivery will have a wry grin when they read this, but regular meetings are the most effective tool to get work done. Daily stand ups, supplemented by a weekly longer planning session to cover off strategy, ops and AOB: boring but tried and tested.

Which companies have impressed you during the pandemic?

Zoom. It wobbled at the start of the lockdown but it handled its mega growth – and the pivot from B2B to B2C – remarkably smoothly. It’s not often a brand becomes a verb in our vernacular in such a short span of time. It certainly ate its longer-established competition for lunch, but as competitors rush to copy its UI, features and functionality, it’ll be interesting to see how Zoom uses its brand to hang onto market share. (We all know what Instagram did to Snap.)

And also Maserati. Declaring a vested interest – it’s one of our founding clients – but it has been massively impressive. The brand is undergoing a major repositioning with big product launches throughout summer. It announced plans to electrify its entire fleet, starting the journey just as the pandemic set in. To Maserati’s credit, it pressed on and pivoted away from traditional thinking to digitally-led car launches. It’s been amazing to be part of that and what we’ve achieved is a new blueprint for automotive.

What changes are you making to help your company connect with how people are feeling and experiencing the pandemic?

As a start-up, we are a small team. We all intrinsically share and understand each other’s personal situations. We recognise the pressures this brings and appreciate the need for flexibility to keep things moving along. And we don’t have a pre-Covid, Ultra frame of reference, so we’re learning as we go and so far it’s working. The real question will be which of our current working practices we keep as restrictions are dropped.

What trends have you seen in the last few weeks in your sector?

Speed, experienced talent and the need for hyper-authenticity: these are the key trends that are redefining business now.

Speed because clients are demanding accelerated campaign delivery and innovative thinking. Even pre-pandemic, there was little to no room for error or 11th hour deadline delivery. Now everything must be exceptional.

Experienced talent – this too was important pre-pandemic but is even more so now. The value of highly talented people, regardless of age or background, is key to arriving at answers quickly and producing great work remotely, or under the restrictions many of us are under.

And beyond our ad bubble, we’ve entered the era of hyper-authenticity. In a world where authenticity is lacking in public life, where governments are seen to fall short, brands are understanding that they have a unique opportunity to play a part in society. Brands are rushing to have a legitimate point of view and voice in the world. For us, that’s truly exciting – challenging times have always yielded great art, and as creative thinkers it’s fulfilling to help brands get this right.

What advice would you give a marketer right now?

Never waste a good recession – old adage, and true. This is a time for reflection, and when necessary, reinvention, for people and businesses. For brands specifically, I’d say get your product right for this new reality, look inward into your brand to find its voice and then boldly inspire and engage.

What does long term planning and strategy look like now at your company?

We avoid ‘sameness’ for our clients, and that’s true of us. We’re obsessed with building a type of creative company where good ideas and people genuinely thrive. It’s about building an incredible team, working with like minded brands and applying the team’s beliefs and sensibilities to what Ultra becomes and creates. There’s no blueprint for that.