Selling during the pandemic, one year in - Baltimore

Professional Development

Mar. 5, 2021 8:25 am

Selling during the pandemic, one year in

Kapowza accounts director and extrovert Sean Sutherland details the mindset and process shifts that helped the creative agency in a time of distancing.
These shirts haven’t been out networking in a year.

These shirts haven't been out networking in a year.

(Courtesy photo)

This is a guest post by Sean Sutherland, director of accounts at Baltimore-based creative agency Kapowza. In March 2020, he wrote about how the pandemic changed business development in its early days. One year later, this is what he learned.
At our agency, employees historically get a team lunch on their birthday.

You pick the place, you rally the troops, and we get you a birthday meal. Sometimes, we add some presents, and a goofy card. In years past, March 13 came and went with meals at notable Baltimore haunts like Outback Steakhouse, DiPisquale’s, Clark Burger, Gunther & Co., Sticky Rice (RIP), among others.

Despite always conforming to tradition, we obviously had to make an adjustment last year. Like most of the world, we formally shuttered the office on COB March 12, The air of gloom and the unknown of COVID-19 was here and spreading, and we didn’t truly understand what that meant. Expected to only last two weeks, we apprehensively packed up the office, grabbed the essentials (the last few bags of CheezIts, Arby’s swag, a notebook) and anxiously approached how we’d do in a fully remote world.

So, that’s where I found myself on my birthday in 2020: At home on my den’s couch, with my laptop, a takeout bag from Gordon Ramsay Steak filled with business cards and a whole hell of a lot of calendar invites to reschedule.

Now, as we count down to one year living through this pandemic, after more than half a million deaths due to the virus, Kapowza still stands and is looking ahead optimistically to this hybrid year. With a new administration, vaccines being manufactured and shots being given across the US, a brighter day seems within reach.

I’m not lying when I tell you this year has been one of the roughest for me. Personally, it’s been tough tearing an extrovert away from in-person events and being so far away from family and friends. Professionally, friends and former colleagues struggle to find employment, and businesses shutter. It’s never something that gets easier. But even if it hasn’t always seemed like it, 2020 did prove a few things to me when it came to success and selling. I am in no way saying that I’m perfect, and that a ton of mistakes didn’t occur, but this is what worked for Kapowza in making it through this “special” time.

Relying on relationships

As I mentioned earlier, I’ve accrued an ungodly amount of business cards while working for Kapowza over the last five years. Obviously, I use a CRM for maintaining relationships, my network, and our newsletter distribution list, but there’s just something about the physical business card. Patrick Bateman similarities aside, keeping these cards has been a great boon for my downtime in the pandemic. Whenever I find the inspiration calls, or just need to change it up, I grab a handful of cards from the bag and work through them. I find out who’s stayed put, when was the last time we connected, and if they’d ever even bothered to reply to my emails.


Sean Sutherland.

It’s a bit depressing to realize just how many people I’ve met, grabbed their card and never spoke to again. But for those where a genuine conversation or interest existed? It was absolutely inspiring to reach out and reignite a connection.

The majority of our business and projects of 2020 came from those who we previously met, previously worked with, or had some connection to prior to the pandemic shutdown. Better yet, the relationships I’d made and cultivated with local and regional centers of influence also paid for themselves through introductions and worthwhile referrals.

2020 proved the old adage that it’s better to maintain and expand business with existing clients than it is to bring on new ones. We’re entirely grateful to have supported Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, Baltimore Development Corporation, Northrop Realty, and several others we previously worked with in years past.

Avoiding virtual burnout

As someone who traditionally spent a majority of their evenings bopping around at networking events and happy hours canoodling with local and regional business leaders, the pandemic was a huge blow to my extroverted tendencies.

Thankfully (in most cases — regrettably in others), there’s been a glut of organizations that traditionally hosted in-person events, so those gatherings and conferences were able to continue virtually. And while it was a rough go in the beginning, as the months went on and we finally learned to preemptively unmute ourselves, we finally got the hang of all the Zooms, Google Hangouts, Microsoft Teams, Hopins, and about a dozen other platforms trying to be the best game in town.

But, something that was as familiar prior to the pandemic as it is today is “burnout”. While I may have been on my game as soon as I got to an event, I spent the majority of the Uber, walk, or drive back from an event in silence, winding down, giving myself time to mentally debrief. This is something that we aren’t giving ourselves time to do anymore.

2020 proved the old adage that it’s better to maintain and expand business with existing clients than it is to bring on new ones.

Was it good for me to drive from Columbia to Towson and back to Baltimore in one night? Probably not, but the drive time in between each event helped me make sure that I was ready. With the pandemic and virtual networking, all we’re doing is moving from platform to platform, leaving no space for decompression.

It’s no wonder that the phenomenon of “Zoom Fatigue” is felt so universally. One way I’ve sought to fight this is by limiting my involvement in “after-hours” virtual events. Opting for morning and afternoon networking gives me a good way to build in breaks. Also, and this is something I struggled with prior to the pandemic, just because there’s an event does not mean you need to attend.

Listen to yourself. Attending a virtual networking event is nothing like an in-person event, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t feel the same drag during a particularly lackluster one or fried after a marathon of Zoom calls.

Improving process

This one might seem like a no-brainer, but building a habit of expected processes and tasks throughout a day has made me much more efficient during this time.

I suffer from the same pang that befalls my generation: Instant gratification. If I see an email come in from a client or prospect, I immediately will pounce on it. And while time chunking has helped for this, setting limits on my computer and phone usage has also made the time with my business-related technology more purposeful.

By relying on and developing an improved process, I am able to take care of the things I need to get done in a given day or week, but also set aside time for some loftier, longer-term goals, such as marketing campaigns, prospecting, and building out longer-form RFP responses.

Developing a hunting mentality

If the big bag of business cards wasn’t a huge flag that I prescribe mostly to the baker or farmer sales mentality, well… here you go.

For the years before COVID, my job often took on this sort of order of operation:

  • Attend event/conference
  • Reach out afterward through emails for 1-on-1s or meetings
  • Add to the newsletter mailing list where appropriate
  • Check-in when promised
  • Rinse and repeat

Removing events and in-person conferences was a huge blow to my self-esteem, as well as just the normal way of sales that I’ve traditionally conducted.

I previously developed my skills through a unique confluence of necessity (needing to work and make a living and being unfamiliar with a new state) and personality fit (I’ve always been someone who enjoyed being in a crowd or talking to people and figuring out what makes them tick). This has served me extremely well at Kapowza. As we came up in an incubator, I was able to learn on the fly the needs and impact that we could bring to hungry entrepreneurs and startups.

During the pandemic, however, this methodology just won’t cut it. While I’ve still done what I can to reach out and reconnect with old contacts, a hunter mentality is something that I’ve had to adopt in order to bring in new clients and new leads.

This methodology relied more on research, research and more research. Instead of spending hours in a virtual networking event, I’ve funneled that time into diving into LinkedIn and researching companies that could benefit from Kapowza’s approach. The farming/baking will always be there, but sometimes a hunter is what’s necessary to bring in the right kind of client.

Being in the right place at the right time

We’ve been known for a few different agency marketing efforts throughout our tenure: We secured an article in AdWeek after we debuted our first regional ads for Northrop Realty, conducted video interview with local startup founders for a series called Between Two Founders, purchased ad space to highlight four deserving non-profits, and shipped out gourmet coffee boxes just to get on radars, to name a few.

But what consistently has been there is our newsletter.

It may have taken on a more serious tone during the pandemic — offering the latest news about coronavirus, or a more somber one in the Black Lives Matter protests last summer — but it’s still authentically us.

Having our newsletter reflect the times, sharing information critical to our clients, partners, and fans helped us to be a source of inspiration, motivation, and hell, even a little catharsis.

We even avoided using the phrase “during these uncertain/unprecedented times,” so chalk up that as a win, too.

Doing what works

During 2020, we really took a good look at what made Kapowza… Kapowza. With the pandemic limiting shoot sizes initially, we focused more on promoting our graphic design and website work, and we highlighted case studies and previous projects that applied to new opportunities.

We realized the best assets and the best chance we had of doing more work in 2020 started and ended with understanding what made us successful in the first place.

We realized the best assets and the best chance we had of doing more work in 2020 started and ended with understanding what made us successful in the first place.

Reshaping our core values and aligning our own social, PR and digital marketing efforts to promote previous successes helped to sell the longevity of our agency, while proving we were a detailed and creative partner.

By focusing on what we could control, and paying close attention to shifting virus data and protocols, we set a path and plan for what would make us successful as we navigated 2020.

As a small business, your best example of what future work will look like is by taking advantage of the great work and services you’ve provided in the past. Leveraging old relationships, recommendations and reviews, helped make the introduction and sales funnel process that much easier.


That’s what worked for me, but it’s by far not the  entire story. I will say this: Nothing will ever beat being authentic, selflessness and helping others first within a sales career. I’ve been fortunate and continue to be grateful for the successes and clients we’ve gained over the last year. And, even though it might not seem like it now, I’m more optimistic that we’re all heading to a day where the coronavirus isn’t our main concern, and we can get to work fixing the other issues we’ve neglected for far too long.

And yes, Between Two Founders will be back.


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