Nicole Donegan has worked in a variety of jobs in journalism, public relations and advertising. Donegan’s past positions include marketing for the Sundance Institute, a stint with Montana Public Radio and media relations for Yakima Valley Memorial Hospital (now Virginia Mason Memorial).

Donegan, 49, is now managing director for The Field Group, a marketing agency in Yakima. She started managing the firm with Sarah Garcia and Kristin McLavey in 2012, and the trio purchased the company in 2016.

The Field Group has done marketing and advertising campaigns for many high-profile companies and organizations in Yakima County. Most recently, the firm has been involved in the Yakima Health District public health campaign efforts.

In this month’s Checking In feature, Donegan talks about managing the agency under COVID-19, the firm’s approach in efforts to inform the public about COVID-19, and how the pandemic has impacted marketing and advertising.

How have The Field Group’s operations changed under COVID-19?

Like everyone else, we’re trying to figure out how to best navigate in this new environment. We had been working to fill two positions when COVID-19 hit, and we stopped that process for the time being. That has helped us better keep the remaining staff working full-time from home.

Our office has been shuttered since March 16, and creatives thrive when they feed off of each other. We can’t afford to get bogged down in the negativity of what’s going on, or it becomes really hard to remain creative. To keep staff energized and connected, we’ve been watching documentaries about other creatives, such as “Abstract,” a Netflix series about design, and then meeting over Zoom to discuss them. It’s helped keep us motivated.

How has COVID-19 impacted The Field Group’s business? How has the agency pivoted in response?

Our business heavily relies on networking and building relationships to acquire new work. We want to work with people who want to work with us and ones whose products or purpose resonate with us. We haven’t been able to seek out new relationships under these circumstances actively.

When we network, we can get to know what a business is all about and let them know about us. We work harder for businesses when we are passionate about what they offer, believe that we can really help them solve a problem, and feel that they truly value the help we provide. It’s just really hard to forge those types of relationships on a Zoom call. I get 50 calls a week from different vendors and I know potential clients are, too. It’s a lot harder to differentiate your company and your services when you’re just another vendor cold-calling or sending an email. Even if they answer an ad we place, there is always that bit of skepticism to overcome when interviewing someone from something that impersonal. It makes building new business much harder.

And when businesses are struggling, marketing is one of the first things they tend to cut. We’re hopeful that our reputation and relationships we’ve already built will sustain us until we can get back to business as usual. In the meantime, we’ve started advertising our services and hope to build relationships through those efforts.

Last year, The Field Group was recognized at the state level for its work with nonprofits, namely through the Created for the Cause, where the agency provides free marketing materials for nonprofits. Why is this work so crucial for the firm?

Our staff feel very strongly about our community and appreciate that it’s the diversity and philanthropic spirit of Yakima that make it so unique. We have amazing nonprofits that serve our communities in so many ways and do it on a shoestring budget. We are passionate about working with these nonprofits; if we could afford to focus our business on just helping our nonprofits better serve the needs of our community, we would. Instead, we use our work with larger for-profit clients to help us offset the cost of working with nonprofits that can’t typically afford marketing services. We estimate we gave away over $90,000 in marketing services to nonprofit clients in 2019. We’re pretty excited we could do that.

The Field Group is working with the Yakima Health District on its public health campaigns, including “Mask Up to Open Up.” What was the firm’s approach to getting these critical public health messages out?

We were excited to work on the YHD COVID-19 campaigns because it was such an important issue, but also because it was a challenge. We have fantastic organizations throughout our community all trying to get information to the people who need it in a timely manner. Still, the landscape was evolving so quickly it was difficult to keep up. The Yakima Health District was managing the outbreak locally while also trying to keep up with new information and recommendations minute to minute.

We found that there was so much information being shared that it was becoming overwhelming to the public. At the same time, our Latinx community was not getting important information in their language fast enough. Our goal was to simplify the message and focus on the behaviors the scientific community recommended and that we hoped people would adopt, and to make that information easily accessible in both English and Spanish. That led to the creation of the yakimatogether.org and yakimajuntos.org websites.

We knew the messages needed to be simple and easy to understand in both English and Spanish, so we relied heavily on images to help tell the story. In the beginning, the message was to stay home. We then better understood that a large segment of our population were essential workers and couldn’t stay home, so the message evolved to include 6 feet of separation. Finally, we added the recommendation on wearing a mask when issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

When masks became a political issue, and people were getting frustrated by the limitations of the recommendations, we knew we needed to change the messaging. We emphasized that without masking, we weren’t going to be able to get back to the things we were missing the most. Now that we see the number of new cases decline, the messaging is shifting again to encourage people to keep embracing these behaviors and not getting overconfident until we’re at a more controllable infection rate.

In general, our approach has been to be nimble, respond quickly, and try to keep the message simple clear, and concise for both our English and Spanish-language audiences.

How do you think the marketing and advertising industry will change post-pandemic?

I think recovery is going to be a struggle initially, but I think we’ll emerge intact. While companies will need to advertise their services more than ever, the dollars they have available for these efforts will be tight. This will force us to be creative and innovative, and that can be a challenge but also very rewarding.

I think consumers will have changed dramatically, and that will affect how people do business. We’re fortunate that we have been building our services to include website development and online advertising because I think those services will become essential to businesses’ success.

I think some of the more traditional methods to reach consumers will begin to fall away — even storefronts may start to fade now that we know we can set-up virtual storefronts with less overhead that can serve customers 24 hours a day. I think that businesses — including ours — will need to be willing to evolve to survive. While that is always scary and a bit intimidating, it’s also a little exciting. I know that after all this I’m looking forward to what’s next.

Reach Mai Hoang at maihoang@yakimaherald.com or Twitter @maiphoang

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