A Trip Down Trauma Lane

Damian Bazadona
44 min readMar 8, 2023

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It’s been almost three years since the impact of the Coronavirus landed on our collective lap in the live entertainment industries. And while its wrath of pain was well before March 12th, 2020 — it was that day that marked the beginning of a world of turmoil that will stay with me for the rest of my life.

It was three years ago that this news notification lit up my phone and in under 150 characters, succinctly spelled out the dark reality for anyone working in a live events business.

As I reflect on the three years, I remember one cold (and equally warm) truth — I was never really alone. I was among so many that have committed their lives to the arts and live entertainment industries and in what felt like a snap of the fingers, I was among so many that were sent into a tailspin of elongated immense stress and anxiety over the past three years.

As I write this article today, I am beyond grateful and fortunate that my business, my health and my family are still in place. A few weeks into the pandemic, all of those aspects in my life were being challenged for a range of reasons. I’m a grateful recipient of luck, a group of incredible humans that have stood beside me through very tough times and the grace of a higher power that helped us defy some incredible odds for survival.

At the top of this year, I tripped upon my notes of a past agency “State of the Union” while cleaning out some old emails. Our State of the Union agency tradition dates back to our inception where every few months, I bring the whole company together to share an update on Situation’s health and happenings. These notes I came across were from the first State of the Union that I gave during the pandemic — it was dated March 12, 2020.

As I read through my notes, I began to cry. I couldn’t really explain why — I just did as it brought up countless emotions around some shade of lived trauma. And, the more I read, the more I gathered a thirst to want to track down more of my notes from the State of the Unions that came after that during the pandemic. It felt like I tripped on a time capsule and the range of emotions that would flow through my body reading each passing sentence were both deep and varied — sadness, gratitude, pride, joy, loss.

As I dug and dug, I found roughly 8 months worth of speeches, notes, policies and communications. And the more I read, as painful as it was, the more I realized how important it was for me to relive it, put context to it, and, quite frankly, be thankful for the miracle of life today.

After a lot of thought and conversation with some trusted friends, I decided to share my raw notes and State of the Union scripts through what I would frame as a re-telling of the pandemic in 2020 from inside Situation.

This was not easy to write and will not be easy to read for many including those that were directly impacted by my decisions. This is not meant to be an all-inclusive view from that period of time and I’m sure I missed some key moments worth sharing. Much of what you will read is based on my memory, emotion and my filling in the blanks from a very stressful time.

But given I know I was not alone, I hope this can create space for conversation to reflect, learn, evolve, heal — whatever brings positive progress.

I’m going to start on March 12, 2020 — this was the last State of the Union from our office space.

March 12, 2020: “Wait, what is happening?”

March 12 happens to be my birthday. It also happened to be the day the headlines were heating up and COVID had taken center stage. Disneyland closed while MLB and NHL postponed their seasons and Broadway announced a shut down —if you work in the live events business, there were the headlines from hell.

That day, I pulled the whole company together in preparation of planning to go full remote.

Excerpt from 3/12/20 State of the Union

Good morning all. It’s great to see you.

I simply want to keep you all in the loop given what’s going on in the world.

We want to be good citizens of the community so let’s please continue to follow the government guidelines. If you have pre-existing conditions, or if you need anything, speak up and we will accommodate.

Broadway is likely going to close for 30 days. There is the potential for the possible closure of shows which we will keep an eye on.

This company is not built for 100 people to work from home. This is a big level of trust as we work through this so please be your best self.

This is where greatness is born. Be great.

PS. Today is my birthday. Thank you universe.

As I commuted home that night, the doom and gloom felt relentless. The fear and impact was real. And while the absolute numbers of what was still to come was yet to materialize, the real-time charts told a chilling story beginning with the rising COVID case count which looked like a one way path to massive destruction.

And aside from the health concerns, the broader economic impact was instantly equally dire. By the end of this day, US stocks would record their worst day since 1987.

When I went home that night, oddly enough, I really wasn’t panicking but more trying to figure out “what does this all mean?” Am I going to get sick? Are my kids going to be OK? Is this just the media cooking up a frenzy? Is there school tomorrow?

I wasn’t scared of getting the virus because I was too busy worrying about all of the issues the virus was causing. As I look back, I was so far in denial of the reality of the moment, it’s embarrassing.

“What’s the worst that can happen?” is really what I thought. It’s just another thing I needed to work through but I kept telling myself — don’t overthink it. And as I started reading more headlines and receiving more stories relating to the pandemic, for the first time running this business, I truly felt completely overwhelmed. There were a million questions that impacted so many lives in our company and I had no clear path for answers.

I became agitated , frustrated and downright angry. Anytime someone sent me an article of concern, my knee-jerk response went to “what am I supposed to do with this information?” Or, “can we all stop overreacting?”

Schools announced closing, stores were closing … it felt like everything was closing.

On top of all of this — our revenue came to a screeching halt. Roughly 85% of our revenues were originating from clients that involved live events — we were a staff of roughly 80 full time team members and an extended group of part-timers and freelancers that relied on our work totaling over 100 people.

In hindsight, I must have known deep down this was going to be bad but for some reason I never really let it set in. I really just believed “this can’t be as bad as people think it is.”

It’s amazing what we can make ourselves believe.

March 17, 2020: “This is worse than I thought”

Our State of the Union, which was typically once every two months, was now happening two or three times a week. The headlines were brutal — and even the font size of the headlines on major newspapers was screaming a new normal.

The headlines were stress inducing. “Crisis Shutting Down Commerce, Likely for Months.” As a business owner, if that’s not stress inducing, I don’t know what is.

Roughly a week after we first sent people home from the office, my tone changed as the reality set in that what was transpiring was definitely not good. My children were now being homeschooled by my wife and myself (mostly my wife). My wife and I have been through a lot together — including our fair share of pain. This period of time reminded me of a consistent truth — I’m not sure where I would be, or where Situation would be, in this world without her.

As stressed as I was, I knew I was not alone and my staff was deeply stressed, concerned and navigating a whole set of life issues.

While I didn’t have good news, the one commitment I made very early was that I would communicate openly, honestly and frequently — both the good news and the bad news. This was the first of many zoom State of the Union’s to come.

Excerpt from 3/17/20 State of the Union

Good morning. I hope you are all well.

To start, I simply want to reinforce my points of “over communicate”, “reflect, evolve, share” and “be kind”... things will get better.

On a personal note, my kids are now on day 2 being home schooled. My mother is sick and has been fighting cancer for years. She’s doing great — but visiting in person is a huge risk so I haven’t seen her in a while. I’m assuming many of you may be in very similar spirits — people you care about most in crisis are the ones you are being asked to stay away from. I’m not built for working in one place for a period of time — but I’m getting better at it.

On the business side, it’s very tough right now and unfortunately it is going to get tougher. When I talked to you last… we were on what looked like a 4 week hiatus. At this point, we are operating at a loss and pulling money out of agency emergency funds. I’ve heard this situation will be up to 8 weeks… maybe more, maybe less.

Here’s what I’ve been doing:

- I’ve been speaking with industry leaders trying to get an inside track on where all of this will shake out — nobody knows.

- We have been looking into government programs trying to see what small business relief is available to help support.

- I’ve been speaking with other business owners trying to get ideas and suggestions on how they are planning on weathering the storm.

- I’ve been speaking with clients. They are in full wait and see mode.

The biggest issue right now is uncertainty of timing. It’s not good and I know many of you are asking about job security.

I don’t have any information that I can share at this moment — but given the information I have in hand, we will all be impacted in some way.

We have an amazing team and I want to keep that amazing team in place. We have a bright future.

I’m working through understanding the full impact of everything and will continue to be back to you.

March 19, 2020: “This is much worse than I thought”

At this point, it was clear we were going to have to make some kind of financial cuts as we would soon be bleeding money. The return of Broadway timeline was pushed back yet again which meant a significant part of our revenue was not coming in the door.

The faucet of revenue slowed dramatically and we had no idea how long this was going to last. The question I was facing was how big of a financial cut did we need to make in this moment. Speaking with other business owners, many made very significant cuts very quickly. “Damian, this is going to be a problem for a long time — you have to make significant cuts now before you regret it.” They were trying to protect me from my own delusion.

The truth was that the data continued to tell a stark reality — many people were going to die. It was a gut-wrenching truth.

But even with this data in hand, I was delusional enough to think we would get through this health crisis sooner than later. There is no way the world (or at least the US economy) could ever really shut down for any meaningful amount of time, right? There goes that delusion again.

While the path of the virus was heading in a terrible direction, my view was that nobody knew exactly what was going to happen next with either the virus or the economy and what I needed was to buy time. With time, would come insight to create an informed decision.

I truly believe I have the best team in the business at Situation. Kind, smart, creative, talented. At this point, we made it 19 years in business — I think this could be evidence enough that my belief in my team is a smart one. I felt if I lost these folks to layoffs, the business would just never be the same.

So after doing a lot of financial forecasting with the information we had in hand with my head of operations and finance Maria Martinez, we came up with the plan to keep the full team in place at a 1/2 time, 1/2 pay structure for a 5 week window of time. 5 weeks was roughly enough time I felt (I guessed) we could absorb financial losses for and it would give us time to see what the new truth of the moment would be.

Maria, often single-handedly, architected financial and operational paths forward that enabled us to keep us in business under an extreme set of financial circumstances. Maria has been with the agency for over 15 years and while she was instrumental in building what the company had become, it should be known, she was equally instrumental in saving us. Most people behind the scenes don’t know what kind of superhero work she performed with a steady hand while having my paranoid voice in her ear.

With our financial recommendation in hand, I brought the news to the agency. I remember feeling numb reading this out loud.

Excerpt from 3/19/20 State of the Union

I hope you and your families are well.

It’s extraordinarily stressful on many levels and I know that. I want to thank everyone who has been going above and beyond and we navigate everything. It’s been many sleepless nights.

I want to update you all with a plan of action we are taking in an effort to weather this storm.

Here’s what I know:

There is very little revenue coming in. Everything essentially stopped.
The move from a 4 week shut down to 8 weeks was game changing

There are major government mandates and quarantine rules worldwide that says this isn’t going to go away quickly.

Doing “nothing” to help our financial situation is no longer an option.

My Goal

My goal is to keep this company together. If you are on this call, I want you to be here on the other side of this.

I want to be fair given the circumstances that are so beyond anybody’s control.

I want to communicate this information to you as quickly as possible.

Here’s the plan (we did look at other options carefully)

1/2 day, 1/2 pay. I’m foregoing my salary.
We will continue to pay whatever medical we have paid to date on your behalf.
We will continue to match 401k

The plan is to do this for 5 weeks. This will give us more time to understand the direction things are heading.

I’m reviewing this weekly. Things are subject to change given the volatility of the market. Your department heads will walk you through specifics.

In closing

We spent 19 years building this company with many of the people on this call. My view is I’m trying to wait as long as I can to make decisions given the uncertainty.

This isn’t fair. Nothing feels fair. It’s the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make.

While no one was happy with the pay cut, I think people appreciated some level of predictability. “Got it, 5 weeks.” That was something I think we all wanted at that moment — ANY sense of certainty in what was such a volatile situation. It helped give me space to think knowing we had an agreed upon timeline.

Over the next five weeks, I talked to so many friends, colleagues, business owners — the feeling of “uncertainty” and the fact that we knew this uncertainty would be the new normal was deeply unsettling.

But navigating uncertainty requires our best guesses at dot connecting. And I felt the best way to try and “dot connect” towards where the future will go, is to actively listen and learn. I can’t tell you how many podcasts, webinars, virtual events, email newsletters (i.e., NYC & Company Tourism Update) I engaged in looking for any and all signals of our future.

Our friends at Google proved to be a very helpful sounding board throughout the pandemic. They had so much access to cross-industry perspective which we knew was important information for so many of our clients. So with the amazing support of Michal Lorenc at Google, we opened up our conversation with Google on the state of the live event industry to the public through a virtual event series with our first one on March 26th. Hundreds of marketers from across the globe showed up to listen. As dire as the information was about the state of the industry, I vividly remember the warmth of being back together with my industry friends (albeit virtually). The notes I received saying the same thing around the joy of discussing the uncertainty together was therapeutic for many.

Here was the first invitation. (We ended up hosting 12 events reaching thousands of people across the globe.)

The events with Google series were driven by Lisa Cecchini who was heading our media and insights at the agency. Working through the planning of these events where we were discussing insights and research about the future of our business, I remained eternally grateful for my friendship and chance to collaborate with her. Lisa is not only ridiculously smart, hard working and strategically minded — but an honest soul. Our agency, our partners and our clients were dealing with unprecedented uncertainty and pain. What they needed now more than ever was honesty — not gaslighting. Honesty in the face of adversity is not as easy as it might seem in the advertising business. I don’t believe you can walk into any agency and meet someone as special as Lisa and collaborating with her through the pandemic reminded me of this.

April 21, 2020: “It’s either fight or flight.”

As we were now deep into April, my mindset had shifted into acceptance that this was going to be longer than just a few months. It was April and, in my mind, this was going to go through July (and maybe even into September). Yes, I was definitely delusional on the reality at hand but if I wasn’t — I don’t think the agency would still be here today given the circumstances we were facing.

As you can see in the following survey results we published around this time, there was no real consensus on a timeline for a return of live events (especially in NYC).

It’s eye-opening to read these charts knowing what we know today.

With May just around the corner, I still had no idea of how we were going to survive after the five-week window but knew we had to start flipping every rock we could and start pivoting our business. We were looking into opportunities to work in other industries or services and it was clear there was one growing opportunity we were best suited for— virtual event production. If you can’t host a live event in person — the next best thing in a pandemic was proving to be a virtual event and our clients certainly had a demand for it. Our team jumped right into it head first in ways that were awe-inspiring.

For context, in 2019, we had produced at most 10 virtual events. In 2020, we had produced over 50 — and they were significant. Jackie Lau, the head of our production studio, oversaw the team that built this entirely new set of services through an entirely new set of circumstances. From navigating staffing to dealing with new health protocols to managing budgets to adapting emerging technologies — Jackie held a steady hand throughout. “We got this” was her spirit when we all knew deep down, we were having to build this new plane while we were flying it. I think Jackie was uniquely built for this moment and her confidence and ultimate leadership in executing the scale of virtual events in this moment was fundamental to our survival.

This moment was one huge pivot and really helped keep our lights on.

We continued to convene as an entire company virtually a few times a week and I would tell them the indicators I was looking at. I would repeat this at every touch point I had with the team. I selfishly loved seeing the team — even as the news I was often delivering wasn’t any good. We would share our favorite shows we were binge watching, show off our new pets or watch our children run across the screen in the background. It was a sense of connection that I desperately needed through all of the stress.

With our five week plan of 1/2 day and 1/2 pay coming to a close on the near horizon, I thought for sure we were going to have to make very significant financial cuts to survive. We had already actively shaved down every part of our operating budget and pulled money from savings leaving layoffs as the last financial option to reduce costs. When I saw businesses, schools and public offices were being asked (and often forced) to stay closed indefinitely — I was having a hard time seeing how we could possibly have the commercial success we needed to survive when our customer base was literally closed for business.

And then came the Paycheck Protection Program. It was the lifesaver I could never imagine would even exist.

It was a federal program that was being introduced that would essentially help companies like mine subsidize our employee salaries (up to a certain threshold).

I remember reading about it and saying to myself, “there is NO way this is real.” So you’re saying the government is going to wire me a bunch of money that I can use to pay all of my employees and my rent and I don’t have to pay it back in the future? It just seemed so unrealistic that they could possibly architect a program and implement it quickly enough to help our situation.

And even if it did happen, we had so many questions? Would our company qualify? Were we too small? Were we too big? Would it cover our employees in every state? How much payroll would it cover? Is there a time limit? Could the money get here fast enough?

Maria and I would search every day waiting to hear more about the program. We would listen to podcasts, read articles, talk to other business leaders waiting to hear if this program actually gets approved and signed into law. And once it was finally approved and open for applications, we would sit on virtual webinars and dig into all of the very gray parameters that were a part of it. It took a lot of time and energy.

And finally on what was somewhere around the final week of my “5 week window” — we miraculously received a payment worth approximately 7 weeks of payroll wired into our account giving our team a lifeline. I truly couldn’t believe it. I felt like an angel was sitting on my shoulder. I cannot express how much this felt like the first ray of light and sign of hope I had experienced since the pandemic began.

I will say that signing the documents for the Paycheck Protection Program did make me feel very nervous. The documents effectively said “you will be forgiven for the loan total at a later date if you meet all of the agreed upon parameters.” It felt a bit like — “we’ll give you the money now and just settle up later.” This ambiguity made me very unsettled as I would be the personal guarantor to the loan but it was my only lifeline.

Looking back, there has been a lot of criticism about the Paycheck Protection Program as it’s clear there was significant fraud committed by many — enough to make you sick reading the stories of fraud. But, speaking on behalf of my agency, I can also say it was the only lifeline I had left to keep our team together and it proved invaluable to our survival as a business.

With the money now in my account on what was actually quite a dreary day out my window, I was so relieved to finally give some good news to the team. I knew it was “only for now” kind of news — but it gave me some much needed optimism to keep pushing forward and the most important currency I had been seeking — time.

The view from my desk.

Excerpts from 4/21/20 State of the Union

Good morning.

I hope you and your families are doing well.

And I hope you had a good Ian Bennett Day.

The PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) loan process is progressing. I still don’t have final confirmation of the timing of the actual loan being completed — but I’m feeling optimistic and we are in constant communication with our bank.

Our five-week window that we have been working against comes to an end this week.

Beginning next week, our plan is to begin to increase hours. It will take about a week until everyone is back to a schedule of increased hours — it’s not a light switch. I expect by the week of May 3rd, I expect the whole team will be back to increased hours.

When this all started, we all went 1/2 time, 1/2 pay — (I waived my salary and the agency has lost money every week over the 5 weeks). We did this believing in our team and believing in our future. I think it’s one of the best choices (albeit never a choice I wanted to make) we’ve ever made as an agency given the circumstances we were staring down.

In the past 5 weeks we have been building entirely new business segments and new industry growth… look at our work in cause and education for example.

Thank you for patience and your trust — I know this has not been easy. I’m not going to pretend to try to understand how this impacts you all — everyone has different circumstances But the outcome as of now, is it looks like we will have our full team in place through at least June which is incredible given the entire economy is effectively paralyzed at this moment.

The idea of “fairness” and “trust” is very important to me in how we build this company; in fact, I think it is inevitably the core fabric that separates a good company from a mediocre one. I hope it’s what has gotten us almost 19 years.

I’m telling you this because as we move forward through the PPP loan, there are limitations to how we can use the money — so each of you will be impacted slightly differently. Some of you may be closer to 100% of your hours — some of you may be at 75% The amount is dictated by a whole slew of government parameters that are beyond my control.

This is as good of news as we can get as a company. Thank you for your support, patience and trust.

The next set of conversations will likely be coming from your managers either later this week or early next week. As we get more clarity, we will be sharing with you.

May 15, 2020: “Uncertainty is the new normal.”

The PPP loan gave us both the space and hope to try to survive. It was a big win as it was one of the first sighs of relief (albeit a short one) since the pandemic began.

More importantly, it gave us the space to make the required pivot as a company to survive as we knew there was no clear path for a return of our live entertainment work in the short-term. The headlines continued to tell a dire story.

It was around this time we began to invest heavily in our work in supporting nonprofit and higher education clients. We had experience working with these industries over the years but never created the space inside the agency to go deep in growing these verticals. Tom Lorenzo, our long-time head of creative at the time, was specifically passionate about this possible expansion. With live entertainment on hold — this was the moment and one of the few moves we saw as a feasible path forward in the situation we were in.

Jordan Person, who was the head of business development for our agency at that time, stepped into the moment and ultimately secured a slate of clients at a speed I didn’t think was even possible. International Rescue Committee, Services for the Underserved, Meals on Wheels America, No Kid Hungry — Jordan and the team recruited, grew and developed an incredible group of amazing clients when we needed it most that were fundamental to our agency survival. So much of the work centered on our new virtual events services.

With each new client we secured, our team did amazing work under complex circumstances which in turn drove more referrals our way through the great word of mouth. As importantly, this work was inspiring to be involved in. These nonprofits deeply need help in supporting their constituents and I think our team deeply wanted to put their efforts on work that really mattered in our communities in that moment.

This work was stressful for so many people on our team. I could see it on their faces when we came together via zoom meetings.

It was the kind of work that often took many hours above and beyond a typical work day and was inherently stressful as the projects often came with countless variables that could go off the rails at any time.

This work was the catalyst for what is now an exciting new agency we have formed called Town Hall due to this amazing growth. Jordan is now at the helm of this new agency. Throughout the challenging journey of the pandemic, her unwavering ability to believe in herself, our team and her genuine belief in that anything is possible made her the obvious choice to lead Town Hall’s future.

In what felt like a common theme throughout the pandemic, nothing we could do could get us to a safe position. We were so far in the hole that even though we were able to pivot and find new revenue in new verticals, we were still operating in an unsustainable deficit from where we were at pre-pandemic levels. Our reality in that moment remained that over 80%+ of our pre-pandemic operating revenue was on hold due to all live events being closed.

We were definitely making financial progress by securing new clients in new industries but I knew not enough to keep our full staff employed. The Paycheck Protection Program loan we had received would only support us for 7 weeks of payroll and it was clear that by May, the pandemic was just getting started.

I live in New Jersey and remember around this time beginning to make trips back into the city to check in on the office. I remember walking in to the office and it was almost like an eerie time warp — like the world just stopped and everyone just vanished with no sign of struggle.

The chalkboard still listed the upcoming staff events that never came to fruition that March . I’m still trying to remember what “Money & Margaritas” was going to be — who doesn’t like both of those things!?

Desks were full with computer screens, file folders and papers scattered about — but as I walked through the space the air felt a little musty and stale, plants that were once flourishing were now dead weeds and light bulbs throughout the office had blown out.

The only way I could describe the feeling was cold and depressing — which was fittingly what I remember the weather felt like that day.

As you can see in the photos, we have an open working space. And I remember standing by myself looking across the office and thinking two simultaneous thoughts — “I can’t believe this is happening” and “how are we going to survive this?”

Stepping back into the office was an overwhelming moment of our new reality. Our office lease cost is substantial and, unfortunately, comes with a personal guarantee that I have to pay if the company cannot, which was clearly going to become my new reality when the Paycheck Protection Program money dried up.

I was stressed — but I kept coming back to the point that I knew I wasn’t alone. That gave me some solace.

While I knew the financial outlook on the near horizon was not good, I couldn’t shake my belief in my team and the business overall. I was so impressed with what our team continued to accomplish under extraordinary circumstances. “If we can just make it to the other side…” is what I kept thinking to myself.

In my mind, I knew with time this office could be thriving again. I couldn’t shake thinking of a photo we have of our fun loving infectious head of client services Jeremy Kraus rollerblading through our old office.

I thought of Jeremy as he always brings energy, excitement and care to any rooms he enters (in person or virtually). He finds optimism even in the toughest of situations and is amazing at sharing a “can do attitude” to everyone around him. His smarts, heart and guts have always been a superpower both inside our agency but also inside the Broadway industry at large.

The pandemic reinforced to me how special it is to have someone like Jeremy on our team. You can’t artificially create passion and care — that comes from a deeper place and its infectious.

I knew we could get that passion back into our workplace. I knew we could get rollerblading high fives happening in the office once again but we just needed more time.

But in the meantime, I continued to battle to the two competing emotions — the reality of today and the reality I knew could come in the future.

Excerpts from 5/15/20 State of the Union

Hope you’re all well. Hope your families are well.

Hope the experience of working from home is going well.

It’s nice to see all of you. My goal is to give it to you straight.

These SOTU’s are very difficult for me because I’m not exactly sure how best to do that.

On one side of the equation… I often wake up optimistic and excited for what I’m seeing…

AMAZING client work (shout out to some of the amazing events happening, our growth in education and non-profit, our fantastic support of live events during this crisis.)

AMAZING team members doing amazing things for each other.

AMAZING the notes I’m getting from clients joining our events praising our efforts (here and in London)

AMAZING to see our ability to be as nimble as we have.

AMAZING to see the virtual event growth and NEW live experience conversations happening based on tech.

It makes me happy and hopeful and optimistic. You’ll hear it in my voice — arguably you can say it sounds delusional at times. I take bad situations and see the best in them. It’s both a deficiency and a super power (depending how you look at it.)

On the other side of the equation… I often wake up upset and frustrated knowing how shitty things are right now…

Broadway is going to be pushed back significantly as of right now. (Somewhere between September — March)… 85% of our revenue comes from some kind of live experience. And while we are growing other verticals, that takes time (and even those industries are getting crushed).

I’m waiting to see if there will be any changes to the PPP program. Extension of financing options…. we need that help or I will be forced into a position of some kind of cutbacks. We are in depression like numbers as a country. I have no control over it whatsoever.

I don’t know the right tone to have with you other than being honest in the moment. That’s probably been one of the hardest exercises running this agency during this time.

I am trying to save this agency… and at the same time have the endurance to make it thrive on the other side. That’s my entire focus.

The only thing we can collectively do is to care for each other. Communicate with each other. Work hard and have hope.

I will know more on what our future looks like at the top of June. I simply wanted to reinforce that point and open this up for questions.

Plus it’s great to see all of your faces.

We will continue having two of these a week.

June 5, 2020: “We’ve reached a boiling point.”

If there was a specific period of time I could point to that carried the most weight during the pandemic for me, this was certainly one of them.

The pandemic was relentlessly issuing waves of destruction and, on top of this, came the traumatic murder of George Floyd for all of the world to see.

It was devastating and represented so much pain for so many people — particularly for my friends in the Black community. Just one week earlier, I had shared the following email.

MAY 31, 2020 — EXCERPT FROM A COMPANY WIDE EMAIL

It’s been one heck of a weekend and I felt the need to check in with you all.

The streets of our nation are full of pain, frustration, anger. I also would like to believe there is a sense of hope as well given the gigantic outcry of our citizens with a message of enough is enough and demanding action. Whatever you feel — it likely carries a heavy emotional weight. It does for me.

On top of the pandemic, the state of the economy and the issues in the headlines of the world at large, it is more important than ever that we are checking in with one another, supporting one another and caring for one another. Please help me in doing that whenever and however you can by reaching out to an agency colleague to see how they are doing.

On behalf of the company, I have made a personal donation to The Official George Floyd Memorial Fund. While the company itself is not in a financial position to make a donation, I think it’s important that we do whatever we can right now — no matter how big or small — to support.

More importantly though, over the long-term, after the headlines have faded, I know the issues surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement will only need even more support. I don’t know what our role could be or should be — but it has to be more than it has been in the past. I’ve been thinking this for quite some time — but not acting at a rate I feel is acceptable of myself or the company. We have a lot of work to do in our agency walls and in the communities of the public schools we proudly support where I believe we can have an even more profound impact on than we have to date.

The goal is this — we must be better. Perfection can’t be our enemy for progress. Let’s start here. I take responsibility for making this a reality.

To all of those working this weekend on navigating the social landscape for our clients, thank you. It’s a lot — a lot of responses, calls, emails and decisions that are often out of our hands. Thank you for stepping up.

Onward, upward and please check in with each other. I’m around if you need anything.

d

My team was hurting and it was upsetting to watch.

At the same time, the streets of our country and across the world were full of pain, anguish and anger. The murder of George Floyd was gut wrenching, traumatic and began a movement around social justice that was long overdue at both a macro-level (our country) and at a micro-level (the Broadway, Arts & Culture industries).

Compound all of this with the pandemic data points that were still trending in the wrong direction.

It began to feel like a pot of boiling water ready to boil over.

It’s hard to write about this moment of time.

Because on top of all of this pain, I now knew I had to share the news of the stark reality that we had waited as long as we possibly could to make the much needed financial cuts as the Paycheck Protection Program money had run dry.

While there was a lot of talk that another round of Paycheck Protection Program loans may soon come available to extend our ability to cover our payroll, there was no timeline or promise of when this would come to fruition. We looked everywhere for money to sustain as I continued to reinforce my belief that “if we can get past this, we can win on the other side.”

The most painful truth I couldn’t shake was that I just had no idea of how far away the other side actually was.

Finally, after months of trying to keep the team in place, we ran out of options and had to begin reducing staff.

Excerpts from 6/5/20 State of the Union

Good morning.

Let me start by saying, I’m sorry that this meeting has come to carry so much weight. That was never the intention — it’s just the reality of the situation.

This has been by far the hardest few months of my career (I’m assuming many of you may be feeling the same).

I’ve never felt more uncertain about the world around me and at the same time have never felt so out of control of the situation I’m in.

I don’t feel like any decision I make is a “good one” — rather I’m picking the choice that is “worse bad.” If I’m being honest… I’m completely exhausted in a way I’ve never felt at this moment. Again, I’m assuming I’m not alone.

The one thing I have felt certain about has been my confidence in this team. You have all been amazing. I see this group as family. I know that may sound weird but it’s true. Thank YOU for your support over the past few months — I received many nice notes, ideas and suggestions and just overall support which have helped fuel my tank. Thank you.

Since COVID-19 hit… the thing I’ve been seeking the most in trying to navigate the future is TIME.

TIME to view clarity in what has felt like a kaleidoscope. TIME to keep this team together.

When COVID happened — virtually overnight, 19 years in business felt swept away in a blink of an eye. Every effort — including 1/2 time, 1/2 pay which you all thankfully participated in — was designed to keep this team together. And never ONCE during this journey have I questioned the strength of our team.

Every week I was carefully watching a range of indicators. The hope was that with TIME the situation would get better…

Timeline of live events returning (not getting better)

Timeline of federal funding options (not getting better)

Timeline of current client revenue (not getting better — many projects this week have been put on hold)

Timeline of new business (this is the one bright spot that’s been amazing — but doesn’t offset the losses)

In short, it’s not getting better and unfortunately I’ve waited as long as I can and now have to make financial cuts to our salaries.

Each of you will receive an individual call from your manager within the hour AFTER this SOU of the details of your specific situation — but since I have been speaking with you every week, I feel a responsibility to share this news with you personally.

Beginning June 19th, roughly 25% of the staff will be furloughed through September 30th (Q3). Furloughed employees’ last day will be June 19th. We will continue our health insurance contribution for the length of the furlough and paying out your accrued vacation.

For those remaining on, through Q3, there will be a pay cut effective June 19th — the more senior you are, the bigger the % cut.

I will continue forgoing my salary.

Please know our financial cuts are based on the projected work we can see now into Q3. The choices being made are specifically based around projected client needs and the specific skills needed to meet those immediate needs…. along with the needs of the agency as we begin to put a plan to open back up the office. Those needs may change — as may our timeline. I simply do not know at this point but don’t want to keep dragging you all along in the uncertainty.

I believe in this team. I want to keep us together. I want us to thrive.

Competing agencies have chosen to furlough upwards of 75% of their staff for up to 6 months. I don’t think that is a recipe for long-term success. I want to be active, evolving and continue forward thinking.

We still have a very tough road ahead (our company, our industries and our country) but believe we can win big on the other side.

I’m betting everything I have on it.

You managers will be in touch with each of you this morning with details of next steps immediately following this SOU.

There was no EASY way to deliver this news. I had given a lot of thought as to whether or not to have your managers have individual conversations with you before this SOU — but it was important to me that you hear it from me first and understand the context. I’m sorry if the way we did it was jarring. It certainly was not the intention.

There will be many questions but please understand we will need a few days to gather many answers you will want. Please be patient with us — we will make sure all of your questions are addressed and we will work to support you all. I hope you know a lot of care and thought was put into this effort — thank you to the VP team that has worked tirelessly in making this plan.

Good talented people whom I care deeply about who’ve done nothing wrong are being asked to accept a furlough or a pay cut. That is unfortunate and as the owner of the company, I’m sorry to you all.

I promise you this — I remain hopeful and committed to winning on the other side alongside all of you. I’ve got my life in this company — and I refuse to let 19 years of hard work be swept away. I’m all in.

I’m more than happy to answer any questions you have one on one. Phone, email or Zoom.

Thank you again. Your managers will be in touch and they can continue the conversation.

This was absolutely gut wrenching.
Time ran out on us.
I felt sick to my stomach.

June 12, 2020: “A time for reflection.”

The murder of George Floyd along with the pain from so many that was put on display for all to see created a moment of deep reflection for me both as a human and as a business owner.

As a business, I knew our efforts to make our community and workplace reflective of the communities we operate in could and should be better. I knew this was a moment that was important that we leaned into.

With the help of some incredible mentors and advisors, I was proud of how my team stepped up to start to do the work to become a more thoughtful, supportive and inclusive agency. The key word here was “start” to do the work as we knew to be the best we could be will take time, commitment and intention.

But everything starts with a solid first step — and our first step was a framework that involved the following as told in our June 12th State of the Union:

- Proactive Listening
- Aggregating Feedback
- Engaging Senior Leadership Throughout the Industry
- Showing Up (Supporting Efforts that Drive Conversation)
- Supporting Where We Can (Helping Organizations That Need It)
- Getting Outside Support (An Outside Consultant to Inject New Perspective)

Our focus was ‘progress’ not ‘perfection’. We had (and still have) a lot of work to do. But under significant financial and emotional duress, often under their own volition, so many on our team worked hard to do important work to support the Black community both inside and outside the agency. That was heartwarming to see.

As we headed into July and August, I felt a concerning silence from my network of colleagues — particularly in the Broadway industry. It felt as though many had either left the industry or went into hibernation. It was both disappointing on one level and made me even more deeply concerned about the future of our agency. To me, we needed all to be engaging more with each other, not less.

Speaking for myself, I never felt not busy. It’s amazing how much was happening in our agency while so much of our regular business operations were dramatically reduced.

And when I look back at our calendar of events over this period of time, the reality was that we were very busy producing virtual events in the community meant to bring us all together.

For example, in just over a one week period of time, we had three major events we were supporting:

#1: The Broadway Community Project — a volunteer led project that centered on supporting and advocating for the thousands of jobs behind the scenes on Broadway. This was a true honor to be involved in.

#2: “While We Breathe” — a powerful collective of artists performing and speaking on the importance of social justice. We were so proud to support the amazing producers and artists that pulled this together however we could.

#3: Our “Live Events Update” with Google which we hosted on July 30th which was our continued way of trying to help our team, including our industry friends, keep a pulse of the changing industry trends.

While it was a hectic time, investing our time in the community was therapeutic — truth is we all needed each other.

September 7, 2020: “The marathon continues.”

As the summer came to an end and with the school year beginning to start again, it felt like a new phase of the pandemic was among us.

It was stressful and complicated for parents in so many ways. What had already been a stressful run since March was not letting up. It’s like we were all running a marathon but not having any sense of which mile marker we were on.

The COVID case count continued at high levels with the underlying assumption that as people began to go back indoors, a huge spike was inevitable in the coming weeks. This anticipation for the inevitable destruction was one of the most painful parts of the pandemic. It was “if” there would be devastation — it was “when” and “how bad.”

As we entered into the fall, I felt it was important to give everyone a deeper understanding of our agency situation and to hear the confidence that we actually saw the potential of a brighter “other side” of this pandemic. I also felt for my own well being, I needed to create a deeper sense of clarity of where we were trying to go and what the actual implications of that meant.

The following State of the Union was a turning point for the agency. We had to make some very hard staffing decisions but it was the only path forward if we were planning on thriving (not simply surviving) post pandemic. This was tough news to deliver given the impact it had on people I cared deeply about.

Excerpts from 9/7/20 State of the Union

First, I hope you all had a nice weekend.
Pippa, congrats on making it to London!

I’ve been giving a lot of thought on our sustainable path forward.

Sustainable has been the key word. We’ve been operating in a world that is anything but normal — so the path to “sustainable” has been hard to really figure out (and is still hard to figure out). What will be the new NORMAL? Hard question with many possible answers.

I’ve been watching some very important indicators:

1) Timeline for live events
2) Timeline for government funding and support

Both continue to not move quickly enough. There might be change… but we aren’t seeing it yet.

I’ve been looking at every line item:

1) Rent
2) Vendor expenses

Everyone really has stepped up and it has been an incredible lifeline for us.

We’ve flipped every stone and made progress.

I’m now looking at the remainder of 2020 knowing what I know RIGHT NOW… AND a path to succeed in 2021. Not just survive — but be prepared to take advantage of this unique moment in time. The pandemic has brought about a lot of disruption. Yes, pain. But yes, a potential opportunity that I believe we should fight to take advantage of.

We have a plan we are working on which I will briefly talk about later in this call — but all of this to say, we have some tough decisions NOW to give long-term success a chance to be a reality.

First, we are making the very hard decision to officially layoff the current furloughed staff. It doesn’t mean that any of these folks won’t return… it just means we don’t see a path in the short-term where that will change and don’t want to drag people along. It’s upsetting because I know this decision has a direct impact on many lives that I care about. And, it’s unfortunate, because they are highly talented people that may never return to our team. But, this decision has become clearly inevitable given the current workload.

Second, knowing this impacts all of you, we are putting together a framework that puts our investments into the resources where the work is hitting hardest. Right now, we are currently spreading resources more evenly across the board. This is unsustainable — some departments are swimming in work and others simply aren’t due to the workload.

With a clearer understanding now of the market demand, we are realigning resources based on where the work actually is (and creating a framework that allows us to adjust as the workload may change.)

With this said, we will begin reducing hours in the departments where there simply isn’t as much work (now or projected)…. and for those that are busy (now or projected), we are going to increase hours to support. In short, invest where the work IS and be prepared to adjust as the work evolves.

This gives us great flexibility; if things change, then hours can go up… if they don’t, then this framework allows us to have a conversation about reducing hours first (hopefully before jumping to furloughs/layoffs).

It’s not perfect — but it’s the best we’ve got and it’s the most fair of what all feels unfair.

Anyone who is being impacted has already been spoken with. The furloughed employees are being spoken to as well today. All of you will be speaking with your managers over the coming week and they can answer any additional questions you may have and what this all means for you.

With all of this said, I feel good about where we are and our future.

We have been working long and hard on a strategic plan for the company in a post-Covid world.

The two core tenants are as follows:

1) INVEST IN FOCUS: For years we have invested in LIVE & ENTERTAINMENT (and we will continue to do so). We understand their business — and we’ve experienced amazing growth due to that understanding. We are also going to make a specific, focused investment in the CAUSE space in a way that has much more muscle than we have done in the past. To date, we’ve lumped our focuses — as we move forward, we want to be more deliberate in our investments, focus and processes to really make sure we are maximizing our focus to meet the specific needs of ENTERTAINMENT and CAUSE (not trying to treat them both the same).

2) INVEST IN CULTURE: We have built an amazing culture that has stood the test of time (even in a pandemic). I want to make sure we are doing EVERYTHING in our power to evolve our culture once we head back to whatever the new normal is. Creating clearer agency goals, creating a more robust diversity, equity and inclusion framework, creating a clearer sense of overall vision. With an “investment in focus”, I think this will only help evolve our agency culture in some pretty amazing ways.

There is a lot we are working through — but those are the two core tenants.

We have an amazing team. My goal from the beginning was to keep as many of us together as possible and despite the VERY hard decision of these layoffs, for the most part we have succeeded in keeping our core in place. There is not much more I can ask for.

November 20, 2020: “A window for gratitude.”

As we headed into Thanksgiving, there was a lot to be thankful for.

First, the presidential election was behind us — Joe Biden became our next President. And while there was so much unknown in the world, the election season coming to an end and Biden getting into office brought about a new calm we hadn’t felt for some time. It felt good.

Yes, there was still incredible uncertainty in the world but there was also new momentum we could feel in the air. While the election was happening, we were back in the theatre for the first time since the pandemic shooting TEDxBroadway 2020. While there wouldn’t be audiences due to the COVID protocols, we did have our speakers back in the theatre and it felt magical on so many levels.

Like every TEDxBroadway, the event was centered around one central question — “what’s the best Broadway can be?” It was a canvas of thought that meant the world to me in that moment. (To this day, my friend Daniel J Watts delivered one of my favorite talks.)

Reflecting on this moment of time by the numbers, shows that the public health crisis remained in full swing with case counts and deaths on the rise.

If there was any good news to be found in a chart, it was that of the S&P 500 which finally regained its ground since the start of the pandemic.

But no matter the data point I would look at, I was exhausted and needed a break. I know I was not alone in that feeling.

The arrival of Thanksgiving was a built-in moment to slow down and reflect. And the more I reflected on where we had been, I had never felt more certain I was in the place I was supposed to be. I was surrounded by people I deeply cared about and felt as though they cared about me.

So, before we headed out to break, I wanted to make sure I shared a moment with the agency of my gratitude to them and the universe. I knew no matter the stress I had experienced up until this point, I had a lot to be thankful for. We’ve had enough “tough talks” via our State of the Union and I wanted to share my personal stories of gratitude as hopefully inspiration for them feeling gratitude for the amazing people in their lives.

Excerpts from 11/20/20 State of the Union

I hope you all enjoy your Thanksgiving.

Today I have one agenda —and that is to share 10 Things I’m Grateful For.

1) My health — went to the doctor. He said lose some weight.

2) Spending time with my family. Coaching flag football, walking my kids to school, etc.

3) The patience and trust being extended by you all. There are many things you could be doing — but you are choosing to be here. So thank you.

4) Luck turning our way. Rent abatements, PPP loans, clients paying us money… etc. Someone said the universe is talking to me… and through this experience, it’s been hard to determine what it is actually saying.

5) A trusted group of advisors. I have so many people around me I believe actually care about me. That is a powerful force that I’m remarkably thankful for.

6) I’m grateful our work has transitioned to helping causes that matter. In desperate times (and I’ve been there before) we end up having to take all kinds of work to survive. Some from bad people, etc. To work with nonprofits is amazing.

7) The more open conversation we are having (I am having) around diversity, equity and inclusion. A lot has happened in 8 months — more than probably the past 8 years. There is a long way to go — but the foundational changes that have happened (and are happening) give me serious hope.

8) You’ll be hard pressed to see me talk about religion, politics or sex. Everyone has a different POV and while everyone thinks the person next to them thinks like they do — trust me, they don’t. People come into my office all of the time. I’m happy that the election is over. I’m happy Joe Biden will be our president. I’m happy to see Kamala Harris break new ground. Most of all, I’m happy that the volume around politics has been turned down a bit — politics AND a pandemic is too much on the mental health of people.

9) My wife’s patience. She deals with a lot. She is a sounding board and remains supportive by unconditional trust. My decisions I’m making right now have a profound impact on her life — and she goes along with it. If she wasn’t as amazing and as trusting as she is — I’m not exactly sure where I’ll be.

10) Watching so many of you grow in all kinds of ways. Growing families, saying good-bye to your loved ones, growing in your careers — there is warmth in watching people grow through time in both the good times and bad times. That’s what creates depth and meaning to relationships as hard as that is sometimes. It’s where you get to really see people’s true colors.

As we know, the pandemic would continue on for much longer beyond this point, but looking back at this specific window of time at the beginning stages of the pandemic was very important to me. Writing this article really helped me heal in many ways. The stress had a profound impact on me that I’m still trying to work through — and this was one helpful step.

I love this agency more than I can possibly explain. It’s over 20 years of my life with people whom I care about like family. My entire goal during the pandemic was to keep my team together because I believed the other side would be brighter if we could make it.

I’m not exactly sure we are “on the other side” but it sure feels close given where we’ve been and I remain honored to still be standing with so many amazing old friends (and many new ones) on our next chapter.

I’ve truly never felt more confident in our future. We are pacing to be more than double in size in staff count this year than we were before the pandemic.

It’s still hard to make sense of it all but I know this much — I’m deeply grateful. I’ll call that the silver lining in this mess of a pandemic.

I would love to hear your thoughts and how my journey matched (or didn’t match) your journey. While it’s hard to swim in your own trauma, I believe there is healing in talking it out and I’m more than happy to share stories or perspectives with anyone that needs an ear.

With love,

Damian Bazadona

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