Global marketing company to PPE supplier: Zinc’s huge COVID-19 pivot


PPE pivot

Featured | Small Business

By Loren Webb

Zinc is usually – pre-COVID – a global marketing company that caters for clients such as Disney, ANZ and JetStar. In the COVID-19 disruption, with marketing spend halted for many businesses and sectors, Zinc pivoted to become a global PPE supplier instead.

The team created ZincProtect in order to meet the global demand for PPE in 10 countries, whilst also importantly protecting all staff from unemployment. This huge change was orchestrated and implemented within two weeks, driven by the 270 employees that were all on board from the get go.

At the height of the uncertainty, caused by the coronavirus outbreak, Zinc was down over 60% revenue and at risk of losing 25% of their staff. All staff were given the option to either ‘do nothing’ and lose team members or do everything necessary to protect each other from unemployment. They had 100% unanimous buy in from staff to take a pay cut and keep the team together.

Creating and providing face masks and ventilators, hand sanitisers, liquid soaps is now their ‘new normal’ and their most successful business venture, doubling their previous earnings.

Peter Cleary is a founder and Managing Director of Zinc, a global marketing company started in 2005. We spoke to him about the decision for Zinc to move away from the paused marketing world and into the booming PPE world. He reveals how they did it, and why this option was preferred over downsizing and waiting it out – a seemingly more popular choice for many industry leaders.


There are obvious reasons as to why you pivoted the business, but how did you come to fully decide this was the right thing to commit to doing?

There have been a couple of key strategies we’ve taken across the business to respond to the impact COVID-19 is having – one of which is ‘speed over perfection’ and the other has been developing our business capability to ‘adapt’.

Back in March, when we looked at the projected loss of revenue from business as usual for the rest of this financial year, it was clear we had to do something – all businesses had to. We used inspiration from the WHO director who dealt with Ebola outbreaks – ‘speed over perfection’. Better to do something (even if it’s wrong), than do nothing. So, we took action immediately.

We committed to protecting our team through this and so we had to redirect our resources from current revenue streams and market segments to NEW revenue streams and market segments where there was demand. We also knew we needed to leverage our core capabilities and competencies and remain innovative in our approach. We have been developing a business-wide competency in innovation – so we can adapt quickly. Well, this was a working case study – and made sense given our core competencies. Once we identified changing client needs – we adapted quickly.

How was it only a matter of two weeks to turn things around? That’s really quick!

How this was even possible speaks volumes about the culture of the Zinc team. We are a purpose-driven business with a remarkable team. In normal times we are always there for each other and the teamwork I see to get incredible things done is there. We can rely on each other to deliver for each other, and it’s because of that existing culture, we could build a successful global business in two weeks – all while working remotely. It was not easy, but we pulled together as we always do and got it done.

Talk us through the team reaction and the option/survey you put out to them – why do you think everyone was on board with this decision when it’s not their career choice?

Once we realised the scale of the impact on the business, we communicated the situation clearly and transparently to the team (as we always do) and what our options were. Our leadership team took an immediate 20% pay cut – that day – which is what true leaders do. I would never ask someone to do what I am not prepared to do.

We then had another all-team meeting and asked the whole team a question – will you choose to protect the person next to by taking a 10% pay cut OR do you choose to protect yourself and see maybe 5-6 people in our team having to leave Zinc in the coming weeks? Will we choose to do this as a team OR as individuals?

The choice was genuinely the teams’ to make – I would be guided by them. If however, a clear decision was not made, then I would make a call – but we prefer people to have agency in their futures… to have input on what is happening and discretion over their own lives. It’s how we do it here.

The team chose unanimously to protect each other, and it was one of the best and most humbling experiences I have had as a team member of Zinc. The other was when we did the same thing in the GFC!! It’s not an accident – they are a great team of people – which is after all what any business really is.

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I don’t think anyone was really thinking of career choices – it was initially a shock and more a matter of survival and us all protecting each other. No-one was being individualistic, I don’t believe to think of careers – it wasn’t appropriate.

What has been the hardest challenge with the pivot?

Getting out of our comfort zone and doing things we’ve never done before. We have had to realign our team and use our competencies & skills in different & new ways – it’s like using muscles you haven’t used in a while again.

Contrary to that, has anything been easier than expected on this journey?

The one thing that has been easier than expected, and very impressive, has been our team’s response to change, including all this happening while working remotely. It was all way out of the comfort zones for everyone and this has been incredibly well done and very seamlessly executed. It often takes time, lots of communication and cajoling to help people adjust to any change – let alone such rapid change.  But our team has been sensational in terms of just trusting each other, jumping in and taking action. The change management element has been very smooth, a lot easier and very well done.

What do you envision for Zinc’s future – short term & long term? 

We are in the process of revising our business strategy to understand our client requirements and the market opportunities for PPE medium to long term – and how ZincProtect will evolve. Our business will change and be different post Covid.

It won’t be ‘Business as usual’ for at least 6-9 months – if indeed it ever will be. Our marketing services business is starting to recover as our clients come back and it’s actually an exciting time to be working with our clients as they return and reopen. There are amazing opportunities amongst the chaos and we’re enjoying the challenge of working on these with our clients. We are also looking at new channels and we have new clients – particularly in the PPE space. From a personal health & safety perspective, there will be a new way of doing business, how to look after your team and your clients, and this will change the demand for PPE. Requirements & challenges will also vary by market sector – be it mining, civil or more medical specific applications, so this is what we are investigating now.

Zinc will continue to deepen our business ‘adaptability’ competency and our ability to rapidly deal with change… and assist our clients to do the same. We need to keep focusing on our people & our culture as well.

The shape and scope of our business in terms of services, skills and even geography will continue to change. We also see continued growth occurring as there will be many opportunities emerging in the next 6 months.

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