One of the biggest challenges for finance, says Anna Zhirnova, Group FP&A Manager at independent creative agency Jones Knowles Ritchie, is balancing the day-to-day needs of the finance function with finding the time to develop something new and innovative.
This balancing act was brought into sharp focus during the Covid-19 pandemic, when countries across the globe were in lockdown around the same time.
Businesses were having to adjust to new ways of working. For a global company like Jones Knowles Ritchie, whose Shanghai office has only recently come out of a two-month lockdown, it’s been a case of revisiting learnings gleaned from two years ago.
Anna’s beginnings at Jones Knowles Ritchie
“For me, it’s been flashback time,” says Anna, who joined the company in February this year and is responsible for business insights, budget forecasting, profit and loss and cash management.
“Working closely with our Shanghai office, I’ve been having to do everything I was doing two years ago at the height of the pandemic. I was working for a software company, Dext, then, but the principles and modes of working are exactly the same.”
“I’ve been doing a lot of scenario building, short and medium-term forecasting, cash management and so on.
“So I think balancing macroeconomics is extremely challenging for the majority of companies while meeting short-term priorities and at the same time continuing to invest in the future.”
“Long-term priorities just can’t be sacrificed.”
“All levels need to be balanced and that’s been a big challenge,” says Anna.
Working with a range of businesses, from big to small
Jones Knowles Ritchie is one of the leading independent advertising agencies. They work with big-name brands including Burger King, Mars and Kraft.
But recently, there has been a new stream of business coming in from smaller companies, including scale-ups as well as start-ups which need brand identity creation and development.
“The pandemic has really forced businesses like ours to look to different markets and look at different ways of doing things.”
“The role of finance is to help facilitate this – to facilitate understanding and insight into what’s working and what isn’t.”
For Anna, a big part of this is through new and improved technology-driven processes, which automate and speed-up manual and often repetitive tasks. It’s about working smarter and in more agile ways.
The importance of agility
“This is possibly one of the key differences between large corporates and SMEs,” Anna explains. “The need to be agile is important for both big and small companies.”
“For larger companies, agility is a key differentiation point, it’s about competitor advantage.”
“For smaller companies, agility is a matter of survival.”
Anna should know: she’s had a varied career across both corporates and SMEs within different industries such as telecoms, software, professional services and fintech.
The agility piece for Jones Knowles Ritchie, being a larger corporate, is one of differentiation. Anna has been keen on bringing a smarter working concept into the company through automation.
Bringing automation in
Anna is currently working on various automation improvements across the company. For Anna, the most effective way of dealing with automation is doing so bit-by-bit.
“Automation projects which were managed as a ‘big bang’ are rarely successful.”
“It needs to be bit-by-bit, in small pushes to gently nudge a company and its people into more technology-driven ways of working, helping them to incorporate technology into their work in different ways,” she explains.
Using this approach, Anna has already implemented some minor improvements to John Knowles Ritchie such as making use of power queries when dealing with any activity which relies on consolidation of mass data.
The benefits of transforming the finance function
Group consolidation of course is time-consuming work and previously, the finance function was having to work with different files across different formats and copy and pasting them all together. It was at least one days’ work twice per month. Implementing a power query has completely transformed the process.
“Using a power query for group forecast consolidation cleans the data and consolidates all the information into one place seamlessly,” says Anna.
“And all this takes about one hour now instead of one day.”
“I can deliver things quicker than before and I have more time to analyse the information and bring different perspectives to management. So continuous automation is actually best practice in my view. It’s about regular, incremental changes which make a big difference.”
Anna’s Power Profile
What music empowers her?
“I like a combination of pop and jazz music. My favourite artist is Norah Jones.”
Who are her heroes?
“My parents. My dad is turning 70 this year and my mum is a little younger but they are both still working. My business hero is Ben Horowitz – a famous American businessman who wrote The Hard Thing about Hard Things and What You Do Is Who You Are.”
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