NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Ad agencies and media companies are looking a lot more like CPA firms these days, thanks to a slew of recession-related changes that mean longer workweeks and fewer perquisites such as access to car services and free coffee.
"Employers are asking employees to step up and be flexible in order to preserve their jobs and maintain the company's ability to continue," said Fred Crandall, senior consultant at Watson Wyatt in Chicago. "This type of belt-tightening is taking place across corporate America."
Last week, employees at Hachette Filipacchi Media U.S. received the bad news that not only would their salaries be slashed across the board but, effective April 27, their regular workday will be extended a half-hour to a mandatory eight hours.
Over at media agency MPG, employees were told they must clock in earlier. A policy instituted earlier this month requires employees to arrive at their desks no later than 8:30 a.m. in all North American offices. The changes came after MPG management conducted an informal audit of its clients -- which include Virgin Mobile, Sears and CBS Films -- to get a handle on the kinds of hours they typically keep (turns out, they're earlier risers than agency folk).
"More than ever, we need to be more client-centric, and part of that is mirroring the hours of our clients," said Theresa Nasi, senior VP-global network development for MPG, which is owned by French ad giant Havas. Ms. Nasi said the decision is part of a strategy to increase productivity, but at the same time, she thinks it could give MPG an edge over media-agency peers. "To a certain degree, it could be a competitive advantage in terms of availability," she said.
Bye bye 'summer Fridays'
Another Havas company, Boston-based creative agency Arnold Worldwide, is changing its longstanding "summer Fridays" schedule this year. Staffers previously had every other Friday between Memorial Day and Labor Day off, but now they'll get only three floating Fridays during the summer, to be taken only if clients' needs have been met. "Given the current economic environment, we need to be more efficient with the way we manage our resources," an Arnold spokeswoman said in a statement.
Budget cuts at Condé Nast -- the magazine publisher renowned for its perks -- have meant saying goodbye to tuition reimbursement for related classwork, a clampdown on use of car services and an end to new entries in the pension fund.
Even search giant Google isn't immune to the economic crisis: It was forced in recent months to cut a few hundred positions. Google's chief financial officer, Patrick Pichette, has said the company has pulled back on travel luxuries such as business-class flights, though many of its much-envied perks -- such as free meals, fitness centers, massages, and washers and dryers -- still abound at the company's Mountainview, Calif., headquarters and other outposts.
At many companies, it's not just the big-ticket items that are being scrapped. Marketers such as Cisco Systems have stopped footing the bill for home internet access; UBS Bank is planning to cancel allowances for car leasing or parking spaces; and over at IBM Worldwide, a wave of cost cuts means employees will no longer have access to free tea and coffee.
Of course, such tweaks pale in comparison to the fate many thousands across the business world have suffered during this recession: layoffs. Experts note, though, that the elimination of even the smallest of perquisites is tough for remaining workers to swallow at a time when salaries are frozen and bonuses are out of the question.
The moves are particularly a setback when you consider that recent times have seen work-life balance issues gaining support from companies, a trend "that's come to a screeching halt," according to John Hollon, editor of Advertising Age sibling publication Workforce Management. "Companies are pulling back, and not going as far as they had originally wanted to [with perks and benefits] because they can't afford it. ... And companies aren't really worried about losing folks right now."
Still, despite the unprecedented pressures on companies in this economic environment, doing what's best for business requires keeping employees' best interests in mind.
"Smart managers understand that the period that we're in now will not last, and they will build better engagement with employees if they treat them well right now," Mr. Hollon said. "If you treat them badly right now, you will pay for it later on." The key, he said, is transparency. "Where they don't buy into it is where the policies get dropped onto them."
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Contributing: Nat Ives