Agency workers flee crowded ad hubs in COVID crisis—but will they stay?
From the cities to the suburbs, agency professionals are increasingly fleeing America’s major advertising hubs—such as New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, which were hard hit by the pandemic—to hunker down during the health crisis in quieter, less crowded areas.
Ad Age spoke to 10 agency professionals who moved back in with their parents or other family members in remote locations after their companies transitioned to a work-from-home model in March. Some say they are staying away from their home cities indefinitely; others say they left for a few weeks to get a much-needed break after being heavily persuaded by their parents. The benefits, these agency workers say, include cost savings and, in some cases, comfort and help with childcare.
Whatever the reasoning behind the move, the growing trend raises questions as to where talent is headed—and whether they might stay put—now that many agency offices remain closed and some shops consider making remote work permanent.
Moving back home
Tristan Watson is a social engagement coordinator at independent content marketing agency Dagger in Atlanta. After graduating from Alabama’s Auburn University in 2018, he moved to Atlanta and began working for Dagger in January.
Watson says his parents convinced him to come home to Montgomery, Alabama, after his agency transitioned to remote working in March.
“After telling my parents that I would be working remotely for the next few weeks (spoiler alert: it was months and yes, I only packed enough clothing for maybe five days), they really wanted me to come home and be with them,” Watson says. “Although I had finally found toilet paper after going to three grocery stores, I made the decision to return to Sweet Home Alabama. In what could have been a period of solitude for me, I was comforted by the idea of being home with my family.”
The transition, Watson says, has been “interesting to say the least.”
“I love the hustle and bustle of Atlanta, so packing up and going home to Montgomery, Alabama was a big change of pace,” he says. “It’s like being in a time warp: I’m living at home with parental oversight I haven’t had since high school, with all the responsibilities of my adult life, and none of the perks of living on my own in a more vibrant metro area. Luckily, my parents like to enjoy happy hour at Chez Back Porch; they cover the tab, too.”
Gaining the ‘quarantine 15’
The perks of living home, Watson says, include having his mom cook all his meals. A con? Watson says he may have gained the “quarantine 15.” He says he’s also going on more walks with his mom living in Montgomery, “so if I speed walk, it will all even out, right?”
Regardless, Watson says he will be moving back to Atlanta when it’s safe to do so. “I miss going to the office, having face time with coworkers, or grabbing drinks with friends,” he says.
Like Watson, The Richards Group Brand Planning Director Kelly Piland also did not anticipate spending as much time as she did with her parents in Florida. Married with two kids, ages four and seven, in Dallas where The Richards Group is located, Piland says she took a trip to the Sunshine State to see her parents on March 14. Then, “everything started to get crazy.”
Piland says she and the family canceled their flight and drove to Florida “so we could be in control of our transportation. Once we got there, and the city was shut down at home, we were like ‘So what do you think? Do we try to make it back?’ The restrooms [at public stops] were shut down. With two kids, traveling like that was scary,” Piland says.
By then, the Richards Group had closed its Dallas office. Piland, who had her laptop with her, and her family decided to stay. It turned out to work in her favor.
‘I need some help’
“Florida is beautiful,” Piland says. “Dallas had something like 10 straight days of rain and we didn’t get a drop. My parents have a pool and they are really hands-on grandparents." Piland says, with her job, she thought "‘I need some help.’ We just decided, ‘Let’s do this together.’”
Piland says it was an easy decision to stay with her parents in Florida so they could help watch the kids while she and her husband worked remotely, and says it went “better than I expected.” After 71 days with her parents, Piland moved back to Dallas.
“Everybody rolls their eyes at the idea of living with their parents,” Piland says. “We have kids who had dinner with their grandparents every night. I got to watch my parents interact with my kids. My dad took them on bike rides every night almost. They went fishing. I feel bad for my sisters who didn’t hit the quarantine lottery.”
In the midst of the pandemic, Giant Spoon Co-Founder Trevor Guthrie—with his wife and young daughter—made a short trip from Brooklyn, where he lives, to his hometown in Georgia. He didn’t stay 71 days, but he still enjoyed some short-lived benefits he couldn’t get in New York.
Space to think, create
“I was looking for a change of scenery, warmer weather, childcare support during long workdays, a little bit of nature, some better meals, some room for my daughter to play and more space to think and create,” Guthrie says. “There are plenty of reasons my wife and I suffered through a 15-hour car ride back to my childhood home. But, if you must know, the real reason I came to Georgia was for a haircut.”
Geoffrey Goldberg, co-founder and chief creative officer of creative boutique Movers+Shakers, has spent time between his home in Brooklyn and his in-laws’ house in Pennsylvania. Goldberg is married to Movers+Shakers Co-Founder and CEO Evan Horowitz, and they have a two-year-old daughter. “We’ll go out for a week at a time or long weekend to be closer to our kid’s grandparents and also take advantage of the childcare,” Goldberg says, noting how he and Horowitz “feel much less attached to New York” during this time.
At least three of Huge’s employees have moved away from the agency’s city offices.
Blake Wirht, group VP of client services at Huge in Brooklyn, drove 18 hours from New York to Wisconsin to reach his wife’s parents’ vacant cabin in the woods that they are occupying for the duration of the pandemic with their three-year-old son. The cabin is no longer vacant (his wife’s parents have returned from their stay in Florida) but Wirht and his family remain there, and are enjoying certain luxuries they can’t in New York.
“We’ve been up here ever since,” he says. “We’ve seen the lake go from frozen to swimmable. We’ve seen heavy snows and tons of mosquitoes. We’ve fished, we’ve hiked and we’ve cooked hundreds of meals at home. We were able to find a little daycare to watch our son while my wife and I both bounce from one video call to another all day every day. Oh, and we’ve gone from having the place to ourselves to living with my in-laws, who are back from Florida for the summer.”
A new earlybird schedule
Reed Nowels, art director at Huge Detroit, moved to Phoenix to look after her aunt during the pandemic. Nowels says the decision was easier for her because she was already looking to switch apartments.
“About a month into quarantine, we knew that my elderly aunt—queen of working hard and living alone ... co-signer to my student loans—was going to need some assistance,” Nowels says. “Concurrently in Detroit, my racist landlord endangered a Black Doordash driver, for the second time, by threatening to call the police. I had to go, my aunt needed help, and the thought of pandemic apartment hunting made me gag, so I packed up and headed west. There is now a three-hour time difference between me and my co-workers. I’ve never been a morning person, but I’ve adapted to my earlybird schedule: wake up at 5 a.m., online by 6:30 a.m., breakfast when others are eating lunch, and offline around 3 p.m. (most days).”
Fura Johannesdottir, who left Publicis Sapient to become Huge’s global chief design officer in December 2019, was meant to be based in London but the pandemic derailed those plans. Now, she’s working from the remote and beautiful country Iceland.
“I went to Iceland for now because I’m from here and the pandemic is being managed. Here I can move around, meet people, go to restaurants and work on my farmhouse during the weekends. I’m also closer to the USA from a time zone standpoint, and it’s easier to connect,” she says. “I’m free here, while in London I felt more isolated and locked inside.”
Ali Cornford, group account director at BBH New York, and Charles St-Onge, senior finance manager at BBH L.A., both fled those cities for Canada. St-Onge is staying near his parents in his hometown of Montreal. Cornford left Manhattan in mid-March and initially spent the first five weeks quarantining with her dog at a family cottage in Canada. Since then, she’s been living with her parents in their home just outside of Toronto.
‘We’re making it work’
“I never anticipated my time here being this long,” Cornford says. “I only packed one suitcase full of winter clothes, but so far as a family we’re making it work. My routine hasn’t changed much or really been affected, as we’ve remained busy servicing clients, I’ve just swapped my desk for the dining room table.”
Cornford says that she’s not sure when she’ll return to Manhattan, an uncertainty that she admits is “somewhat unsettling.”
Mallory Horn, associate director at The Media Kitchen, says she was “located right in the East Village” of New York, what she calls “basically my dream neighborhood” when COVID-19 hit.
“There was one Saturday where I wanted to do laundry and had to think about everything I had to touch [elevators, doors, washers and dryers],” Horn explains. She says the thought of not being able to do laundry safely led her to call her dad right away and ask him to pick her up and take her home to New Jersey.
“My mom generously made me as comfortable as she could,” Horn says. “She shifted around the TVs in the house, made sure I had one in my room. I have a workspace separate from my living space, which I would not have in the city.”
Horn says it’s been an adjustment working from home, and she’s one of those workers who prefers being in an office. Still, she and her roommate decided it wasn’t worth it to stay in New York during this time and they gave up their lease. “That was really hard for me emotionally,” Horn says.
Horn adds that she wants to eventually get back to New York, but she doesn’t know when that will be. The Media Kitchen has been flexible in allowing employees to work from wherever they feel comfortable. She says there are days when she is grateful to have a patio and a full bank account in New Jersey. “But then I think about my life and experiences in New York. I don’t think I’m ready to give that up,” she says.
For some, permanent relocation
Many of the people interviewed for this story say they will make their way back to the cities once the pandemic is over, if they haven’t already.
Still, most agencies in the major advertising hubs remain closed, while some, like social media agency Glow in New York, are considering making working remote more permanent. These changing models are providing more flexibility for agency professionals, and enticing them more and more to work from anywhere in the U.S., or really the world.
According to a recent Fishbowl survey that received more than 18,000 responses, 41 percent of the anonymous networking app’s users are considering moving to a more affordable city due to the pandemic. Another 5.84 percent, according to the survey, have already moved. Fishbowl says 59 percent of its San Francisco users and 57.9 percent of its New York users responded that they are considering moving to a more affordable location.
Christie Cordes, and industry recruiter, executive advisor and founder of talent firm Ad Recruiter says agencies are not yet looking for “’on-premise’ employees until 2021. Everything is virtual,” she says. Cordes adds, though, that it will pay for agencies to be flexible to the needs of talent going forward.
“Agencies are paddling to keep their heads above water and so far I haven’t seen any notable creativity arising on how they land their talent,” Cordes says. “The best talent is looking for ad agencies with fresh outlooks and optimism.”
Cordes says agencies that “care” to think about the effects the pandemic has had on agency professionals and are in turn willing to adapt to meet their changing needs “are the agencies who will win better talent” in the future.
Leeann Leahy, CEO of Portland Maine’s The Via Agency, believes that will be the case. In an earlier interview, she told Ad Age that the pandemic could push talent to move from big cities, and in turn favor smaller independent shops like hers. Via often pitches recruits on the quality of life in Maine, and Leahy says that said since the pandemic, her employees were “finding time to go for a bike ride with kids and have lunch with their families” in between conference calls rather than being holed up in apartments.
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