Is 'working through the apocalypse' the future of agency life?
Some time ago, "Infrastructure Week" became a catch-all to mock the perpetual political dysfunction of the past four years. But that joke isn't funny anymore.
Continuing to ignore much-needed improvements to the nation's infrastructure courts life-threatening catastrophe, particularly as climate change exacerbates extreme weather events such as the frigid cold front that afflicted most of the continental U.S. last week.
In Ad Age contributor Julie Liesse's annual report "2021 Forecast," industry analysts examine whether the disruption trends of 2020 are here to stay, including how they will continue to affect agency life. (Ad Age Insider subscribers can download the trend report here.)
“Pre-pandemic, there’s always been the assumption that agencies would thrive best in urban environments," Forrester analyst Jay Pattisall told Liesse. "But the cost of real estate, combined with the shift to working from home, is going to challenge the assumption that a high-dollar piece of real estate is required to operate an agency. And that may mean the business may no longer be congregated around the top 10 cities in the U.S.”
Forrester estimates that by the end of 2021, agencies will have cut more than 50,000 employees from the industry workforce—with several possible results, Pattisall said. First, agencies will need to fill the obvious talent drain. Second, the availability of so much unemployed talent will make freelance resources more attractive. Finally, more routine functions will be automated; Forrester predicts 10% to 12% of agency tasks will be automated by 2023.
For an industry that may look less urban and more widely distributed, with more part-timers and more automation, agencies and holding companies will need to invest in collaborative technologies and talent-management systems that allow ad hoc teams to work across markets. Another pressing directive will be the need to manage culture in new ways.
“Managing their cultures is going to be a hyper-need for agencies in 2021,” Pattisall said. “Based upon the global health issue, working remotely and social unrest, managing the culture will be critical to maintain an agency’s talent and achieve transformational objectives.”
'Working through the apocalypse'
Two months into 2021, managing agency culture in the U.S. has already been beset by societal and health challenges including a failed coup to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election, COVID-19 casualties reaching the previously unfathomable level of 500,000 dead—and the aforementioned winter storm knocking the Texas power grid offline, causing rolling blackouts that left millions without electricity, heat and clean water for days.
Ad Age's Judy Pollack checked in with agencies in Dallas and Austin to see how the ad community in the Lone Star State was coping with the disaster and, in many cases, working through it. Ironically, one of the benefits to running a business during a pandemic, agency leaders told Ad Age, was it helped shops feel more prepared to deal with crises, including the storm.
“We’ve already figured out how to work remotely under duress," said John Trahar, founder of Austin’s Greatest Common Factory. "We find a way, so that’s what we’re doing.”
As members not just of the Texas ad community but also the community at large, agencies are mindful of the hardships that their fellow Texans are enduring while often facing the same dangers themselves. This puts their work into perspective.
“The workflow cadence that rolling blackouts create is kind of like working through the apocalypse,” said 3HeadedMonster Founder and Creative Chairman Shon Rathbone.
The first two months of 2021 have already felt like a hell of a year. Fingers crossed for the next 10.
Ad Age Insider subscribers can download the full trend report—and more exclusive member content, including case studies, other trend reports and the in-depth white paper "Downtime Opportunity," examining innovation in economic downturns from the 1930s to the present—here. Learn more about Ad Age membership levels and benefits here.