Agencies are redefining what it means to work 'together' in a post-pandemic world
In the latest campaign for Extra, a city emerges into the sunlight after a year of social distancing, and the sheer glee of being around other people sets off a gum-fueled kissing frenzy. Returning to the office in real life won’t be as intimate as that, and there will growing pains at first, as everyone reacclimates to being in person.
Agency leaders are looking ahead—and looking forward—to a return to an old style of easy collaboration: sweaty rooms full of crumpled paper and half-empty coffee cups, and glass walls covered in Post-Its. At the same time, the lessons of lockdown will change the way agencies operate—likely permanently, hopefully for the better. Far-flung colleagues have had a yearlong crash course in remote teamwork, and new hiring has relied less on local networking and it’s-who-you-know glad-handing.
“We had our best new business year ever last year. All agencies look the same size on Zoom,” says Jonathan Schoenberg, executive creative director and partner at Boulder agency TDA, which has a few dozen employees but competes in pitches against much larger shops. “You're not going to have more than a certain number of people on the call.”
But how many of these changes remain in place long-term is an open question, and the answer depends on an agency’s size, location, clients and leadership. As the pandemic winds down, the expectations and opportunities for a new way of working are piling up.
Everywhere you want to be
Zoom (and sure, Microsoft Teams) have redefined what it means to work together, and that’s thrown open the doors to a new wave of workers. “Historically, the first question we would be asked when talking to someone about a new role—which quickly becomes the single biggest barrier—is ‘Where is it?’” says Jay Haines, founder of executive search firm Grace Blue.
“Moving away from a city they love, away from friends and family they are connected to and moving school-age children normally means the majority of opportunities outside of their current city are an immediate ‘no.’ That is simply no longer the case,” he adds. “People now have access to companies they have always wanted to work for but just couldn’t physically get to.”
Even people who might have taken the job anyway and dealt with the consequences of a cross-country move will benefit from having the option to stay put, reducing the strain on family, finances and work-life balance.
Creative leaders have begun to embrace the change, too. “In the past, probably every ECD or CCO would say, “No, you have to live in New York if you're working on X account. I need to see you in the office,’” says Rob Reilly, global chief creative officer at WPP. “I do believe we've gotten really good at being able to work remotely. I don't think you can have everybody doing it, but who knows, it might be possible.”
Career paths will change in years to come as people select for fit and function rather than location, and competition for choice positions at agencies that are open to remote roles should increase. It also means agencies will have access to talent that was previously out of their reach, or that required persuasion and a hefty relocation package to bring on board.
Obligations and opportunities
With an expanded pool of applicants, agencies have a chance to begin to fulfill the promises many of them made in this last year, pledging to diversify workforces, senior leadership, supply chains and output.
“Flexible and remote work can certainly complement and accelerate progress, but making the commitments and statements live beyond a social media post is every day work and difference-making that has to occur no matter our geography. What is clear is that ‘business as usual’ is not an option,” says Kali Beyah, global chief talent officer at Huge. “The fact that I’m an Atlanta-based CTO for Huge, headquartered in Brooklyn, reflects an appreciation that doing things differently is requisite to the future of work and diversifying our organizations."
A shop in Oregon (or Sweden, for that matter) is no longer bound by local demographics—or excused by them. There’s one less barrier to filling a diverse slate of candidates before every hire. “The talent pool for those hiring is so much broader and more diverse by every metric, Haines says.
This global work-from-home experiment also proves much of the reluctance to adopt more accommodating policies was ill-founded. These digital tools for remote work have been available for years, but widespread adoption didn’t happen until lockdowns forced the issue. “Prior to the pandemic, working remotely was often viewed by many corporations as impractical and ineffective,” says Josh Loebner, director of strategy at ad agency Designsensory in Knoxville, Tennessee. “In many instances, disabled staff requests to telecommute were either rejected outright or became contentious issues.”
But technology once considered too complicated, expensive or low-priority is now standard. Accessibility features like live captioning and automated transcripts are rapidly being deployed, but even just the widespread acceptance of videoconferencing makes life easier for disabled people in the industry.
“As a blind person, I don’t drive and have previously relied on others in my commute to and from work, but with remote working, I’m able to promptly jump on a video chat anytime, along with so many others who’ve experienced the pleasure of attending meetings from home,” Loebner says. “For those disabled employees in wheelchairs, or for example a little person that, in the past, may not have felt as liberated to speak in a boardroom meeting due to differences in stature, videoconferencing creates a uniformity of sizes where everyone is in a 'Brady Bunch' square.” The sameness sometimes decried as dull can be a great equalizer.
The room where it happens
But for all the benefits of remote work, there has been a price to pay. This industry places a premium on collaboration, and much of the handwringing of the last year has been about exactly how that process happens. It’s been easier for separate offices in different states or countries to put their collective heads together, but that was out of necessity rather than desire.
Certain disciplines get better results from in-person collaboration, Schoenberg says. “Somebody working in media or production, it could be advantageous for them to be in a different market. But I think for creatives, account people, they really need to be spending time together.” Early in the pandemic, Schoenberg and Creative Director Jeremy Seibold formed a COVID pod so they could keep working closely together. “You just can't get it done in as successful a way without being in the same room.”
Reilly sees much of the burden of remote work falling on younger, less experienced workers. “They're not gaining that natural apprenticeship you'd get from being in a live agency with people,” he says. “All the work is on the walls. All the meetings happen on the walls, and the CCO comes down or the head account person comes out and looks at the work and you talk about it. You might not even be working on this, but you're hearing people talk about it. And you're hearing a CCO say why this works, why it doesn't. None of that's happening. You can't get that if you’re the fiftieth person on the Zoom.”
Ultimately, the hopes and worries facing agency workers as they begin the slow trickle back to the office revolve around the culture of each organization and how the pandemic and its aftermath will shape it. Do new hires made during lockdown fit in, or do they change the dynamic for the better? Can affinity groups properly support people without a physical community to care for? Do people like their jobs?
Those answers won’t come as soon as the doors reopen. “The pandemic made clear that culture requires intentionality beyond cohabitation,” Beyah says. “The levers will include communications, creating new rituals and ways of working, while always listening and having the humility to course correct.”