Ad world looks to the future of work post-COVID
It was done without handshakes.
It was done without dinners.
It was done without airplanes,
drinks or Cannes winners.
It’s been one year since COVID lockdowns sent the ad world remote—the antithesis of the handshake deals and late-night pitch preps that have long characterized the industry. While there have certainly been plenty of challenges in collaborating via screens and navigating pitches and client meetings along with childcare and homeschooling, ultimately, what the industry found is business still got done. And in the process it further revealed the cracks in the way the ad world operated pre-pandemic.
All of this has led to brands and agencies to re-think policies on remote work, how and from where they hire, exploring ways they can better support parents and other caregivers and investing in the mental health and well-being of their employees.
But with vaccinations now a reality, it’s likely some of the traditions of deal-making and creative collaboration will slowly return. The 4A’s, the trade association for ad agencies, is not advocating for the long-term continuation of wholesale remote work. “This is a business that is collaborative, creative, and focused on business outcomes that are achieved best through healthy debate from diverse perspectives and cultures. To foster that debate, being together can be essential. Rather, in speaking to members and other thought leaders, we anticipate hybrid working models that will enable greater employee satisfaction, increased productivity, better client business outcomes and, potentially, enhanced financial performance. Further, we see the potential for healthier employees and a reduced environmental impact over time.”
There are already clear indications that, at least in the near-term, many brands and agencies will retain flexible work policies. Spotify, Salesforce, Twitter and Microsoft are among the many corporations that have adopted new policies that will either allow their employees work from home permanently or on a hybrid model.
Weber Shandwick is shifting to a permanent hybrid model (once it is safe for people to return to the office), with employees going in three days a week and working remotely the other two. This model, says Gail Heimann, president and CEO of the public relations giant, allows for a more inclusive and diverse organization, as well as helping to foster a better work-life balance for employees.
By providing flexibility to work from various locations, it opens up opportunities to hire more diverse people who typically wouldn’t have been considered, like those who don’t live near a major metropolitan area, Heimann says.
As the ad world takes a hard look internally at its horrific history with diversity and inclusion, this ability to think differently about where they can hire from presents an opportunity to expand the talent pool.
A new people strategy
At DDB, Justin Thomas-Copeland, president and chief operating officer, U.S., says the agency is looking to build teams in different ways that aren’t beholden to location. The agency has rejiggered its human resources teams to form regional offices and has appointed Nikki Lamba, who leads diversity and inclusion globally, to oversee DDB’s people strategy. “We want to make sure we don’t go back to where we are looking in the same places for talent,” Thomas-Copland says. “The market has opened up to allow our teams diversity to grow.”
It also means changes to how the agency develops talent. “It’s not just where we find people but how we train and keep people,” he adds.
Dagger, which is based in Atlanta, has been able to hire out-of-state candidates from cities it hasn’t historically as it considers more flexible working options, says Missy Taylor, chief operating officer at the creative agency. “This means we can look for lots of different backgrounds and perspectives,” she says.
Multicultural agency 360 Agency gave up its office space in Los Angeles. “Zoom is our office space,” says Tish Galindo, co-founder of the agency. Reimagining the agency structure and workflow has created efficiencies and a new way of doing business, allowing the agency to promote from within and tap into talent on a national and global level. While 360 Agency does expect to keep some share office space once things open up for quarterly meetings with teams, it will retain this sense of flexibility to allow people to “do the work they love but be closer to family units,” Galindo says.
Amid a crises of women leaving the workforce during the pandemic due to the demands of trying to balance careers alongside childcare (including virtual schooling) and other caregiving responsibilities, a hybrid model can help empower women and other groups without compromising family life.
The question right now for women “isn’t do I have to be in the office, it is ‘Do I have enough childcare and can my company help me there?’ They can’t even make the decision whether to go back into the office because someone is looking after the kids, and it is them,” says Daryl Lee, global CEO, IPG Mediabrands. “Do we provide as an industry child care benefits that meet the moment, and the answer is no.”
According to Float’s 2021 Global Agency Productivity Report, 98% of agency employees want their workplace to adopt a permanent remote work policy. Just 15% of agency owners, partners and principals are resistant to remote work, according to the report, which surveyed 200 people globally. The reasons for working remotely range from feeling healthier—despite working longer hours—and getting more “deep” work done, which is classified as the ability to work without interruption.
Hybrid models will require new needs and costs that companies must consider. Leaders will need to address how they build and maintain corporate culture, optimize productivity, work around time zone disparities and develop and invest in security tools to ensure agency and client data is kept confidential.
And even as more flexible options for where you work can help close the gap in one type of workplace inequality, it can exacerbate it in other ways. The hybrid model will create new challenges that the industry will have to navigate in a workplace where some employees are on-site and others are dispersed.
In a virtual world, it felt like everyone was on equal footing, says Weber Shandwick’s Heimann. Leaders will need to maintain democratization during meetings and other interactions when some people are in the office and others are home, she says.
IPG Mediabrand’s Lee is also concerned about ensuring equity with a dispersed workforce. In an effort to avoid issues around potential preferential treatment of those who are in the office more than others, Lee says the agency will ensure everyone will have a flexible mode so “no one will be defined by where they work.”
Lee is also working to create clear and easy lines of communication for people who may not be working in the office to open up a discussion regarding microaggressions or other issues.
Dagger’s Taylor says workforce equity is “the biggest challenge as we look to open the office back up.” To combat this the agency is installing videoconferencing in every conference room so every meeting can include people who are working virtually, continue to give quarterly stipends to offset costs of working from home and instill a daily routine that allows for everyone on a team to connect and keep lines of communication open.
Who works from where
IPG Mediabrand’s will evaluate when and how often employees will need to be in the office based upon the tasks they do. Lee categorizes tasks into three buckets: those that are better done on your own, those done better as a team and those done better by being in the same room. Finance teams might spend more time working remotely, whereas those who are tasked with creating new campaigns and solutions—anything that requires creativity—will likely spend more of their time in the office, he says.
The key to hybrid schedules is figuring out the best way to use the time when you are in the office, says Brian Offutt, chief workforce innovations and operations officer at Weber Shandwick. Offutt is looking at the office as a place for creative collaboration and ideation, development of talent and strengthening corporate culture, and says time in the office should be used for activities that play to those pillars.
“We are open to really listening to what people would like to do and how they want to work,” says DDB’s Thomas-Copeland. “A lot of people are proactively saying they can’t wait to be back again. It is a mix, it is layered and not straightforward. As a leader you have to be inclusive of these different ways of working.”