Chances are you’ve probably come across the slogan ‘Build Back Better’ – or in as many words – by politicians over the past few months. But, when looking at what this can mean, our sights turned towards advertising and the shape its going in. The industry is one that is known for talking to communities and through pandemics and periods of uncertainty, was guaranteed to be at the forefront of communication. But, aside from the outside world, advertising itself has faced many questions when looking at its hiring policies, commitment to the environment and employee welfare.
To hear what this could look like over the next 12 months LBB’s Natasha Patel spoke to Jason Harrison, group managing director of M&C Saatchi Abel, Nicky Harris, director of strategy and development at NABS, Sammi Ferhaoui from Creative Communications Workers, Clive Mishon, founder director at Alliance of Independent Agencies, Ruth Kieran, CEO Cirkle & Co-chair of the Alliance of Independent Agencies, Maree Prendergast, global chief people officer, and Ezinne Okoro, global chief inclusion, equity & diversity officer, at Wunderman Thompson, Stephen Woodford, CEO, Advertising Association, Anoop Dixit, founding partner at Cog Culture and Shufen Goh, President, AAMS.
Group managing director, M&C Saatchi Abel
Back in May 2020, in the height of lockdown the founders got together and put down a presentation we called ‘Better Normal’. Our sense was that the world was irrevocably changing and we needed to give a view to staff of where we saw the opportunity in two years’ time.
The opening slide started with, “We are looking to build a powerful and liberating hybrid agency model that is based on brilliant output. We will learn and adapt as we go along, but one thing is certain, the model is about AND not OR”.
Fast forward 18 months and most staff surveys and articles I have seen locally & globally, basically say two things:
- We love the freedom of working from home.
- We are having a mental breakdown from all the stress.
And herein lies the tension to be resolved: Without a doubt freedom & flexibility in the creative industries is a huge benefit, but it needs to come with clear principles and guardrails, otherwise the lack of boundaries, never switching off, lack of physical mentorship and mental burden will exhaust all upside benefits long term.
It comes down to what you see as your model in the future and we have clearly stated that we believe “when we are connecting and collaborating on our campuses, unbelievable creativity happens”. So, we are firmly a campus-based company at the core, with a flexibility ring that surrounds that, based on the type of work and output required. Our shift next year will be bringing staff (who are double vaccinated) back into campus to connect and create together again and encourage output-based flexibility from this campus base.
At the end of the day, any model has flaws or loopholes to be exploited, so how do you know if this hybrid model is working? We are orientating everyone around five key questions that need to be answered, daily:
● Are you re-connecting meaningfully with people socially & emotionally?
● Are you having more conversations & less meetings?
● Are you solving in the moment vs scheduling it for later?
● Are you feeling lighter, more energised & more positive?
● Is ‘what you are doing’ informing ‘where you are doing it’?
So that’s what we are asking of our people and then it’s about our leaders matching that with humanity, empathy, care & conversation as we build back better & stronger in 2022.
Director of strategy and development, NABS
The past two years have been very challenging for the industry’s wellbeing. Emotional support is currently the top reason for people contacting the NABS Advice Line, with mental health concerns accounting for just over half of those. Prior to this, in the first 18 months of the Covid-19, financial support was the top reason as people dealt with job loss, furlough and other financial problems caused by the pandemic. Overall, demand for NABS’ services rose by 35%.
Being responsible to employees at this point means asking them what they most need, as we say on the Advice Line, and then supporting them accordingly. Here are five ways in which employers can support their teams to move forward:
Embrace flexibility. We are still in a period of change and uncertainty. This can be unsettling for both you and your teams. Understanding is key here; people’s lives continue to be impacted logistically (for example, children needing to be kept at home) and emotionally. They may not be able to work in their usual ways as a result. Support them to find solutions and to take time out when they need to. This approach also helps to further inclusion as it accommodates people’s individual needs and allows them to keep working.
Empathetic leadership is key. Take time to listen to your teams to understand their concerns and situations. Notice if somebody doesn’t seem quite themselves; a gentle “are you OK, you don’t seem yourself” can help to open up a conversation about what’s going on for that person and how you can support.
Recognise the long-lasting impact of trauma related to George Floyd’s murder in 2020 and the subsequent conversation around racism and discrimination. Those from Black and other minority groups have been particularly and painfully impacted by such events and need far more support with their wellbeing than they’ve been receiving – as the All In Census proved last June.
Grief and loss have been key themes throughout the pandemic. People across the industry have lost loved ones, been made unemployed/placed on furlough and suffered from Covid. These experiences can have long-lasting effects, dovetailing into low mood and anxiety for example – both key themes that have come through on our Advice Line over the last two years. Encourage those affected to seek support by talking to a trusted advisor, Mental Health first aider or therapist.
Help your people to find a sense of purpose. This is crucial during ‘the great resignation’. Many people having coaching with NABS have told us that they are at a crossroads and it’s their ‘last chance of happiness’. The pandemic has put things into perspective for many. Work with your teams to help them find meaning and purpose in their work and do what you can to motivate and engage them and recognise their efforts (especially as ‘low motivation’ was another key theme coming through the Advice Line during the last two years). Inclusion is also key here. With so much talent drain, we have to nurture talent and make people feel like they can belong in our industry.
Creative Communications Workers
We can’t talk about the problems facing agencies, clients, or workers, in our sector without some reference to the Great Resignation. It’s no secret that workers have been leaving their jobs in droves, and that employers have been scrambling around desperately to fill positions. However, judging by what we’ve seen in the industry press, podcast appearances, and various panels, explicit references to the issues causing this migration out of the industry are few and far between.
Responses from the various owners and managers consulted have varied from the vague, to the mystical, to the existential. We’ve heard about how workers, wearied by world-historical events, are looking for purpose, belonging, and rich, expansive experiences- all things that are likely to be true- but there’s been a lack of frank discussion about pay and working conditions.
At Creative Communications Workers, our hope is to be a collective instrument for workers in our sector to voice their concerns and hold senior management to account over a range of issues including pay; unpaid overtime and long-hours; job precarity; harassment, bullying and other forms of abuse; and D,E&I issues. We recognise the latter as being intrinsically tied to the struggle for better worker’s rights, since workers from marginalised backgrounds are often more vulnerable to exploitation when their workplaces make them feel insecure, or their financial situation compels them to tolerate bullying, discrimination, or overwork, rather than risk losing employment.
We believe that all workers in our sector, whether they’re creatives, account managers, or strategists; artworkers, designers or editors; or caterers, security staff, or cleaners, deserve better. “Building Back Better” includes fair pay that keeps pace with the cost of living in the major cities where our workplaces often are, real transparency around rates of pay and any inequalities between different groups, an end to unpaid overtime and long-hours culture, a commitment to no longer wielding NDAs to cover up instances of bullying and harassment, and an end to the practice of reflexively laying off experienced members of staff who’ve passed a certain age. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but addressing these problems is key to making the creative communications sector somewhere where people want to stay and build their careers. We advise agencies to take these issues seriously and can guarantee that CCW will be there to hold them to account.
Founder, director, Alliance of Independent Agencies
Well at the start of December the community of independent agencies was feeling bullish in believing that it had already bounced back and reporting an exceptional quarter four. This would suggest many businesses performing to 2019 levels having seen a decline of up to 50% in 2020.
… But then Omicron comes along and creates uncertainty all over again. But it appears to be uncertainty rather than any panic, as the resilience and agility that agencies showed in the storm of the pandemic is holding many businesses in good stead. Most are comfortable that the measures they put in place over the last 18 months will enable them to overcome any ‘spikes’ to ensure they continue to bounce back and thrive.
The Alliance of Independent Agencies reflects the components of these measures, for as a ‘people first’ organisation, we can see that those agencies who prioritise their people and purpose see that performance follows.
The Alliance’s mantra is ‘a happy agency is a successful agency’. This means adopting a modus operandi, which is likely to be different from that pre-pandemic, that embraces a full suite ESG policies and behaviours agency teams are keen to pursue, and more clients are demanding.
This also leads into the area of how agencies grow and the new business opportunities they pursue. The cost of pitching is a key determining factor in the performance of agencies and having the confidence to ‘just say no’ when a pitch is more likely to be a liability than an opportunity is key to building back a more successful agency.
The biggest issue facing agencies as we go into 2022 is the ability to recruit and retain talent. Whilst there has been huge salary inflation over the last 6 months, it is not just the financial incentives that drive the management of talent. As Sir Martin Sorrell said in his session with the Alliance in November, the ‘balance of power has changed’ which requires agencies to move forward as a collective. This means making sure that there is a real focus on developing everyone’s skills thereby optimising the investment in the agency’s greatest asset – its people. So, whilst there will be many battles on a day-to-day basis in 2022, looking after the existing team is the key battle to win in the war on talent.
So how can agencies build back better – put your people first!
CEO Cirkle and co-chair of the Alliance of Independent Agencies
The challenges of the last year are both similar and different to those we faced in 2020, when being fleet of foot and flexible to the constant changes to the economy and society as a whole was paramount.
At the beginning of 2021, optimism that we would return to normality was replaced by a realisation that this was simply an evolving situation and agencies would need to learn to live with uncertainty.
But with this came unrelenting pressure on teams, not only personally, but professionally, and so the Alliance’s focus on People had never been more critical. The ‘talent war’ continued to rage, with individuals exiting the industry, putting even more pressure on members to become more creative with recruitment and retention strategies.
However, the Alliance stood by its commitment to allow the independent sector to thrive, and throughout 2021 offered its membership all the tools they needed to navigate and support their people during these turbulent times.
Our groups have been incredibly active, supporting agency members with a range of tools and services, from online training provision, the Festival of Happiness, to working groups addressing challenges around EDI and Wellbeing to talent retention.
I am extremely proud of the collective effort, spirit and innovation that everyone with the Alliance has demonstrated to make the independent sector stronger, and know that whatever the next twelve have in store, we’re better together.
Maree Prendergast and Ezinne Okoro
Global chief people officer and global chief inclusion, equity and diversity officer, Wunderman Thompson
The compounded challenges faced over the past two years significantly interrupted what many considered their usual ways of being and working. The pandemic amplified the global racial and civil unrest, specifically with the unfortunate murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmad Aubrey, the targeted violence against the AAPI community, the increase of shootings in schools, and other incidents. It resulted in the division, isolation, and hybrid work environments that led to the exhaustion of our employees, clients, and leaders.
While the work is essential, the well-being of the people behind the work requires our attention. As the news coverage shifts, and we continue to evaluate how to build back better, or instead build new and better, we know that yesterday will be very different from today and tomorrow. We need to be responsible, intentional, flexible, and lead with empathy to navigate the next unknowns.
Many companies doubled-down on their commitments to DEI and mental wellness. In moving forward, we must be intentional on these commitments and move with urgency! Awareness has been raised through education, round tables conversations, and fireside chats. Now we move to action! The commitments and promises shared with stakeholders must take giant leaps forward to continue to move us forward. We must be open to the data and rely on its results to prioritise and make the necessary investments.
In considering our people's well-being, psychological safety, mental health, and the additional impact of the "Great Resignation," the well-being of our teams is a top priority and one we need to take very seriously. Companies must minimise burnout as we continue to define our new ways of working with the ongoing global pandemic and hybrid work model. Implementing dedicated programs, creating support networks, and staying connected is crucial. At Wunderman Thompson, we have implemented many programs and initiatives that allow our teams to reach out for support as preferred, including our new mental health alliance program where trained members can listen and provide support for others."
To manage through the evolution of our relationships with employees, clients, and partners, we must be mindful of how people show up and support them every step of the way in their personal and professional journeys. We must build a better tomorrow together.
CEO, Advertising Association
When we talk about trust and responsibility, we think about this from the perspective of the industry’s end customer, the public. Our research on public trust has been invaluable in pointing to the areas where advertising can build on positive relationships with consumers. Public trust in advertising has slowly risen since its 2015 low point and there are opportunities to rebuild it further. We know the public responds best to engaging and relevant advertising, so reinforcing the importance of creative quality and effective media targeting and improving the public’s experience of advertising is critical and will lead to better returns on advertising investment.
Better awareness of the ASA and our gold-standard self-regulatory system contributes to public trust. We’ll be rolling out a national awareness campaign so the public knows there is an effective regulator to ensure all advertising is ‘legal, decent, honest and truthful’. Research has shown that awareness of the ASA increases trust in advertising by 66%, so this will be central to the industry’s strategy.
When it comes to trust and responsibility, there is an increasing spotlight on influencers by government and regulators. While it enables brands – especially SMEs – to connect with audiences, it should be clear that influencers, platforms and advertisers have a collective responsibility to follow the rules. Our advertising literacy arm, Media Smart has been active here. They’ve delivered influencer-specific educational resources for young people and worked with TikTok creators to help identify what is an advert. We’ll see an increased focus on digital advertising from government when it publishes its Online Advertising Programme.
Finally, when we look at responsibility in advertising, this isn’t just towards the public but to those who work in our industry. We need our industry to fully reflect the society we serve and our work will be more authentically representative if the workforce is more representative. Our ‘All In’ programme is aimed at making everyone feel they belong in advertising, whatever their backgrounds. We will be building on this in 2022 with new actions based on the findings of our extensive research in 2021. More research, this time by timeTo found that 49% of people in advertising think sexual harassment will be more of an issue with people returning to the office following the pandemic, and we saw a stark new #timeTo video raising awareness that we must ‘draw the line’ against this. As we navigate the pandemic’s highs and lows of WFH and hybrid working we have a collective responsibility to make good on the promise to build back better. This means delivering on the actions that contribute to build public trust and those that are set out in our plans around Inclusion and Climate Action.
Founding partner, Cog Culture
This pandemic is undoubtedly one of the toughest challenges humanity has faced in recent times. I believe it's something that's going to stay with us for some time, and we just have to find a way to live with it. That's the New Normal. But what the pandemic reinforced in us is our core value of being a people-first company. We share a strong bond with each of our team members and clients, and together we are building back better. Advertising has always been about connecting with human emotions, and this pandemic has taught us to slow down and have a moment to reconnect. I see a great opportunity for a resilient recovery with hybrid work culture and brands opening up to connect with their customers more deeply than ever.
President, Association of Advertising & Marketing Singapore
The pandemic has been a challenging time, but it has brought to the fore issues that are essential to the health of our industry. We are talking about diversity and equality in the workplace, employee wellbeing, and sustainable business partnerships. In some sense, we all have a shared experience in being forced to change how we live as a result of Covid, and this empathy has made people want to engage in conversation. I believe people genuinely want to try to improve their work and personal lives where they can.
In 2022, a big thing for both clients and employees will be stability; and stability in the sense of having core strength that will enable people and brands to respond to change at speed and pivot quickly when situation calls for it. For clients, stability means having consistency, being able to access the right resources, and knowing they can adapt their strategy with confidence that agency partners are able to deliver.
For employees, stability means being able to integrate their work and personal lives in a sustainable way. Having a clear career pathway, being paid fairly, and receiving benefits that contribute to improved mental and physical health and financial security are all things that lead to better performance at work. We can’t underestimate what employee wellbeing and happiness brings to our industry, and it is good to see that this issue is finally being discussed in the open.
How agency leaders address both client and employee needs will be crucial. Yes, we are in the business of media and creativity, and yes, after a downward trend over the past two years leaders and shareholders will want to make up for lost time. But we need to ask at what price? The Great Resignation is just one indication that we need to take care of the fundamentals that give our industry its power. Humans. Only Great Empathy can reverse the languish, rekindle purpose and spark joy.