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Agencies Turn Culture Upside Down

Trends and Insight 230 Add to collection

To keep thriving, indies let community determine culture, says Worldwide Partners CEO John Harris

Agencies Turn Culture Upside Down

Agency Futures, which helps agency owners build their businesses, recently surveyed staff and management at Worldwide Partners independent agencies around the world and found that 69% of agencies finished 2021 ahead on business results, with 31% up by more than 20%. And they expect to continue growing. More than 40% of the agencies expect to increase business performance by more than 10% in the first half of 2022. 

Still, agencies are racing to meet intensifying client demand. Six in 10 clients have shortened deadlines on projects, and the average timeline of a client demand has shrunk from over a month to 2-4 weeks (58%), and projects now outweigh retainer engagements by 55% to 45%. While budgets are going up for 45% of clients, and 65% of agencies have increased staffs, the work is intensifying in ways that put pressure on people. 

What’s more, two-thirds of management teams believe their agencies will be operating on entirely different models a year from now as client demands morph and talent competition intensifies. They’ll reorient around talent, which Agency Futures CEO Doug Baxter says is now the value driver for agencies in both business development and M&A. 

So, independent agencies need to prioritize culture and create exemplary work environments to sustain their momentum. The key to winning will be shifting from corporate to collaborative cultural design and reorienting around both employee and client needs. 

That goes for marketing, too. With employee experience an essential differentiator, agencies need to stand out for talent as well as for clients. Co:definery founder Robin Bonn even tells his agency clients to re-examine their growth plans through the lens of what he calls total employee experience. Sustainable momentum depends on team cohesion. 

The pandemic has reset people’s expectations of brands. As consumers, we expect to be able to customize our experiences with products and services to our needs and tastes at any given moment. Those needs are individual to all threads of community, from geography to interests and lifestyles. Progressive brands are realizing this takes solutions of and from the market, not for the market. 

The same now applies to the agency experience. Agency Futures found that roughly 75% of staff expect flexible working policies and mentorship programs. Culture by the people for the people creates a fluid agency experience that attracts and energizes talent. 

To get there, agency leaders need to think differently about some key concepts. The hybrid model is more than just where you work; it’s also how you work, when you work, and who you work with. A personalized work environment no longer means decorating your office; it means arranging your professional life in a way that balances individual capabilities and needs. And it means following a personal growth plan with one-on-one mentoring and training to make it happen. 

Now that people have become accustomed to setting their own schedules, Agency Sherpa founder and now Marcus Thomas CEO Nancy Hill tells me, they expect to keep them – whether that means picking kids up from school or grocery shopping in the middle of the day. She should know: She’s interviewed more than 100 agency employees in the past six months while scouring Glassdoor. Agency leaders need to do their own interviews to learn people’s new patterns, so they can honor them in their emerging models. 

The new demands can be a boon to independent agencies that instinctively put people before profit. When I look across the Worldwide Partners network, I see agencies changing in meaningful ways. For example, lg2, Canada’s largest independent creative agency, just built a 35,000-sf office building where employees will customize their work and team experience based on their state of mind rather than team assignment. Grupo CCP in Colombia has instituted a four-day workweek. 

China’s Hylink now connects employees with personal financial consultants so they can continuously adapt retirement plans to their individual needs. U.S.-based food and agriculture agency Curious Plot has established three core working hours where teams stay online to collaborate in real time, with the rest of their days completely at employees’ discretion. 

In the UK, 23red has started a wellness working group and trained CEO Jan Asscher and other executives in mental health first aid. Full-service agency Ardmore now gives employees and their families 24/7 access to counseling via a free wellness app. 

While independent agencies may not be able to outbid tech companies for talent, they can create a more fulfilling environment where people experience a personal impact in their work. Advertising is supposed to be collaborative and fun, and agencies are meant to thrive on the kind of dynamism that would daunt a manufacturing company. When managements reset to the new pulse of their people, marketing’s constant change could make this the best time to work at an agency. 


John Harris is CEO of Worldwide Partners, a network of more than 75 independent agencies in 40 countries. 

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Worldwide Partners, Mon, 23 May 2022 08:59:36 GMT