Making agencies happy places again


Adland is full of discontent, but it doesn’t need to be that way, argues VCCP’s Peter Grenfell.

Advertising used to be fun, didn’t it? It was the industry everyone wanted to work in. The job with a touch of glamour. You were proud to tell your friends what you did. Not anymore. Whether it’s on a blog, down the pub or across the desks, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of positivity kicking around any more.

What’s more, people aren’t even particularly angry, instead there is a general sense of disillusionment with the everyday pressures of agency life. So an industry that should thrive on passion has become dragged down to a more mundane level, one that is unlikely to inspire each other or great work.

Any agency management team regularly faces the difficulty of balancing client satisfaction with agency morale, but the reality is, it shouldn’t be one versus the other – because the latter should drive the former. However management can be guilty at times of an ‘everything’s okay’ approach to staff satisfaction whereas there’s generally always a healthy (or unhealthy) paranoia towards client satisfaction. Which means sometimes forgetting about the things that are frustrating our people, who should matter as much as our clients.

As a reminder, here are some of the things that might be causing the frustration..

  1. It’s not like it used to be. It’s more difficult. The landscape has changed which means we don’t just do ads anymore. Agencies and their people need to be able to do everything from ads to apps. That’s not a bad thing, but from a people point of view, things just got a lot more cloudy.
  2. Who does what? Art Director or Action Scripter? Copywriter or Creative Technologist? It can be an opportunity, but it can also equal too many opinions, different agendas at play and ego’s to manage.
  3. The balance of power has shifted. Back in the ‘good old days’, agencies took the brief, disappeared for a month/lunch and came back with a spectacular explosion-fest TV concept. Idea bought. Sign here. Not any more. Like it or not, the power now rests with our clients and sometimes they call the shots. Which means things can be more commercially driven: tighter deadlines, harder selling and ROI over 90 second spectacular. That doesn’t always go down well at agency HQ.
  4.  The fear factor. Pressure, frustration, working hours and deadlines mount up and agencies, normally great places to work, can quickly become controlled by a culture of fear: of the client, of the project and of each other. What’s more, over-complicated hierarchies mean that sometimes people are scared to express an opinion. And given that most creative agencies believe that a good idea can come from anywhere, well that’s a shame.
  5. Beauty or the banker? For every person happily creating award winning work on that glamorous fashion account, there are 10 others slogging away on the tricky retail client – the one that pays everyone’s salaries. Yet too often, the agencies focus and PR celebrates the glamour and forgets about those who work hard (and then harder still) on the everyday.

So what to do about it all? Well here we’ve got to be realistic. There’s nothing that a pitch win of a creatively exciting, high revenue accounts won’t fix, at least in the short term. But none of us, however talented, can necessarily magic that up. So let’s think about some of the easier things that we can make happen, things that can make a big difference.

Keep it simple. Whatever the project and people, small focused teams from the core agency disciplines generally work best. Not 15 people around a boardroom table arguing about the size of the logo.

Remember your principles. Most agencies have them. Of how we’re all going to behave, with each other and with our clients: fair, honest, realistic, and collaborative. Perhaps it’s time for a refresher course. It may just ease some of the pressure further down the line.

Lose the layers. Junior Account Exec? Senior Art Director? There are too many layers in agencies. It confuses clients and causes untold friction between people. Yes, you need levels (junior / manager / director), but do you really need any more than that? People’s progress should be measured by the degree of responsibility they hold and the salary they are paid – not a fancy job title. And it might just mean that everyone feel more confident in expressing an opinion.

Celebrate the everyday. Make sure that 12-person team working on the DR retail client get a slot in the agency limelight. That their work is celebrated just as hard as a high-end brand ad. As we know which piece of work the client may well value the most.

And finally and I think most importantly, learn how to have fun again.

Sometime we’re guilty of taking ourselves too seriously, it feels like adland has forgotten how to have fun. Injecting a sense of the ridiculous might just be the most sensible thing you’ve ever done.

  • Peter Grenfell is managing director of VCCP Australia


  1. Zoot-Suit
    21 Nov 12
    12:54 pm

  2. Agency life at the moment is really more of a serious survival game then it used to be.

    While everyone will be nice to each other and there is a general pleasantness on the surface – when the **** hits the fan, fingers start pointing in all directions in desperate attempts at self-preservation and arse covering.

    As a result, you often see good, hard working and talented people get shafted.

    The economic climate and increasingly competitive nature of agency life means those who play politics the best – and by politics I mean align themselves with the right people in the hierarchy, ingratiate themselves and puff up the right people’s ego’s – survive, get the opportunities and get ahead.

    And with things being so tight and the industry rapidly changing, unless you got some serious ‘game’, it’s going to be a not so happy place for a while yet. And it’s probably why a lot of people are leaving it or making plans to!

  3. Anonymous
    21 Nov 12
    1:04 pm

  4. VCCP opened shop here? Did I miss something!

  5. nell_schofield
    21 Nov 12
    2:40 pm

  6. amen to the fact that agencies are bloated and need to lose layers i had to laugh at: “Like it or not, the power now rests with our clients and sometimes they call the shots” just because it’s hard to believe that in this industry the clients didn’t object to being treated like muppets by hucksters with big egos who had no accountability and nothing to lose if their campaign idea flopped

  7. Anne Miles
    21 Nov 12
    4:07 pm

  8. I think it is great to acknowledge the trials and tribulations in the agency world and Peter’s thoughts are a good reminder of some solid actions to take. I do feel it is easier said than done, however, to create a happy and well functioning business when things are off the rails.

    No company will ever achieve a good result like this if management of the company don’t lead it and actively do something different. Like with disciplining children, it takes consistency and commitment. Most of all each parent has to back up the other one or there is no authority in the leadership and they are completely undermined. Without authority, even the best talent can be rendered useless and individuals are left to fight it out together – he/she who has the loudest voice (or is the biggest bully) can sometimes win if the boss isn’t on board.

    This comes down to a simple practice of doing what you say you will, and having a consequence for people not doing what is expected. From my experience it needs to all be established as a company process or policy fed from the top down and with management focused on it diligently until it is set as a kind of ‘default’. If the boss is either undermining it or ignoring it then it simply wont change.

    Words and policies are not enough.

    If the boss doesn’t want to be involved then the simple answer is to fully empower those that they want to run the business – that means giving the leaders clarity and the boundaries they need to do the work, and to support all their decisions publicly and unconditionally. Only behind closed doors should they disagree and work through any issues for the business leaders to then implement.

    So, whilst the above are a few good tips to try it is the tip of a massive iceberg in dysfunctional businesses. One step ahead is still progress though!

  9. macsmutterings
    22 Nov 12
    11:48 am

  10. I think you should all come work at a Research Agency instead, bring on the fun…

  11. Robyn
    22 Nov 12
    1:13 pm

  12. Agree, especially as someone who has lived the underdog life of point 5.

  13. Richard Wentworth Ping
    23 Nov 12
    2:03 pm

  14. Many of the points here are true but there are also plenty of agencies (media and creative) actively doing something about this. It’s not simply about the senior people. I guess you need about 20 “positive taps” for every 100 peopy in an agency to keep spirits high and motivate others.

    One point that is made here I completely agree with is the celebrate everyday. Happiness comes from enjoying the small thyings that happen everyday not replying on the big highs. They just don’t come along often enough.

  15. Ah the Old Days
    29 Nov 12
    3:42 pm

  16. Many Agencies are run by disingenuous number crunching sociopaths. That’s why they’ve lost their genuine passion. Fun is irrelevant in a world without passion. I can go for weeks without seeing someone in senior management crack a smile at anyone other than the CEO. By the way, it is really pathetic (and too late) when management schedules agency culture building days. Regardless, while we’re not saving lives, advertising is still one of the best jobs in the World

  17. Anne Miles
    29 Nov 12
    5:25 pm

  18. Agree @Richard – many are doing something about it .. and care. Regardless of the sociopaths (of which there are many, I agree @Ah the Old Days), this industry is addictive!

    It is much like an abusive relationship where there is passion and a lot of good, even exciting, stuff but every so often some craziness happens. The balance teeters just enough to keep you there! It is great to see there are businesses now shifting that balance to a more healthy line for sure.