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


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