The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated many changes to the ways workplaces function, and advertising agencies are no exception. As a new normals for work emerge post-pandemic, it is becoming increasingly clear that workplace flexibility and the return to the office are impacting equity and inclusion efforts.
The unique dynamics of the agency business are making the shift to flexible work slower and more complicated. Agencies are typically compensated based on time, which emphasizes a culture of relationship-building and “face time” making in-person work during set hours the norm. Long, late hours in the office are an established part of agency life, and many agencies have provided various in-office perks such as games and beer carts that have helped reinforce that culture.
Moreover, offices are points of pride for many ad agencies, who see them as ways to display personalities and creative quirks and stand out amid a sea of competition. And a culture of meetings and always-on work is rife, as pointed out last week in a LinkedIn post by PR consultant Elizabeth Rosenberg, who wrote a piece last year on burning out as an agency employee. Put together, it makes it more difficult for agencies to embrace flexible work, whether through hybrid arrangements or non-traditional work hours.
But holding fast to a traditional full-time, in-person work environment may be hurting agencies’ abilities to recruit and retain employees from underrepresented groups. HBR reports that 81% of Black employees in U.S. knowledge industries, including marketing, prefer a hybrid working arrangement. These results are not surprising when considering the racialized expectations and predominantly white-led environment of in-person work, requiring people of color to code switch and suppress pieces of their identity. Black employees report a greater sense of belonging and a stronger perception of feeling fairly treated within a virtual work environment.
Studies show flexible and hybrid work is also beneficial for women and working parents. Marketing Week’s 2022 Career and Salary Survey found that 83% of marketing employees report that they would prefer a flexible working environment, but 56% of female employees report that flexible work is extremely important, to the point where they may consider finding another job if flexible work is not an option in their current role.
Calls for change
The pandemic showed that flexible work is not just possible, but potentially even more productive than traditional in-person work. The same Marketing Week survey found, however, that 34% of marketing employers turned down requests for remote work because they want their staff in the office full time. Employees are beginning to speak out about the need for workplace flexibility, and some agencies are taking notice:
- Dipti Bramhandkar, executive strategy director, North America for Iris, wrote for Campaign on the importance of a four-day workweek for retaining female employees, particularly women of color. She argues a shorter week is possible through open communication, advance planning, and increased efficiency – and that agencies can’t hope for employees with a diverse spectrum of life experiences if they don’t allow time for employees to actually experience life.
- New research from the U.K.’s National Health Service warns not just of an impending employee mental health crisis, but that a return to the office may exacerbate some of those same mental health issues, as covered by WorkLife. 49% of survey respondents reported feeling worried or anxious about going to the office, and 75% believe they shouldn’t express emotion in their in-office working environment.
- Ad agency Huge will be closing all of its office spaces with fewer than 150 employees and giving those employees memberships to coworking spaces if desired, reports AdAge. Huge CEO Mat Baxter explained that the remaining office spaces will be reimagined as “clubhouses,” with a more recreational feel and that the agency is building hybrid meeting spaces that can accommodate employees videoing in and could also be used for client presentations and pitches. The money saved on renting office space will be used to create popup employee bonding events in different locations where Huge employees live.
- Agencies DDB Mudra, MullenLowe Lintas, and OYD are moving to four-day workweeks, per the Verve Times.
- The Minneapolis-based ad agency Elumynt has moved to a fully remote workforce and seen a sharp increase in productivity – the company’s two-year revenue is up by over 250%, making it the fastest-growing ad agency in Minnesota, reports The Business Journals.
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Playbook for implementing flexible work policies
Slack’s Future Forum co-founders Brian Elliott, Sheela Subramanian, and Helen Kupp’s new book How the Future Works summarizes key takeaways for any agency looking to transition to a flexible or hybrid working environment, as summarized by Charter:
- Move away from thinking about where employees work to focus on when employees work, i.e. arrange for individual employees to meet with their managers and design a “personal operating manual” for how they do their best work.
- Create guidelines, such as eliminating unnecessary meetings (“unnecessary” is defined as any meeting without debating, discussing, deciding, or developing).
- Define “core collaboration hours,” 3-4 hours every day where employees are expected to be available for meetings and communication.
- Make digital platforms the true headquarters of your organization.
- Focus on outcomes, and not just those related to business or profit, but also those addressing employee experience.
- Shift managerial attitudes – managers are no longer gatekeepers who monitor employee in-office work, but coaches who lead with empathy.
That final point is emphasized again in a piece this week from Insider arguing for the total elimination of middle managers, stating that a flattened hierarchy would improve efficiency since employees would not have to check with managers before making decisions. Agencies are notorious for inventing complicated corporate titles and reporting structures, which can perpetuate the idea that employees need to work in the same physical spaces as their supervisors. When these power structures are broken down, it opens up the possibility of a reimagined workspace that is more inclusive of all employees’ needs, as was covered in Campaign earlier this month.
New trade org to support Chief DEI Officers
BRIDGE, founded by Sheryl Daija, former Global Chief Strategy Officer at MMA, is a new trade organization launched this week with a mission to provide its member orgs with the knowledge and resources to bridge historic gaps creating and perpetuating inequities for underrepresented communities in workplaces, the workforce, and the marketplace. BRIDGE, an acronym derived from belonging, representation, inclusion, diversity, and equity, is intended to act as an industry support for Chief DEI Officers, who often struggle to connect to the resources they need to enact meaningful change at their organizations, as we have covered in an earlier newsletter.
Calls for more progress for AAPIs in advertising
Last week saw several calls to focus more on progress for Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) employees within the advertising industry. Cathy Butler, CEO of Omnicom’s Organic agency, detailed the slow pace of career advancement, the lack of empathy towards the emotional impact of ongoing anti-Asian hate crimes on AAPI employees, and the continued racism embedded in the ad industry in a piece for Campaign. She argues that the industry is not maximizing the potential of its AAPI employees by not giving them the space they need to succeed.
Related: AdWeek spotlighted Grace Colby, the Asian American co-founder and chief creative officer for the Los Angeles-based agency Grace Creative, which focuses on the consumer power of women and women of color over the age of 50.
How marketers can work with diverse media suppliers
The Association of National Advertisers’ Alliance for Inclusive & Multicultural Marketing teamed up with the 4A’s to release a new set of guidelines this week on how advertisers can work with diverse media agencies. The guidelines include compilations of assorted lists of media organizations owned by ethnic minorities, women, and members of the LGBTQ+ community, along with access to resources for finding creators from those same groups. The organizations also recommend advertisers and marketers adjust their hiring practices to increase their creative team’s overall diversity and empower the development of relatable messaging for underrepresented groups.
Many U.K. agencies aren’t diverse at all
A new study released by The Agency Collective, a U.K. community for advertising agencies, and the Nottingham-based agency Hallam has found that out of 100+ U.K. agencies, 39% employed no workers of “underrepresented ethnic backgrounds.” Over half of agencies employed some workers identifying as ethnically diverse, but their employee identity breakdowns showed their employee diversity is still not representative of the diversity within the U.K. general population. In more promising news, 23% of surveyed agencies ranked above the U.K.’s average percentage of employee ethnic diversity, but clearly, there is still a lot of progress to be made in the U.K. ad industry in this area.
We’re also reading:
- How agencies can promote health equity through ethical advertising, per AdWeek.
- A marketing firm’s communications officer speaks out about the hesitation and lack of understanding she experienced from the C-suite when crafting communications on DEI issues such as the George Floyd protests, in an anonymous Digiday interview.
- The marketing department has been a gateway for women to break into the advertising industry, and now a new generation of female CMOs are paving the way for future female marketing leaders, reports Forbes.