Disruption Can Transform Agency Cultures

By 4A's InSites Archives
Cover image for  article: Disruption Can Transform Agency Cultures

For the advertising industry, the past year generated some much-needed disruptions that could have lasting impacts. The COVID-19 pandemic forced agencies to reimagine workplace culture and support and calls for racial equality compelled organizations to examine their own commitments to diversity and inclusion. The results, top agency executives say, may result in systemic changes that benefit employees and clients, and spawn a new era of creativity and collaboration.

"We've learned how resilient our teams and our culture at our agency is," John Gallegos, CEO of United Collective, said as part of "Future of Work" panel discussion sponsored by the 4A's, The Impact of Changing Agency Models on Culture and Creativity. "That's all from being flexible, fluid and understanding."

Less happy hour, more mindfulness

It wasn't long ago that agency staffs bemoaned grueling hours and hyper-competitive cultures. At one point, it was a source of pride for agencies to have showers in their office so beleaguered employees never had to go home, noted Kate Jeffers, president of Venables Bell & Partners. But the pandemic forced everyone to work remotely, she said agencies learned to adapt, with leaders attuned to their staff's wellness and well-being.

"The best work ideas and solutions come from happy, motivated, inspired people," Jeffers said. "I'm a believer in being clear on what we expect and what they need to deliver, and then being incredibly open in how they deliver it."

The pandemic has also compelled agencies to reconsider what they offered to support and motivate employees.

"A move to build from foosball and happy hours to healthy foods, mindfulness sessions, yoga (virtual and in offices through social distancing) and more frequent check-ins with individuals is now more common and expected," said Brian Nienhaus, the 4A's senior vice president for member engagement and development, Central Region

Without a physical office and in-person meetings, remote work has encouraged more communications across levels, from CEOs to the newest hires. Younger employees in particular have found their voices, noted Nienhaus. He said they're more confident to share ideas and expectations about office culture, staffing and operations.

Agencies staffs have newfound intimacy. Colleagues have Zoomed into each other's homes, seeing pets, children and other facets of domestic life, sharing intimacy and vulnerability. Over many months of isolation, they've battled mounting stress and tension. When and if teams return to the office, their relationships have been transformed. "It has created a bonding between us that is part of what we're all going to take forward," said Lisa Bright, chief creative officer for Ogilvy California.

Diversity and inclusion take on renewed urgency

The pandemic is not the only force driving change. Last year's protests for racial equality and police reform sparked renewed calls for the advertising industry to accelerate its diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. More than ever, agencies are taking actionable steps to support people of color within their ranks and reform their culture, the executives said.

Julianna Akuamoah, chief talent officer, Arnold + Havas Media Boston, said companies need to lean into that vulnerability, and provide safe spaces for employees to share ideas and concerns. For instance, her company holds a conversation series, "Let's Talk About It", for staff to discuss current events that impact them, such as police brutality or violence against Asian-Americans. They also hold workshops on empathy. "We're breaking down emotional barriers to show up and talk about what we're carrying every day," she said.

To create more inclusive cultures, agencies need to recruit, retain and promote more diverse talent. In a 2020 report on industry diversity, the 4A's found that Black employees represent 5.8% of the industry, 8.6 percent identify as Hispanic or Latinx, and 10.7 percent are Asian-American. However, the majority of people of color at agencies hold entry or administrative level positions, and are woefully underrepresented in C-Suite positions.

"The talent is out there," Akuamoah said. "Are we created the environment for them to succeed? Are we developing them, mentoring them and giving support for them to do well in this industry? That's where we should be focused."

At We Are Rosie, a collective for marketing professionals, Founder and CEO Stephanie Nadi Olson said reimagining of recruitment could help. Her organization has worked with 7,000 individuals, many of whom have defected from agencies after experiencing discrimination, bias or pay disparities. "We have burned them," Nadi Olsen said.

She advises agencies to offer flexible work arrangements, such as short-term contract work, allowing individuals to test out an organizations culture before committing to full-time employment, and to consider candidates with unconventional work histories, such as experience in other industries or those who have time away from advertising.

"How do we start to make sure we've giving people a reason to stay, that we're paying them and promoting them?" she said. "By not putting up unnecessary barriers."

Even when agencies start welcoming staff back to the office, offering remote work could also advance DEI. Employees have come to appreciate the flexibility that working from home affords, and a better work-life balance can promote creativity and productivity.

"Clients are supportive of time and space people need to do their best work," said Jeffers.

It can also free agencies from the rigid confines of requiring their talent to live in particular physical locations, noted 4A's Nienhaus.

"This will help increase diversity hires in markets with smaller marketing and advertising talent bases," he said. "It will also allow large agency networks to apply talent and brain-power more flexibly for their clients but deepening their ability to leverage teams across the country and, in some cases, across the globe."

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