Close-Up: Age-old beliefs need modernisation for advertising to thrive

The IPA's new Future Of Work report reveals worrying trends around the ad industry and its employees. Among them: the failure to encourage new recruits and give Gen X the support they need, Anne Cassidy writes.

Anyone suffering a nostalgia attack brought on by watching too many episodes of Mad Men doesn't have to look too far for a reminder of adland in the early 60s. Perversely, we have dispensed with the more appealing aspects of that era, such as the sharp clothes and mid-morning Scotch, and clung on to the rigid workplace structure of that time. Having to work the kind of hours that mean family members have trouble recognising you when you eventually do make it home from the office is still a fact of modern working life.

Baby boomers, who get the blame for the world's ills, can also take credit for the unbending structure. The people who control the industry, the 5 per cent over 50, have, in the main, instilled the working practices they inherited. Ferraris and four-hour lunches may at one time have eased the daily grind, but now there is less time and money for play - all of which makes advertising a considerably duller place in which to make a living.

Add to this the generational tensions between all-powerful directors, idealistic new joiners and the worn-out middle managers and the need for a rethink in the way agencies work becomes urgent. Senior people don't have much of a reason to hang around any more. Worryingly, only 18 per cent of industry employees are over 41, according to the IPA census. The gravity of the situation is neatly summed up thus: "Until someone finds a different way, we're stuffed."

That was a quote from a young agency employee interviewed by the IPA to inform its Future Of Work report this year. The younger generation in the industry appear deeply at odds with the structure in which they are forced to work. Their, arguably quixotic, vision of the future is one where working hours are flexible; there are three-day weekends; the office is a drop-in centre or a virtual "base camp"; and technology which allows people to access systems from outside the office breaks down company structures. They want a more democratic system, and an end to hierarchy. To build their careers, they'd prefer to move across disciplines, rather than upwards and out.

The next rung up, the industry's Generation X, aged 28 to 35 and starting to feel family pressures encroach on working life, are also crying out for more flexibility. Lucy Daniels, the vice-patron of Working Families, who conducted group discussions with people in this age group for the IPA research, was surprised at the degree to which working in the ad industry is based on fear and competition. The findings show employees are expected to be flexible to suit the company, not the other way around, and downtime has been replaced by a sense that the demands of work are a constant. One interviewee said: "A week off means you have to check the BlackBerry. It allows flexibility but also no excuse not to be in touch all the time." This generation is worn down. Another quote drawn from the discussion conveys a sense of doom: "After a decade in the business, the long hours' culture was taking its toll."

More flexible working is essential to meet the needs of both of these generations, according to Liz Nottingham, the chair of the IPA People Management Group. She explains: "For new recruits, we need to present working in an agency as significantly more exciting and empowering than working elsewhere. For people in their middle years of family formation, we need to reorganise our businesses to enable their retention."

Agency bosses must make major changes which won't come easily. As Nottingham says: "They come from a different planet in terms of attitude to work and careers."

But, set against an uncertain economic picture, securing the future will require more than just an attitude change.

The client is king

When the recession hit, clients started wanting more for less, and salaries and promotions were hit by a freeze. The Bellwether Report this year showed signs of modest growth, but the fact that the Government is cutting its media spend by 50 per cent has done much to rain off any celebratory parades.

Agencies admit to being increasingly nervous about telling their clients how they want to run their business. While most agencies are well-intentioned, when it comes to client relationships they don't want to take risks.

It also emerged that clients are not overly interested in agencies' internal issues. Those on the procurement side just want an effective organisation that delivers. Marketers are only interested if the solution suits them. And clients feel it is important that agencies recognise their position. One interviewee said: "Agencies need to remember that clients are risking their careers by accepting their advice. Within their organisation, everyone is looking to shoot them down."

But it's not all one-way traffic. Clients are also dealing with the same issues when it comes to managing generational differences within their organisations.

A faulty business model

Agencies are finding it difficult to make their businesses profitable and most admit that much agency profit comes from non-core services. For stoking creative ideas, downtime can be as productive as time recorded on a timesheet. One interviewee said: "Client contracts tend to put finite borders around people and hours."

Most industry people sounded out by the IPA identified an "insidious" structural problem to the business model. The common view is that the infrastructure model that most agencies use is redundant. Ad agencies split from media agencies 25 years ago and clients have been profiting from this model ever since. The pyramid structure and cult of career progression, which results in people leaving the industry in their thirties simply because they are not chief executive material, was singled out as another major issue.

One client interviewed by the IPA sums up the structure as agencies making money by employing three very clever senior people and "500 five-year-olds".

The downsides of flexible working

Senior directors have difficulty reconciling flexible working with the needs of the business. Home-working presents a problem, with the IPA research finding that many who work from home don't identify with the organisations they work for.

People working from home are also difficult to monitor. Those in the office lacked the help and support they need and find it difficult to be managed by someone who is working from home. It's also believed that those at home tend to fall behind on systems as the pace is faster in an agency.

Separately, digital seems to be cursed as much as it is revered in the industry, if IPA roundtable discussions are anything to go by. Digital has made the product portfolio offered by agencies more complex. It has shortened response times and though it's perceived as cheaper to buy, it is more expensive to service. It is also breeding a 24/7-access culture and getting in the way of face-to-face meetings.

What can be done?

HR directors admitted they were reactive when it came to managing talent, and recognised the value of taking a more proactive approach instead of waiting for employees to go to them with career issues. It was recommended, for instance, that rising stars in the agency needed to be identified and provided with a career development programme to "lock them in" for six to seven years. Organisations should also be more proactive in offering employees experience of working in different parts of the world, across the international network.

Furthermore, opportunities to gain new experiences within the organisation and develop expertise across disciplines should be made available to all new recruits. Everyone, including men, should be given the opportunity to say what hours and days they could work to fulfil their workload with a view to managing this within a team. In addition, to compensate for the introduction of more remote working, it was felt that there would be a need for more emotional intelligence in handling client/agency relationships and that a senior suit could provide this. Senior suits, many of whom move into global account director jobs, should be brought back in as advisors, it was suggested. Some also wondered whether they could repurpose agency functions to clients to enable them to make money, which would require flexible contracts.

Predictions for the future

IPA interviewees were in general agreement that by 2020 agencies will be more dispersed by discipline and by geography. Teams will be multidisciplinary and remote technology will be more advanced so that people will be able to achieve a better work-life balance. The benefits of being within a network will be more apparent, with the sharing of resources such as HR and finances, while the rules of engagement will be stricter, with more training and the correct infrastructures. Perhaps then, in the next decade, we shall move away from the retrograde working practices the industry has grown up with.

5% - IPA members are over 50

77% - rise in freelancers in past ten years

9% - non-white employees in the industry

TOP TEN TIPS FOR PROVIDING A BETTER WORKING CULTURE

1. More proactive talent management

HR directors should take the initiative with staff, by acknowledging and developing them as they go through various life stages, giving them scope to change so that they continue to be effective.

2. Locking in Generation Y

A structured approach to meeting the expectations of how this generation wants to work, identifying "rising stars" and providing them with a career development programme. There needs to be more transparency in letting rising stars know what they have to aim for.

3. Being more flexible with flexible working

Give everyone, including men, the opportunity to say what hours and days they would work to fulfil their workload. Treat people like grown-ups - the more there are stringent controls, the less things work.

4. Articulating the value of a motivated workforce in terms that clients would recognise

For example, staff motivation forming part of agency appraisal.

5. Finding different ways of working

For example, pricing differently according to work type, and greater collaboration between agencies.

6. Work as an activity, not a destination

Enabled by advances in technology; for example, virtual working, fewer offices.

7. Proactive 24/7 service

For example, shift working, or virtual shift working by pairing up offices in each of the different locations around the globe.

8. The re-emergence of the 'senior suit' to management of client-agency relationships

And a way to keep older experienced employees on in a specialist "sideways" role at a renegotiated salary.

9. The rise of opportunity networks

Agencies could package their services in different ways to respond to individual client contracts, offer different organisational models, a talent network made up of freelancers etc.

10. Redesign of the client/agency contract

Reorganise agency functions in servicing clients to accurately reflect the cost; clients creating a work contract for multiple agencies.

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