Adland must learn the lessons from the last year

A year on from the start of the pandemic and the scale of its negative impact is clear but positives have also emerged in terms of innovation, a renewed focus on the wellbeing of agency employees and an affirmation of the benefits of flexible working

Adland must learn the lessons from the last year

When advertising executives put the emerging reports of coronavirus cases to the back of their minds as they clambered into taxis to The Brewery for Campaign’s Agency of the Year Awards on 11 March 2020, few would have anticipated that 12 months on the virus would still largely confine them to their homes. Some people may have dusted down their suits or nostalgically squeezed into heels for this year’s virtual ceremony but it was a very different type of celebration for all concerned.

The winners of this year’s Agency of the Year Awards have achieved great things during the most tumultuous year since World War Two. They have picked up new clients, expanded their remit with existing ones and created spine-tingling work – all while supporting their employees. Many have made a profit, returned their furlough money to the government and/or paid back salary sacrifices to senior staff. Campaign salutes you all.

The one-year anniversary of prime minister Boris Johnson’s first major speech on social distancing falls on 12 March. Just four days after that date, he instructed people to work from home, and a week after that the first lockdown was introduced. Since then, the country has moved out of and into restrictions, by region and as nations all at once.

This has had a huge impact on UK businesses. The UK’s economy slumped by 9.9% in 2020, when measured in gross domestic product, the steepest fall since the Great Frost of 1709. Though the hit on the UK ad market was not as hard as first thought, there has been a lot of pain. Bar the growth at pure-play digital platforms, the best results were declines of about 10%, according to Group M. Meanwhile, Omnicom and Interpublic cut 10,000 roles between them last year, according to figures in their annual reports.

Everyone is under immense pressure. But a recent Campaign survey of what agencies were doing to support staff working from home elicited a plethora of offerings. Care packages and online socials abounded. Thirteen out of 29 respondents provide online yoga, nine offer exercise classes. As well as enforced lunch breaks and shortened meetings (to ensure gaps between calls), Channel 4 and IPG media shop UM introduced “meet-free Fridays” to give people the space to make life more manageable. Other agencies offer meeting-free days once a month.

But there was an important reason behind all of this. Two-thirds of respondents mentioned the impact of the crisis on their staff’s mental health. Many have trained more mental health first aiders in order to catch problems before they snowball as a result.

Stephanie Marks, managing director of Havas Media Group, spoke for many when she commented that the most important thing she has learned is “just to be human”. She continued: “That comes before anything else. Yes, stay positive and offer as much support as you can, but also know when to just say ‘Yeah, I’m sorry, it’s s**t’.”

Brands, agencies and media owners will do well to continue their commitment to mental health as the industry, economy and country start to open up again. Will chief executives continue to boast about forcing people to take their lunch break or stop working at 5pm?

Last month, a survey found that 98% of agency staff wanted their company to introduce some kind of remote work policy, with the largest share advocating a blend of remote and in-office working. There is already an appetite for such a set-up – in the short window when it looked like there might be a return to the office last year, agencies such as Creature London and Ogilvy said they would be looking for people to work two days in the office and three days at home. Managing teams and projects in this hybrid environment will be complex but could allow some positive lessons to be learnt from the past year.

If you had challenged agency chief executives to deliver all their services entirely remotely in March 2020, it is likely that you would have prompted some scepticism.

Campaign’s Agencies of the Year rebut that view definitively, showing what can be achieved by teams who are physically apart most of the time. But if you had asked people already working flexibly – for whatever reason – they would have been able to tell you the possibilities before the pandemic hit.

Wacl has rightly put employers in its crosshairs as part of its #FlexibleFirst campaign, providing evidence and examples to demonstrate the monetary benefits of flexible working. Campaign will be covering every twist as the country emerges from its current restrictions, including the way agencies, media owners and marketing departments set themselves up. Let’s hope a better work/life balance can be forged.