On the Campaign couch: Should agencies limit working hours?
A view from Jeremy Bullmore

On the Campaign couch: Should agencies limit working hours?

Wieden & Kennedy has just announced a limit to working hours. Should other agencies follow suit?

It’s 3.25 on a Friday afternoon. Your client phones. Owing to Hurricane Zacharias, they no longer have the stock to fulfil the promotional offer to be advertised over the weekend. Please pull all advertising. 

Your agency’s answerphone asks them to leave their name and number and someone will return their call when the agency reopens for business the following Monday. 

I’m all for being experimental and flexible and imaginative and creative in the use of time; and if that results in better work and happier workers, so much the better. 

But nothing will change the fact that if service companies want to survive as service companies, they’ll need to be available whenever their clients need them. Because if they aren’t, there’ll be plenty who will be. 

If several senior people leave in one go, is it always a warning sign about the health of an agency or could it just be coincidental churn? 
There’s another kind of staff exodus whose consequences are less apparent at the time but which can be at least as damaging a few years later. 

Shrewd headhunters and canny agencies are always on the lookout for the next wave of desirable recruits. Spotting them demands sensitive antennae. 

They should have done just enough at their existing agencies to demonstrate ability and promise – but not yet quite enough to have been cemented into place with titles, bonuses and stock options. They are the faces to watch who haven’t yet been identified as the Faces to Watch. 

When an agency is fortunate enough to find itself with a whole generation of such people, but is slow to recognise them, it fosters a kind of group bolshiness; the bright and the impatient compete with each other to see which of them can be the first to find greater appreciation elsewhere. That’s one reason why agencies lose whole bunches of talent over quite short periods of time. 

It doesn’t necessarily mean that an agency’s on the skids but it’s not a good sign; it nearly always suggests an unchanged senior management layer that’s been an unchanged senior management layer for rather too long and has quite forgotten that someone once took a punt on them when they were young and relatively inexperienced. 

When, a year or two later, the senior management layer has finally become undisguisedly unfit for purpose, and looks around for suitable replacements, only then do they begin to grasp the scale and consequence of their earlier losses. 

Tarquin is now a partner in a high-flying start-up, Drusilla’s just been appointed the youngest-ever chief executive at GumDropZ and Winston, who went client-side, is thinking of appointing a new agency but isn’t considering them. 

When there’s a generation-sized hole in an agency’s workforce, it can be filled only by extremely expensive mercenaries who know nothing of the agency’s culture. There’s trouble ahead.

But what you were really asking was: when several very senior people leave an agency more or less at the same time, what does that say for the agency? Is it a warning about its health or could it just be coincidence? 

And the answer, as you know very well, is: it’s never a coincidence. The agency’s going to be in the sick room for at least a couple of years and may never completely recover. And this is why. 

The thing about rats and sinking ships and real life is this. The metaphor doesn’t bear close analysis. Suppose the rats get it wrong; suppose their ship isn’t sinking – just a bit of a leak in the bilge pump – and they had no need to run for it? Well, all they have to do is squat for a while on the jetty; and, as soon as it’s obvious that the ship’s sound, just wander back with their hands in their pockets as if they’d just been out for a breath of fresh air. 

But when human rats leave their corporate ships, even if those ships were in no serious danger of sinking, the departure of the rats ensures that they will. 

In other words, it’s the rats that finally sink the ship. And so it will be with agencies; though to brand as rats the founders of the next successful start-up may be a little on the harsh side.

Jeremy Bullmore welcomes questions via campaign@haymarket.com or Campaign, Bridge House, 69 London Road, Twickenham, TW1 3SP