Campaign Future of the Office survey: Return to work gathers pace as agency bosses outline plans

Hybrid models are being widely established across the industry, but a Campaign survey suggests that the office will retain its traditional position as main incubator for creative ideas and planning.

Most staff continue to work from home, but are increasingly returning to the office at least once a week. Getty Images
Most staff continue to work from home, but are increasingly returning to the office at least once a week. Getty Images

Change is a great divider, embraced by some as a law of life, but resisted by fans of the status quo. Whether embracers or resisters, all of adland has been forced to change in ways unimaginable until 18 months ago. 

Now, as the industry picks up the pieces from the fallout of changes inflicted upon it, Campaign asked 90 agency leaders of workforces ranging from five to 1,500 people, how they are reimagining the future of adland at work.

Campaign’s Future of the Office survey shows that the 3:2 model is reigning supreme. Of the 91% who said their offices were open, 21% said most employees were coming in three times a week, 50% twice a week, and 16% once a week. 

Stephanie Marks, managing director at Havas Media, explains how it’s working for them: “We're currently trialling two anchor days with your team and another day of flex, with at least two days remote, pro-rata for part time workers. However, this could go up or down in any given week depending on what work you are doing that week – the whole point of coming into the office isn't about presenteeism, but is about the type of work you need to do.”

Less than 8% of agency leaders who responded to the survey said most employees weren’t coming in at all. 

And although no-one can predict yet whether the pendulum will eventually swing back towards long days spent in the office, it’s perhaps an early warning that 78% of agency leaders surveyed expected the proportion of time spent in the office to increase over the next three months.

Is WFH worth less? 

So, is working from home less valuable than being in the office, and should employees get paid less when working from home? On the thorny subject of WFH pay reductions, a resounding – and reassuring – 97% said they would not consider cutting people’s pay if they were not coming into the office. 

“We trust our people to do their jobs whether this is at the office or at home or a mix of the two and don't cut pay based on geography,” says Michael Pring, acting CEO at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO.

However, a few seemed to leave the door open for pay reductions. Jenny Biggam, founder at the7stars, says: “We don't yet have a policy for this, but we are considering it.”

John Quarrey, CEO at Krow, was similarly equivocal. “We don't have a clear picture of the long-term trend for where people will work and what impact that may have on the agency, so it's too early to start discussions around this,” he says.

The notion of pay cuts for those continuing to WFH has a sting in its tail, even if only under consideration by a very small minority. Any disincentive to flexible working (or a carrot to get workers back into the office where they can be seen) supports presenteeism and the long-hours culture which adland has tried to shake off. 

More than a quarter (28%) of the 90 leaders of agencies surveyed said staff would be able to continue to WFH full time beyond 2022 without changing their employment terms. However, 55% said changes to contracts would need to be made by summer 2022 if employees expected to work from home full time.

Where is the future of adland at work?

Of course, the big WFH experiment has caused people to rethink their lives and reassess their priorities, often moving house to new locations that are not necessarily within commutable distance. Almost two thirds of agency leaders who responded to the survey said they had noticed that staff were moving to areas outside of London and other big cities. 

Dan Cullen-Shute, CEO and founder at Creature, says: “Some have [moved] and I bloody love it. Our hope is that the 3:2 means people won't feel the need to be based in London; that means we can recruit from a wider pool, and that our people won't be London-centric in their views and experiences, offering clients a more rounded strategic and creative picture.”

Since workplaces are now competing with homes, coffee shops, Cornish beaches and, frankly, anywhere, agencies are keen to tempt employees back into offices, if only for a few days each week. 

More than two-thirds (70%) said they had changed, or had plans to change, the layouts in order to maintain the relevance of their offices. The agencies whose leaders responded to Campaign’s Future of the Office survey occupied between one and 33 office buildings per agency, with total office space ranging from 6 sq ft to 200,000 sq ft per agency. 

“We're currently working with our refurb designers to finalise plans. In essence, there will be far more space for collaborative working, and ‘heads up’ and ‘heads together’ activity,” explains Charlie Rudd, CEO at Leo Burnett.

Introducing more collaborative space, social working spaces, soundbooth areas for calls, and more space between desks for social distancing are all popular moves. There is also an increased investment in technology, as agencies grapple with issues of Zoom-versus-room scenarios. 

Creative shop Iris has introduced more space for collaborative working, quiet areas to allow privacy for video calls without disturbing others in the office, and technology including Owls, which gives a 360-degree video of the meeting room on Zoom, explains Claire Humphris, CEO at the agency.

“We've invested in technology that supports hybrid meetings – some people in the room, some not,” says Jennifer Black, managing director at Havas London. “Specifically, we've constructed a number of new booth spaces for private calls, added Microsoft Teams-enabled screens in breakout spaces to enable hybrid meetings, and added AV kit into more existing meeting rooms.”

The creative shop no longer has a desk for each person because it doesn’t expect to “have all our people in all the time ever again” and aims to discourage people from “simply sitting at a desk”. Instead, it wants to “encourage the kind of in-person collaboration that can't be replicated from home,” says Black. 

While some were waiting to see how many employees return, Jemima Monies, deputy managing director at Adam&Eve/DDB said the agency had already introduced more flexible seating and workspaces, with less assigned desks. 

Meanwhile, Claire Cootes, managing director at Digitas UK adds that the agency is optimising space for new ways of working. “Particularly ‘heads up’ and ‘heads together’ modes of work,” she explains. “We want to start by giving people the opportunity to come in and use the space, and then we can build around how they are using it in the most effective way.”

“Spontaneity, spark and sheer magic”

Almost 80% said they had not considered a smaller office space, partly because that would mean having to control who can come in and when. 

“We have really missed the spontaneity, spark and sheer magic of what happens when you put talented people in one space together. I don't ever want to turn one of our people or a client away because 'we're full' that day. I just don't believe you can do that in a service-based industry” says Humphris. 

Equally, 83% said they had not considered moving to a larger space. Jacquie King, chief people officer at Grey London, said there was no current need for a larger space even if staff numbers grew, because they would not expect more than 50% of the workforce in the office at any one time.

However, 17% said they had considered a move to a larger office. Ben Tyson, CEO and partner at Born Social, says: “Although no-one now uses the office five days a week, arguably it's importance has increased as a place to come together when we need to. Increasing investment or expanding our space would make a lot of sense as we grow.”

So would this mean a shared office space, a la WeWork, would be a viable option? Three quarters said no, believing this would lead to a loss of identity and bring unexpected challenges. Agency leaders cited the need to be free to use their space to encourage “the best atmosphere for creativity and innovation”. Perhaps not possible when sharing communal areas with other companies.

“We want our own space – and we think that's important, from a culture and client-perception point of view,” Cullen-Shute says.

Tanya Brookfield, CEO at Elvis, agrees: “The idea of completely flexible working is super exciting, but a move to a co-working space may bring some unexpected challenges. So, at this point we want to ensure there is a place to call home, even if what happens there is shifting.”

And Katy Wright, managing director at FCB Inferno, said the agency had “considered” the shared-space option, but is “moving to a new office space with other IPG agencies where we can flex up or down, depending on our needs.”

The7stars had previously tried a shared space option, Biggam explains, but found that “clients were less comfortable with this WeWork set-up”. 

Business travel’s death knell?

Bans on business travel due to the pandemic are likely to remain, said many agencies. The overwhelming majority of agency leaders were limiting travel to client requests or restricting the number of trips.

Sue Frogley, CEO at Publicis Media UK, says: “We still have a global Groupe-wide 'no travel' policy in place. There are exceptions for specific client meetings or travel connected to a pitch, where it's essential, but these need prior approval.”

And many have reassessed travel, not only due to the pandemic, but also with the climate crisis in mind. Prior to lockdowns, international travel made up 55% of Iris's global emissions. In 2020, the business travel policy changed, and in April 2021 it launched its Carbon Kickback initiative as part of an ongoing commitment to emission reduction. 

“Less time travelling has meant more time dedicated to solving client's problems, and to help sustain this 'digital-first' approach post-lockdown, Iris has committed to protecting and reinvesting any time saved from not travelling directly back into clients’ businesses,” Humphris says. 

Back at Havas Media, Marks adds: “In view of the health context and our ambition to reach net zero emissions by 2025, our current group-wide approach is to limit business travel to a minimum. All travel requests are subject to the approval of local managers.”

The majority expect little to change over the next six months. And even when the threat of Covid has retreated, 88% believe the amount of business travel will decrease compared to pre-Covid levels. “We are keen to keep business travel to a minimum,” says Brookfield. “Working remotely has demonstrated how possible this is.”

Only 6.3% of agency leaders expect that business travel will increase. This includes Tyson, who says: “I expect more domestic travel – and seeing clients and prospective clients in person. We are growing internationally, so perhaps more travel will happen as a result.”

Pring echoes this view. He says AMV BBDO is currently still allowing limited business travel for client meetings and production, but overseas travel needs management approval. Pring predicts that “travel will creep up in 2022 as more clients return to offices and international travel potentially opens up further”. 

It seems that, for adland, when it comes to the future of work and the office, continued change is the only real certainty. But this should be progressive change, away from a world of long hours and presenteeism and towards one of flexibility, where the work produced is valued more than time at a desk. Otherwise, the new adland may soon look exactly like the old adland.