Close-Up: Live Issue - Is adland achieving a better balance?

The art of retaining talent, especially women, involves offering work/life balance.

It is timely that Alison Hoad's appointment to the vice-chairmanship of Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R on a part-time basis should coincide with a new report claiming long working hours have a disastrous effect on family life.

The charity Working Families claims the culture of long working hours is turning Britain into a nation of workaholics. Certainly, this has long been true of the ad industry, where binge working has become endemic and family life has suffered the consequences.

But that has been changing, particularly at the most senior levels in agencies, which are realising, albeit reluctantly, that a dearth of talent is forcing them to be flexible.

"There's a huge demand for a better work/life balance," Belinda Kent-Lemon, an employment consultant who works extensively with agencies, says.

"The best people insist on it and agencies generally are more amenable to the idea."

The trend is being fuelled by a number of factors. For one thing, the industry is becoming increasingly staffed by women. According to the latest IPA figures, women account for 49.6 per cent of agency staff, putting extra pressure on agencies to allow more family time.

For another, the work/life balance cause is championed by agency HR directors, many of whom are female and who have already fought their own battles to be allowed to work for three or four days a week.

What's more, agencies are finding that clients are more relaxed about having part-timers on their case. This is because senior staff at client companies are often making similar demands.

The clincher, though, is the huge advances in communications technology, which allow part-timers to remain in the loop even though not physically present in the agency. Mobile phones, BlackBerrys and greater broadband penetration mean part-timers can be around to tuck their children up in bed but still have time to catch up.

Moreover, part-time working can be a misnomer. As Kent-Lemon points out, some part-timers are so good they can finish a job in four days, while others will need five. Also, most senior part-timers are happy to take work calls during evenings and over weekends.

Of course, some agency functions suit flexible working better than others.

Some roles involving heavy client interaction may not be so easily filled by a part-timer.

For senior planners such as Hoad, aged 37 and a mother of two, a healthy work/life balance is more easily achievable, not least because, despite her title, she will be more of a strategic thinker-at-large and will work closely on problem-solving with senior clients. "If you're as good as Hoad, you can almost write your own contract," a recruitment specialist says.

Nick Grime, who runs the executive search company Jan Mac, believes the hiring may be a learning process both for Hoad and her new agency. "As they work together, they will discover more and more ways in which she can add value," he points out.

Some, though, detect a backlash among agencies over part-time working.

"They are beginning to feel that they have too many people on flexible contracts," the headhunter Gary Stolkin says. "They want more people back working five days."

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PART-TIME CREATIVE - Dennis Lewis, creative partner, Ogilvy & Mather

"My family and I relocated to France, so I work one day from home and three days a week in the office in London. I would hardly call that part-time, though, as I'm still thinking about the job 100 per cent of the time.

"You have to get that balance right between doing enough to achieve the same standards as would be expected if you were working five days a week and having a sensible home life. I'm at that stage where I'm now just doing it because I want to.

"I work on Unilever and it likes you to have a life outside the business. In fact, I think it's beneficial as you can distance yourself from your work and look at it more as a consumer."

HEADHUNTER - Gary Stolkin, managing partner, Stolkin+Partners

"To acquire and retain the most talented individuals, agencies became more flexible in the 90s, but there's beginning to be a backlash against this and I think most agency chiefs want to hire people on a five-day basis now.

"The agency world isn't as advanced as other businesses in providing flexibility but it is probably comparable with other client-facing businesses. It's the nature of advertising that clients expect support five days a week.

"The other issue with going part-time is it's unlikely you will be promoted at the same rate. If you accept you are working in a job you enjoy for three days a week but you will never become the managing director, that's fine."

AGENCY CHIEF EXECUTIVE - James Murphy, chief executive, Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R

"The fight for senior female talent is a real issue for agencies and if you want to attract this, then you have to provide flexibility.

"There are more women coming into advertising but, because of the age range in agencies, the age at which women achieve senior positions is the age at which they are having children.

"Agencies have to find a way to create a regime that will allow those with families to be fulfilled parents as well as to keep up the momentum in their careers. There is this unwritten understanding that once flexible working is established, then that person has taken their foot off the gas."

CLIENT - Nick Smith, director of marketing and strategy, British Gas

"The issue of presenteeism of agency staff has always been fantastic, with them starting early and working late, but people should be measured on their output, not on how many hours they work or where they put these hours in.

"Part-time and flexi-time is the way that organisations work these days - it's true of the client world and the agency world. As long as people are there when we need them, which in my experience has always been the case, that's fine.

"I've never had experience of an agency not delivering because of the employment practices of the place."