Chancellor Rishi Sunak may have extended the government’s furlough scheme until the end of October, but for some in the ad industry, sadly it may just be delaying the inevitable. Halloween could prove to be a more frightening time for many agency employees than usual if recent research from Moore Kingston Smith on expected agency redundancies comes to pass.
In its survey of 130 – mainly independent – agencies from a variety of sectors, more than a quarter responded that they expected to make redundancies in an attempt to weather the coronavirus storm; this follows announcements from holding companies that their staff could also expect compulsory redundancies.
When the government’s scheme, which pays 80% of the salary of an employee not to work, comes to an end, it’s difficult to imagine that the economy will be back to pre-crisis levels in short order. Indeed, Sunak has said that the UK is braced for a "significant recession" – for many, the red pen is already hovering above their names in the staff directory.
While the number of employees in agencies has always been in a constant state of flux, expanding and contracting as dictated by demand – according to the most recent IPA Agency Census, this figure fell 1.1% in 2019, the second year in decline. Next year’s data will make far more sobering reading.
Learning to cope
So how to cope with redundancy? The fact that the spread of the coronavirus was beyond anyone’s control and that its impact has been so obvious on so many fellow employees could possibly soften the blow in eventually rationalising redundancy – but the process is still likely to feel personal.
Richard Morris, founder of Whistlejacket and former DDB Europe executive, is familiar with the platitudes that follow the loss of a job. "If redundancy arrives, you will be amazed at the number of friends, colleagues and distant acquaintances who kindly reach out to you, with words of consolation and advice. All of this advice is well-meaning and totally incorrect," he says.
"‘Remember, this is not personal’ – well, of course it is, it’s all about me. ‘This isn’t a reflection on your abilities’ – so how come it’s happened to me, then? ‘Don’t take the first offer that comes along’ – thanks, but I’ve got kids to feed and bills to pay; I’ll be taking anything I can get as quickly as possible. In reality, of course, all of this advice is right on the button. But you’ll have to be incredibly resilient to take it – just at the moment when you feel anything but robust."
Anna Coscia, a planning director at Quiet Storm, has also been through a similar experience. She could foresee what would happen while in her old job and advises others in a similar position to accept the inevitable – no matter how hard it is at first: "Clients were cutting budgets, I was one of the most senior people in the agency and an ‘expensive’ resource. I spent a couple of days feeling horrible. So I let myself accept those emotions and that cloud of depression started to lift."
It’s a feeling shared by Kirsteen Scoble Hart, managing director at Forever Beta. "I'm a business person, I knew the agency financials, I could see the writing on the wall, so I had been preparing myself for the conversation," she recalls. "I understood the business rationale, but it still hurt, particularly as it was close colleagues having to deliver the news and take me through the process."
For many, just like Scoble Hart, the process will inevitably be accompanied by pain and disbelief. She continues: "I felt rejected, like it was personal – why me, why am I not valued, if I was this wouldn't happen. I went through a phase of anger and frustration. I felt a certain loss of identity. I went through a phase of worry – how long is it going to take me to find a new job, will it be a job I really want to do? Have I lost love for the industry? I don't want to be stuck doing something I don't love and care about – I have a fear/anxiety about being stuck in situations."
Grief for the loss of a job is understandable, Sally Quick, a partner at headhunter Mission Bay, explains – but it’s important to try to draw a line under it and progress. Remember that it’s not personal, even though emotions will inevitably be running high. "It’s the role that has been made redundant – not you," she says. "I know it can feel bloody personal but, mostly, it’s circumstances beyond your control. And businesses have to constantly evolve to meet the challenges of today’s world, so redundancies are inevitable."
Headhunters and recruitment consultants, as well as industry charity Nabs, are there to offer help and advice – and many have made offers above and beyond what would previously have been available. Equally, the technology available to try to put yourself in a more employable position – as well as awareness of the importance of personal well-being – has certainly improved since the last crash in 2008, to which the future post-Covid-19 economy is being compared.
Quick adds: "Consider speaking to a professional to offload your job approaches, worries etc as friends can only do so much and an objective professional is really valuable. If you can, do it weekly – do it on a Friday so you can enjoy the weekend.
"Sleep is crucial – Headspace meditation app (others are available) can really help you sleep. Lay off the booze, but give yourself little treats. Know that there are thousands of other people going through what you are going through and there have been trillions before you – it’s comforting to remember you are not alone."
Sarah Bauman, managing director at VaynerMedia and formerly deputy chief executive of Leo Burnett UK, agrees that the fact many others will be going through a similar process could provide succour. She advises: "Firstly, talk to experts. Take advantage of the amazing team at Nabs and their career coaches. And if you're still in discussions or negotiations with your agency, try asking if they will give you a career coaching session or a training allowance.
"Many agencies will consider this and it's often easier for them to do this than increase your redundancy settlement, particularly if there are multiple people going through consultation and they have little flexibility."
LinkedIn is a popular platform to develop your professional profile. Baumann continues: "Give your profile a very critical reboot; upload your work, written pieces or videos and ask for constructive feedback on it from colleagues, former bosses and even recruiters. Then start or ramp up your own content generation. We would recommend posting at least a couple of times a week. This is where you're going to find your next job."
This is also the ideal opportunity for job hunters to embark on self-improvement and to equip themselves with new, more employable skills. Tool up. Gen up on everything you can that’s free. Read papers, watch case studies, learn to code, study influencer strategy and comms planning basics. Make yourself as qualified (and as interested) as you can for anything that comes in.
Helen Kimber, managing partner at The Longhouse, says: "Once the fear subsides, it’ll feel positive to have the time to be open and try new things/look under a few bonnets. You may well find a slightly altered path. Set yourself up with a limited co or a parasol company straight away. There is nothing worse than not being ready if a great gig comes in and it’s fixed term or freelance.
"Don’t be snobby but don’t drop your value; be open to all types of projects and agencies, but have a fixed range of rates and stick to them. Look flexible and be prepared to negotiate – but if you get paid as a junior, you’ll be treated like one."
She adds that it’s important not to chase or to look desperate for work: "This will be the hardest thing. You will probably feel scared, exposed and lacking in confidence. I promise that anyone you are in contact with will know that and want to help. They will tell you when there is news."
For those lucky enough to be able to take time out from the relentless job hunting, indulging in their own creative pursuits and spending time with family and friends to help put work into perspective could also benefit from alleviating the pressure to perform in interviews. Confidence, combined with new skills and an ability to let go of the pain of the redundancy, could help make that new job become less elusive. Kimber concludes: "Look after yourself. It will keep you sane and focused – and come across when it matters."