The long hours culture is a human problem
A view from Maisie McCabe

The long hours culture is a human problem

If your staff are throwing up in the toilets you're doing it wrong.

The weather might not have caught up with the national mood but it seems as if the UK might have started to peek out of the darkness. 

As we do, it would be good to resurrect an expectation many people shared this time last year. That the pandemic would herald a better, cleaner and more inclusive world. The roads were quiet, we could hear the birds and errands replaced parking complaints as the dominant function of neighbourhood WhatsApp group chats.

For inspiration, I suggest you read through our write-up of this year’s Best Places to Work. The list is full of companies that have put their people, and often the planet, first. The 90 businesses to have made the list are an example of what is possible.

Unfortunately, many of you won’t be surprised to read the tales of workplace hell in Kate Magee’s feature on the long-hours culture prevalent in many advertising agencies (published online tomorrow). Some of the talented people quoted have tapped out for more balanced lives outside of traditional agency structures. Others have reassessed their commitment to a job and career stripped of its camaraderie and free pizza.

But if people are working ever longer hours in agencies, why is that?

One reason suggested to me last week was some network ad agencies’ pursuit of revenue at the expense of margin. Starved of big creative pitches, these shops are instead selling an ever-increasing array of services to their existing clients. Work that would usually have been done by smaller agencies, based outside of London, perhaps.

But these traditional agencies, so the thinking goes, are using the same complicated processes for social briefs, for example, as big TV ads. The only way to get everything done without spending more money is for an agency’s permanent staff to work more hours.

A restructure and reinvention of how they work could solve this problem. But – stuck to a financial reporting treadmill – it's difficult for the people running these businesses to make the changes to improve their bottom line.

In comparison, nimble, newer agencies, like Uncommon Creative Studio and Pablo, have smaller permanent teams and draw on senior talent for major projects or pitches.

Of course, not all network ad agencies are the same. Many will not recognise this caricature. Others are doing great things already. Congratulations to The & Partnership (61st on Best Places to Work), MullenLowe London (78th) and Havas (85th) for showing there is a way to be both big and a best place to work.

If it's difficult to sell in the disruption change will bring in normal times, then grasp the opportunities of the world we are living in. These are seismic times. Agency staffers shouldn't be expected to work so hard it makes them sick.

As Laurence Green, executive partner at MullenLowe London, says, “It’s a human problem and it’s one that humans can fix. It’s not a commercial inevitability.”

Maisie McCabe is the UK editor of Campaign