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The month in advertising: It won't be business as usual when adland returns to the office

All the big issues in adland this month...

It won't be business as usual when adland returns to the office

It shows how far the world has changed that staggered shift times, temperature tests and reduced hot-desking sound like eminently sensible and practical measures for brands, agencies and media owners as we start to think tentatively about returning to the office, after two months working from bedrooms and box rooms. 

Some of the changes pose real challenges, particularly for creative businesses. What to make of the proposed use of protective screens between PPE-wearing staff in offices that have been optimised for close-proximity, open-plan co-working, rather than social distancing?

As the government starts to unveil plans to get the economy moving again, following a lockdown period that has caused business activity to tank, the ad industry will have to work out how to configure staff rotas and floor plans in order to meet new regulations that will hopefully prevent a second outbreak of Covid-19. And there is the not insignificant issue of reassuring staff that have, to quote an unnamed Conservative MP in the Financial Times, been "scared shitless" by a highly effective public information campaign – with support from MullenLowe, Manning Gottlieb OMD and others.

During the long weeks of lockdown, the UK ad industry has discharged itself well – or at least as well as can be expected given ad expenditure has collapsed and many companies have been forced to furlough staff and make redundancies. 

Adland can be proud of doing its bit to help the national effort – both in morale and, in some cases, material – as well as continuing to showcase and create advertising as a force for good, a promoter of choice, and the engine room of brand and corporate power – despite the chilling economic and social restrictions. 

The limitations of working from home have also been substantial for a sector that thrives on collaboration but the industry rose to the challenge, adapted to the circumstances and creativity prevailed, as we always knew it would. 

It’s imperative – and also highly likely – that the industry, both individually and collectively, will do the same under the new working restrictions, for however long they last. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that there can’t be business as usual, or even anything approaching it, until a vaccine for the terrible disease is found.

The shift from WFH to WFW (work from work) is likely to be a very gradual one. Some industry leaders such as Leo Burnett’s UK chief executive, Charlie Rudd, think that the ad business doesn’t need to be among the first to rush back, given that it has shown it is possible, if not necessarily desirable, for it to function from home. 

There will have to be substantial changes not just to working practices and rosters but also the physical spaces in which people are expected to work in.

This is thrown into further relief still given that, in recent years, holding companies sought to cut back office costs while encouraging their sometimes disparate empires of agencies to work more closely and coherently. The result was co-located workspaces – the Havas Village in King’s Cross, the Omnicom compound on Bankside, the various Publicis Groupe campuses scattered around town, WPP’s shared offices in Sea Containers House and Interpublic’s new base on Bishopsgate. 

On an Omnicom earnings call, its chief executive John Wren admitted that "every aspect of our business is going to change". In anticipation of staff being allowed back to work in their offices, he has established committees to "forget the day-to-day of what’s happening and to – in a blue sky-type of way, with a clean sheet of paper – tell me how those services should be performed in the future without any consideration of costs and adjustments, but just to give me a clear sight as to the things we should be looking towards as we emerge from this". 

He admitted that the results could be surprising: "I’m expecting some dramatic answers and goals and objectives that we can look to accomplish."

Given that different countries have suffered the pandemic at different times, learnings can be taken from regions that are firmly on the downward slope of infections. But there is no vaccine yet and the risk of a second wave of coronavirus is real, as some Asian markets have already shown.

The fact that advertising has adapted is a credit to the ingenuity of the people who work within it. But most crucial of all is the safety and welfare of its staff. And it might take all of the industry’s famed powers of persuasion and creativity to ensure that understandably trepidatious employees are ready to return, when the time comes.

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