Slowly but surely, a return to something resembling life as we once knew it is emerging from the Covid fog. It may have been the UK’s frostiest April in 60-odd years but this didn’t stop people from making a trip to a pub garden or outdoor restaurant after restrictions eased and the stay-at-home instruction was finally lifted.
Congratulations must go to Tesco for its press ad urging the public to visit their local instead of imbibing indoors. Likewise, Heineken’s activation allowing its drinkers to get a haircut in a beer garden was an amusing way to tune into the mood of a nation desperate to tame unruly locks and enjoy a pint.
While it’s true there have been false dawns – no-one will forget how the unwelcomed arrival of the Covid “Kent variant” put paid to family Christmas plans – the UK’s vaccine rollout has been progressing at speed and infections have been falling.
There is a feeling that a corner has finally been turned, and holding company results reinforced that shift, as WPP, Publicis Groupe and Interpublic all returned to revenue growth globally in Q1.
There was further reason for cheer with the publication of the Advertising Association/Warc Expenditure Report. This predicted that the UK was on course to achieve the strongest advertising recovery of any major global market this year, forecasting growth of 15.2% or £3.57bn. Should this come to pass, the market would be £27bn or 6.9% bigger than 2019, with a bumper year on the cards in 2022 as well.
Advertisers, meanwhile, are preparing to unleash a glut of new work in the hope of tapping into pent-up demand and persuading those lucky enough to have kept their jobs and saved up to part with some of that cash. It’s a far cry from spring 2020 when agencies and media owners looked on in horror as adspend was pulled wholesale by brands with proud marketing heritages, such as Coca-Cola.
The government directive to “work from home, if you can” remains in place for now, as we gear up for the much-anticipated 21 June “freedom day”. In practice, however, the trickle back to offices has already started.
Campaign has published several thoughtful insights from leaders under the banner “Smarter working: adland after Covid”, which offer visions for how the industry can meet the altered expectations of staff after more than a year of home-working.
Annette King, Publicis Groupe UK chief executive, kicked off the series with an explanation of the “Heads down, heads up and heads together” philosophy that will govern how the Publicis agencies approach work post Covid.
The office will still be the “beating heart” but there is an acknowledgement that there will be times when it makes sense to work from home. King does not mandate set days to be in or out. Instead, she is encouraging her leaders to adopt a grown-up attitude and be guided by the “mode of work” that needs to occur.
As everyone adapts to the new working landscape, this presents an opportune moment for some agency leaders – with the emphasis on some, as it would be unfair to tar everyone with the same brush – to stamp out unhealthy work cultures that are driving their staff to burnout point.
An in-depth feature uncovers a number of truly alarming long working hours stories that feel closer to the Gordon Gekko “money never sleeps” 1980s era than that of creative business in the 21st century.
From one creative working for 72 hours straight for a pitch to bosses making “part-timer” comments to staff that have the temerity to try to leave the office at 10pm, these stories are truly shaming.
There are, of course, some stark financial realities under which companies operate that must be recognised. As Nielsen billings figures in our previous School Reports issue attest, 2020 was a difficult year. Of the top 100 creative agencies, 72 saw billings decline while 31 of the top 50 media agencies experienced falls. Add in the threat from in-housing and the consultancies and it’s clear that there is intense pressure on agencies to bring in new business and keep existing clients happy and fully serviced.
But having staff work until they are physically sick can never be the solution, and needs urgent course correction. It’s morally wrong and, after a year in which many people have taken stock and reassessed their life priorities, could have the effect of driving talent away.
Agency life is not all doom and gloom and adland is, for the most part, a fun industry full of smart, creative people. At the other end of the spectrum to those long-hours stories, Campaign’s Best Places to Work shows another way is possible. The 90 agencies and marketing departments that have made the grade in testing times deserve high praise for putting the wellbeing of their staff front and centre.
At the height of the Covid crisis last year, kindness and collaboration came to the fore. As society reopens, let’s keep those values close as we look to spring back.
Picture: Getty Images