Vizeum takes balancing acts seriously with Grant deal

By letting Trista Grant work part-time, Aegis' approach is radical, writes Alasdair Reid

Who'd have thought it? An Aegis agency has found itself up there at the forefront of liberal employment practices. Next thing you know, it will be organising away days to Epping Forest to hug trees.

Rightly or wrongly, Aegis has found it hard to shake off a reputation for a no-nonsense approach. It will protest that this is unfair -- especially as Carat was last year voted one of the top 100 UK companies to work for by The Sunday Times.

As reported in last week's Campaign, Trista Grant, the Vizeum managing director, is addressing her work/life balance by going part-time. She will work a three-day week from Monday to Wednesday; while Chris Boothby, the agency's investment director, will take over many of her day-to-day responsibilities and is stepping up to become the operations director. There will also be extra responsibilities for Matt Andrews, the director of strategy, and Matt Platts, who steps up to the position of investment director.

The neat thing about all of this is that Grant is arguably the first to take advantage of the changes she has worked since arriving as the managing director in 1999. For instance, she takes much of the credit for shifting the agency way beyond its BBJ heritage (it was renamed as part of the Vizeum network last year); and she has been largely responsible for putting in place the sort of team that will be able to take her shorter working week in its stride.

"We are very lucky. It is a true team," Grant says. "We have been through a lot together. It works well -- no one is power crazed or high on ego and it's the sort of team that's good at prioritising."

Grant and Boothby in particular work well together -- and they are also closer now in lifestyle than they were a few years back. Boothby has always been a family man, with an interest in football (part of the Aegis tribe of lapsed Spurs supporters) and golf (an 18 handicapper). He spent a couple of years in his early career at Allen Brady & Marsh before joining the Bass Buying Unit of WCRS in the mid-80s and staying on as the BBU became the independent agency BBJ.

Grant's career has been slightly more adventurous and though home life obviously has a high priority these days -- Thursdays and Fridays will be spent looking after her child -- it wasn't always that way. The founding managing director of Universal McCann, Grant was one of the industry's most celebrated party animals, a girl whose late-night regimen would lead to her falling asleep in the odd client meeting. Her Lauren Bacall-style voice was the product of chain-smoking. Having given up smoking, the voice has risen almost an octave.

Her short spell in Australia as the media director at McCann-Erickson in Sydney was as much about finding a new perspective (in fact, it probably counts as her first attempt to address that work/life balance) as developing her career.

Much thought has been put into the way that the new arrangements will work -- but this is hardly a leap in the dark, because last year, when Grant was on maternity leave, Boothby spent several months holding the fort.

Still, is Mark Craze, the chief executive of Aegis Media, UK and Ireland, worried that it might not work? He states: "It's true that you can't expect her to do in three days what she achieved in five, so we had to write down everything that she actually did do both operationally and commercially. Then we had to convert that into a tight job spec appropriate to three days. Her focus will be two-fold: customers and developing communications planning with Andrews. Chris is very strong with customers and obviously we know he can make the transition to commercial management. Commercial nous is a hard thing to teach. He certainly has it."

How easy is it to make it work in practice though and what can be learned from the other agencies who are already doing this? Some say they're surprised Grant is working only three days a week as it's hard enough to make it work with four. Others disagree and insist it's down to organisation. But they all agree on one thing - it's hard to stay disciplined. After all, the thing about being the boss is that you've got to be available to field problems and marshall resources. The ad hoc nature of leadership can't be scheduled a week in advance.

Louise Jones, the executive strategy director of PHD, works four days a week. She says that making a success of the arrangement requires everyone to respect clearly established demarcation lines. The office must learn not to call you at home when every little problem pops up. Ultimately, she adds, there's an obvious litmus test. "It's the same for anyone in any job. You have to deliver," she points out.

Marie Oldham, the joint managing director of Media Planning, has a similar arrangement. She comments: "You have to work really hard during your days here. But that's always been the case and, let's face it, there are always days when you are scheduled to be out of the office anyway. The important thing is that the clients are comfortable with this."

Craze agrees wholeheartedly. He concludes: "We obviously spoke to our customers and they were incredibly supportive. That was empowering. We are excited about this. People in general are far more concerned about quality of life and it's important that we reflect that. I think this is a great thing to be doing."

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