Bringing creative working culture into the 21st Century

6 ways to help establish a healthier working culture

Simply put, we need better working cultures.

There’s an urgent need to find more flexible and accommodating working practices that don’t place undue strain on mental health, create talent drain or stop us from recruiting more diverse teams. Without these, we risk going out of business – haemorrhaging talent and producing far less creative work than we’re capable of.

In our survey, we asked brands if an agency’s flexible working culture or the diversity of their team positively impacted on their decision to appoint them. 81% said yes.

We then asked agencies if their own working cultures and diversity had a positive impact on them winning business. 85% said yes.

The appetite is there, yet progress is lacking. On 12th July, we asked our panel of James Hayhurst (Global Brand Equity Director - Unilever), Amelia Torode (Founder - The Fawnbrake Collective) and Sereena Abbassi (Head of Culture and Inclusion - M&C Saatchi Group) for their insight into how we bring creative working culture into the 21st Century.

Below are six tips cultivated from their advice, outlook and experiences, that can help us think about the problems we face in a different way, and in doing so finally improve on them.

1. Plan for the future, with those about to live it

Walk into a company board meeting and you’ll likely be confronted by a series of white, middle-aged, male faces staring back at you. Even in smaller companies at board level, the industry is severely lacking in diversity – whether gender, ethnicity, or social background.

Sereena Abbassi, Head of Culture and Inclusion for M&C Saatchi Group discussed her involvement with a global mirror board initiative that had recently gone live with Group’s largest agency, LIDA.

Sereena described her role as “creating as much structural change as possible” and the mirror board is a unique way of achieving this. It offers an organisation a different way of thinking, by providing a younger, far more diverse perspective on its decision-making and general direction.

Building a company you’d hope stands the test of time requires those who’ll be a part of its future being a part of its thinking. Whether on the board itself, or inputting its decision-making.

2. Don’t fear the client. Ask the question

James Hayhurst recently returned from flying the flag for shared paternity leave, praising how Unilever made this an option for him.

With 14 years of agency experience before moving client-side, James has a better idea than most of the differences between the two cultures. But he doesn’t see forward thinking on working culture as exclusively brand-led, saying how it can migrate agency-side with the help of “awareness and conversation”.

Most brands’ appreciation of working culture, evident from their own flexible environments, means they are often open to cultivating the same for their agency partners.

James explained how “if agencies were to say there needs to be some change and we need to work differently, I think most clients would say yes.”

Asking the question can bring clarity to a relationship so that any bad habits, or disjoint on expectations, don’t pervade the weeks, months, or years to come. Enlightening a brand as to what happens on the other side of a demand can create a culture of transparency that’s currently severely lacking.

3. Measure what you treasure

On discussing the benefits of flexible working, Sereena Abbassi highlighted the work of Nadia Nagamootoo from Avenir Consulting, who champions gender inclusivity and culture change for the positive business impact they bring.

Among the research carried out by Nadia and Avenir, is the statistic that having 3-4 women present at board level can increase an organisation’s chances of financial success. Thinking practically about the payoff will get industry leaders more serious about diversity and inclusion.

The diversity of a workforce is hugely important, but also its happiness. Tying people’s wellbeing into their ability to flourish, and therefore to produce great work, is the biggest bargaining chip an organisation will have in having permission to improve its working culture. Start looking at soft measures (e.g. agency/brand team happiness in correlation to successful creative work) and it’s likely you’ll find some very interesting results.

Amelia Torode shared her view that “people are not assets to be sweated and thrown out when they break.” Moving away from this notion that is too often paired with the supplier culture we find ourselves in can start helping people work smarter and healthier.

As James Hayhurst said, “Ultimately, brands are obsessed with the outcome, not the process of getting there.”

4. Set out your stall

So, who gets the ball rolling on all this? Whilst we’ve heard opinions on how clients are better at dictating the terms, or that they should be the ones to shoulder the responsibility, there’s a lot of to said for agencies driving change in their own working cultures.

Agencies have always been fiercely independent and if we’re to do-over working cultures and industry practices that have more bad habits than good ones, then we can’t just look to brands to set the pace. Real change has to come from within the agency.

Amelia Torode agreed, saying how “it’s the responsibility of agencies. To me, [looking to brands] is looking for the answer in the wrong place. So often, I come back to the traditional structures and the way agencies are set up. The responsibility is for the agencies to change themselves.”

It’s not just about autonomy. It’s about agencies setting out their stall at the start of a relationship, and searching out work with a sense of how they want to work. That shouldn’t just be about deadlines, budgets and creative. It should be about wellbeing too.

There might be some nervousness on the part of agencies, but if you come with indicators of how you work better when working smarter, what could a client counter with?

Still not convinced? “Just ask,” said Unilever’s James Hayhurst.

5. Leading by Example

Education is needed when it comes to those people running organisations. And this will only work if they actually buy into the concept of our current work practices not being fit for purpose.

Change is not only easier when it starts with the bosses; it’s often impossible without it. George Bettany from mental-health gym Sanctus, recently told us about his experience with getting organisations to take mental health seriously. The best examples all involved the company heads being invested and hands-on. Without that, the effort wasn’t taken nearly as seriously – by either the employees or Sanctus.

Sereena Abbassi said of her experience in bringing structural change to M&C Saatchi Group, “When you have that representation from the top, it makes all the difference.”

It’s not just about the empathy it brings to a company, but the signal it sends to its employees. If people see a form of leadership that is understanding and accommodating, they’ll arrive at work every day with all the individuality and capability for which you hired them in the first place.

People are experienced, complicated and diverse. Tapping into that you produce work with the same attributes. Leading with conviction, investment – and not just with PR-friendly opinion pieces – is the best example you’ll give.

6. Use technology as the enabler

We work best when it’s person-to-person. But let’s for a minute think about what this means. It’s not necessarily an indicator of whether we’re in the same room with someone, but whether we’re able to communicate openly and understand one another as humans.

Working from home often gets a kicking for its impact on working culture, or ‘character’, but it shouldn’t. We’re in an age when we’re all tethered to some communication platform or another, be it Slack or Skype. So why are we so adamant that working on a separate floor, or in a different office, county or even country is bad for business? Think of the multinational organisations that have survived not having all their decision-makers in the same office space.

James Hayhurst, who has plenty of experience of this at Unilever, said simply that it has to work. Amelia Torode added, that despite such get togethers requiring near air-traffic control levels of organisation, technology holds the answer.

The team at a major UK charity go one step further and stage conference calls even when everyone is within walking distance of one another. This gifts workforces flexibility and doesn’t hold them to a meeting room, which let’s face it, can sometimes be a vacuum for expression and creativity.

Don’t assume a team’s dynamism or productivity is tied to meeting rooms. It’s tied to them, wherever they are.