Bringing creative working culture into the 21st Century

What’s stopping us from getting responsible?

By Jess Feltham,

Marketing Director, Creativebrief

When it comes to improving working culture, how much time do we spend making these considerations? There’s an awful lot of talk, but really – is it at the top of the pile for us?

Because it really should be. Fergus Hay from Leagas Delaney drove home the urgency of the situation when he said at a recent event of ours how if we continue as we are, we’ll all be out of business in 30 years.

Inflexible working cultures and failure to improve on diversity and inclusion mean our industry is faced with a serious talent drain. Not only that, but without the proper conditions in place our thinking lacks the versatility it needs to become representative of our everchanging culture.

So what’s in our way when it comes to bringing creative working culture into the 21st Century?

James Hayhurst, Global Brand Equity Director for Unilever, said at our most recent Creativebrief Explores event: “I don’t get the feeling that there’s a good understanding of what it’s like on the other [agency] side. I don’t think people understand what happens on the other side of a demand. Because obviously they haven’t experienced that.”

It’s a fair point. Without experience of what agencies go through, how can brands be expected to empathise? James is in a unique position as he spent 14 years agency-side before joining Unilever. His perspective is more enlightened than most.

He continued:

“I don’t think an awful lot of client headspace is taken up with how an agency feels.”

This comment refreshing in its honesty. Whilst a client would undoubtedly want its agency partners to be happy, and would likely be mortified if they felt they’d had a negative impact on agency culture, there are bigger things to consider. Namely, successful business.

But that doesn’t mean thinking more about better working cultures should fall by the wayside. It just means that we need to reframe it – to position it as an enabler of better, more creative work. That’s when brands will really start to get interested.

The fault doesn’t lie solely with the client though. Let’s look closer to home and see how agencies interpret the problem. As with brands, the problem is not always out in the open.

Alongside Sera Miller, Amelia Torode founded The Fawnbrake Collective with the intention of founding a new operating system for agencies – a new way of working that doesn’t eat away at (and instead adds to) people’s creativity. Sat on our event panel, she described her own experience agency-side unflatteringly to a frog sat in a pan of boiling water. The temperature rises but the frog remains unaware until the fatal moment, such is the slow build to boiling point.

“You’re in it,” Amelia said of bad working culture, “and you don’t realise quite how painful and quite how wrong it is.”

She described her own moment of waking from this numbness, where she took a hard look at the cultures she found herself in and saw them to not only be ridiculous, but unnecessary.

Amelia shared Fergus’s earlier sentiment. When asked whether the current agency model might struggle in the future, she replied that it’s already struggling.

It’s understandable why agencies would be nervous to change their structures. Even if it’s at the expense of better working culture, when the competition adopts a ‘win at all costs’ mentality – throwing all their time, money and people at the prize – a brand’s head might be turned.

The upside to making working culture more ethical is undoubtable, but the downside for an agency – losing work and haemorrhaging clients in a bid to change too much and too soon – is unthinkable.

What agencies need is the go-ahead. To be told that thinking about their working culture and own diversity won’t be interpreted by their clients as extracurricular, or, worse still, not contributing to their ROI.

A reason we ran an industry-wide survey ahead of our event was to shine light on the problem, and bridge the gaps between brand and agency land. And one stat in particular did just this.

We asked brands whether a flexible working culture or the diversity of an agency’s team positively impacted on their decision to appoint them, and 81% said it did.

There agencies is your incentive. I said earlier that a better working culture could be positioned as making business sense to a client. Well, according to this stat, brands already see it as such. We didn’t even mention the work – they understand its value. Now, it seems both parties need to meet in the middle and make their shared opinions known.

If brands are unaware of the extent of the problem, and agencies are nervous about addressing it, then here’s a revolutionary idea from James Hayhurst.

“Just ask.”

It seems simplistic, but you can’t argue with James’s logic. A firm believer in clients and agencies working openly together, James said how “awareness and a conversation” would change a lot of the complications we face.

At a recent dinner of ours, a managing director of a top advertising agency took James’s point even further, saying how:

“Ask is probably the wrong language. Agencies need to be clear about what our needs are.”

I’d go one step further and say that’s the case for both brands and agencies alike. Namely, making great work in responsible and ethical ways. And then, crucially, to commit to them. Whether that takes the form of a charter, or addressing their concerns and preferred ways of working early on in a relationship, that’s still to be explored.

The likelihood is that the common ground between brands and agencies will begin to germinate once both parties realise, and repeatedly experience, what better working culture is capable of.

Let’s call out the myths surrounding working culture for what they are. Considering and accommodating a diverse workforce with diverse needs should not be seen as anything other than important. Sure, there are other concerns businesses have – it would be idealistic to think we have all the time in the world to ponder over how to make people happy. But improving working culture isn’t an isolated focus. It will have a positive knock-on effect that we’ll soon find benefits our people and their work. It’s not top of the pile, no. It is the pile.

Sereena Abbassi, Head of Culture and Inclusion for M&C Saatchi Group, is one person driving change already – creating as much structural change as possible. When she joined M&C Saatchi she described how she was asked to write her own job spec.

“I know that’s a huge luxury and I accept the privileged position I’m in,” she said, praising how she was allowed to work flexibly and with a greater freedom than most roles might allow. But that trust from M&C enabled this.

Sereena mused on what she thinks stands in the way of more businesses encouraging this flexibility among their employees, and even agency partners.

“What stands in the way is trust. What I would love for the CEOs and MDs to do is to say I trust you. Wouldn’t that just be a wonderful philosophy to have in the way that we conduct business and the way we view our employees?”

With a little trust, we’re capable of making leaps and bounds on working culture. Agencies can trust clients to take their concerns and considerations seriously; clients can trust agencies in delivering better work through more ethical means.

It mightn’t be the first thing that pops in your head when you think about advertising, but trust holds the key to getting responsible. And now that we know that, it’s about time we started.