FEB 14, 2022

Media Buying Briefing: How to retain and empower agency talent when there’s more work than ever

By Michael Bürgi, first published in Digiday, February 14, 2022.  Read original article here. 

Judging from the mostly positive 2021 financial results issued by both agency holding companies and independent agencies, there’s a lot of work to be done on behalf of clients this year. Most agencies of all stripes — media, creative, social, etc — won new business that will need to be serviced and grown. 

Consultancy Agency Futures, which helps agency owners build their businesses, recently surveyed staff and management at a number of Worldwide Partners independent agencies, finding that 69 percent ended 2021 with positive business growth — 31 percent grew by more than 20 percent. Further, more than 40 percent of the agencies surveyed said they expect to grow their business by more than 10 percent in the first half of 2022. 

Client demand only continues to grow, according to Agency Futures’ research. Six in 10 clients have shortened deadlines on projects, and the average timeline of a client’s expectation has shrunk from more than a month to 2-4 weeks, while projects now outweigh retainer business by 55% to 45%. While budgets are going up for 45% of clients, and 65% of agencies have increased staffs, the work is intensifying in ways that put pressure on people. 

This reality comes amidst the Great Resignation, when more employees are leaving the agency world than ever before. So what’s a media agency, or any agency for that matter, to do to ensure they’ve got the personnel to deliver on that growth without burning them out? 

“From new business to M&A, agencies’ value is more determined by talent and cohesion than ever,” said Agency Futures CEO Doug Baxter. “Independent agencies are resurging, and they need to create exemplary work environments to sustain the momentum.”

One broad, if somewhat obvious, answer revolves around making the environment for those remaining employees as positive and supportive as possible. There are many ways these efforts take shape, from offering financial rewards and guidance to mental wellness counseling, to increased freedom to balance life and work duties.

From a holding company POV, Publicis CEO Arthur Sadoun recently announced anyone in the holding company is free to work anywhere else in the world. And Baxter pointed to Red Havas’ “very strenuous” efforts to foster flexibility among employees about where they want to work, taking up charitable causes, finding time for their own work and seeking deeper training. 

A lot of more granular efforts are shaping up among independent agencies, thanks to their smaller size and greater flexibility. John Harris, CEO of Worldwide Partners, pointed to several examples within that federation of agencies that reinvent classic molds of employee support:

China-based digital and media agency Hylink connects employees with personal financial consultants so they can continuously adapt retirement plans to their individual needs. 

U.S.-based food and agriculture agency Curious Plot has established three core working hours where teams stay online to collaborate in real time, with the rest of the day spent completely at employees’ discretion. 

U.K. full-service agency Ardmore gives employees and their families 24/7 access to counseling via a free wellness app. 

Scotland-based digital and media agency Union allows one employee to work for three months at any other Worldwide Partners agency in another part of the world.

“There’s something in the notion of the power of community in driving culture versus culture defining the community,” said Harris.  

Other independents are finding their own ways to empower their people. Media by Mother offers financial incentives for junior staffers who want to broaden their skill sets. For each new course they take, said Media by Mother CEO Dave Gaines, they receive a $1,000 bonus. 

“If your job is a strategist, you still need to understand how an ad gets around Amazon or gets around Facebook,” said Gaines. “Because if you don’t, you’re just writing these kind of shallow PowerPoint decks, and you’re like, detail schmetail, don’t worry about the last bit, ‘cause somebody else will do that.”

But does an over-prioritization of employees’ needs over client needs result in the proverbial inmates taking over the insane asylum? 

Baxter, who works with holding companies and indies alike said in all his experience, that’s never happened. “It’s extremely positive for the clients when the staff are much more invested in the agency because they’re creating the culture — it’s not just a ploy or a job. It becomes part of their belief system. The difficulty is more with ownership to let go and trust these processes.” 

“Flexibility comes with accountability,” added Harris. “Those agencies that are aligning the two are seeing success and delivering on the expectations clients have. It’s been proven through data that if you focus primarily on employee satisfaction, clients are going to be happy, and profit margins will go up.” 

Written By:
Michael Bürgi - Digiday