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RGA Work & Wellbeing Agency Culture

R/GA’s Sean Lyons: ‘Flexibility and empathy have to be demonstrated by leadership’


By Sam Bradley, Journalist

March 14, 2022 | 8 min read

R/GA global chief executive Sean Lyons explains the agency’s changed approach to mental health support.

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R/GA global CEO Sean Lyons / The Drum

At large organizations, it can be easy for those at the top to become estranged from the people they’re leading. For R/GA’s Sean Lyons, constant listening sessions are helping to keep him and his decision making rooted in the concerns of his staff.

”Before going in to some of those meetings, I’m as nervous as I’ve ever been about anything I’ve done – more than I was presenting on stage at Cannes Lions,” he tells us.

Each session includes between five and 10 staff who are given the chance to air concerns or grievances, with Lyons in the audience. The initiative began following the murder of George Floyd, ”as a moment to listen to our employees” he says.

”It then expanded into a broader program. They’re really powerful meetings. People just want a moment to speak, about positive things and negative things – negative experiences they’ve had either on work or with a team or with a client.

”Here, my job is to give orders and solve problems. But there, my job is just to be humbled a bit and be reminded of what it’s like to work at the company,” he explains. ”They’re very direct and I can’t hide behind the job, can’t hide behind my leadership. They’re invaluable in that way.”

Wellbeing commitment

It’s part of a raft of measures R/GA has brought in over the last two years to make the agency a fairer place to work and, in particular, to support the mental health of staff.

”We are in a very dynamic industry that creates a lot of excitement and also a lot of stress. We work with clients across the world that have needs, demanding needs. We’re asked to create things and invent things every day. There’s a lot of stress and excitement that go into that.”

Those include access to 24/7 counseling, partnerships with fitness and wellbeing services such as MoveSpring, Conbody and Equinox and a proactive policy guarding against burnout that encourages employees to take time off for recovery.

Lyons says that the resources themselves are comparable to rival agencies, but argues R/GA has a deeper commitment than most. ”The real difference is our commitment to them and really understanding which ones are working and which aren’t. Many times, companies look at outsourcing mental health to an app or a program, as opposed to how they work every day. It begins with proper expectation setting in the company.”

Flexibility, rather than any single scheme, became the most important facet its employee support early in the pandemic.

”Childcare was the most difficult thing to deal with during the pandemic. In the early days especially it was unbelievably difficult.” And though he notes ”you can’t replace government policy, you can’t replace schools, you can’t replace family,” the experience of his staff’s ”desperation around maintaining their work and their ties with their co-workers” while also juggling family life pushed the agency to offer more support. Staff with childcare needs can now access free membership to nursery and babysitting services such as Sittercity and Bright Horizons.

Just as mental wellbeing isn’t solved with a single app or discount code, working out which resources are useful and which ones are less so also isn’t something that can be established quickly. Instead, the agency commits to more listening exercises, this time in the form of bi-annual all-company surveys to get a sense of how people are feeling about a whole range of topics. ”That becomes the fuel we use to develop new ideas or approaches.”

Client feedback

Palliative measures can only soften a problem, however, not solve it outright. Could the pressure on staff not be reduced by investing in more staff or spreading the load around?

Lyons says R/GA retains a ”significant freelance team” that helps staff through rough patches. But, like many agencies, it works to the rhythms and whims of its clients, before which weekends and overtime policies have a habit of dissolving. The reality of the business means agencies will always be on the back foot, he says.

”It’s not the type of business that you want to be in if you’re looking for a 9am to 5pm. I’m not saying it’s 9am to 9pm, but there are bursts of activity for a pitch or for a launch and you’ve got to make sure you’re flexible with your timing. We had a major campaign to deliver for the Super Bowl and those teams were working through the Christmas holidays, so we had to make sure that afterwards they were taking time off. There are some off just now. They know that’s the rhythm of the client.”

Increasingly, he says, clients are made aware of their impact on the workload and wellbeing of R/GA staffers. ”We talk to client about how we can improve working together. If we’re having difficult staffing a team because they think the client is difficult to work with, they’ll understand that and they’ll adapt to that. They know it’s a talent business.”

New expectations

The last two years, though, have seen a major change in the attitudes of advertising workers towards their employers, he admits. Expectations are higher, not just around family policies or wellbeing support, but around seniority and career advancement. ”There’s now an expectation from people in the early stages of their career to be contributing more and more often.”

That’s handy for R/GA, which has long sold itself to potential recruits as an agency that stood apart from the pack. ”We aren’t built around the concept of the big idea, around developing TV spots or performance media. We’re not a single tool company. We’re a place where technologists are creative, where the people in the studio are equal parts creative and the same thing in media. And it’s an incredible learning environment. I’m very proud of the incubation that we do. I’m very proud of the alumni we have.

”We’re not a company that can compete against some of the benefits the big tech companies provide – the stock options and the dry cleaning. But I’m not sure people expect that from us. They expect serious career development when they come to R/GA because you’re going to be working on some of the biggest brands, the most interesting brands in the world, with the opportunity to create new things. That’s the value proposition I always looked at meeting.”

Providing flexibility, he suggests, can help companies like R/GA. ”If you think about the shift from structured time off and being in the office five days a week, to the concept of flexibility, it’s far less paternalistic. The trust we have in our employees and our teams is shown that way and I think it gets you tremendous benefits.”

He suggests that agency leaders need to set an example – and show that they too need to take breaks. When we speak on Zoom, he’s just returned from a vacation to Costa Rica where he says he ”really shut off, for the first time ever”.

”Leadership behaviors have to follow that concept of flexibility. If that means shutting off for a few days, I’ve been telling people that I’ve been doing that because I want them to do the same thing.

”Flexibility and empathy have to be demonstrated by leadership.”

RGA Work & Wellbeing Agency Culture

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