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Side hustle support: how agencies can better navigate conflict of interest risks

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By Sam Bradley | Senior Reporter

October 31, 2023 | 9 min read

Support for side hustles can help keep staff happy. But how should agencies get ahead of potential conflicts of interest?

DJ equipment under a pueple light

Goldman Sachs boss Solomon was told to give up his DJ-ing side-hustle / Unsplash

Advertising is full of people who aren’t fully satisfied by the nine-to-five. Plenty have side projects, alternate egos or artistic passions they pursue outside of work hours. Not every employer is welcoming to that, as proven by the sad case of David Solomon – CEO of Goldman Sachs by day and DJ by night. Apparently, Solomon got told by the bank’s board to step away from the decks for fear of the extra attention it was generating.

Plenty of agency businesses do encourage employees to hunt down creative pursuits in the hope that a creatively fulfilled staffer is a happy one. London indie Here Be Dragons, for example, offers them funding to translate hustles into viable startups. Havas Media’s UK business runs the ‘Meaningfully Daring Side Hustle’ program, which provides contacts and support to employees’ side hustles; one staffer established a maternity clothes brand with the agency’s help last year.

They can benefit agencies commercially, too. Mike Betette, a senior copywriter at US indie shop Hanson Dodge, says his improv hobby led directly to a new client win for the company.

“As a bonus, because of my improv involvement with Mi’s Westside Comedy Theater in Los Angeles, we were actually hired to do creative work for them, which earned us industry recognition,“ he recalls. “Not bad for a side hustle.“

But most don’t have a formal policy either way, instead relying on a ‘know it when I see it approach’ that preserves the risk of clashing creative and commercial pursuits – and puts the work of risk avoidance solely on to staff. We asked a range of agency experts from across the industry what their organizations have done to defuse that risk and how they’ve built policies that satisfy staff needs.

How do you solve a problem like… work and personal lives colliding?

Natalie Ackerman, chief people officer, Jack Morton: “Boundaries between life and work continue to blend. We recognize the activities people do outside of work fill their cups, make them more well-rounded and even inspire new ideas at work, so we celebrate them. Our What’s Your Extra? social media series is a great example of this – recently, we were incredibly proud to share the story of a creative director whose debut novel was released earlier this month.

“However, we also ask our people to be sensible about boundaries in their entrepreneurship, ensuring there’s no conflict of interest – or appearance thereof – and that outside projects don’t impede their ability to do their day jobs. We ask for disclosures of potential conflicts, relevant activities or employment during annual compliance training.”

Carl Johnson, founding partner and executive chairman, Anomaly: “‘Side-hustles’ aren’t a problem; the absence of a policy is. We believe in personal growth and enable it. We have company-led IP, like our fertility and pregnancy app Obie, that staff can participate in and learn what it really takes to be an entrepreneur. We back individuals’ initiatives through our incubator, Anomaly Fun’ded, such as Lone River Ranch Water. For unique individuals, work/side hustles blend. Our creative technologist Brian Moore is the perfect example. On the one hand, riding the cultural wave for breakfast cereal, but he is also supporting a social cause he believes in brianmoore.com/abortion-bus. What you can’t do is your personal project at the expense of what you’re being paid by the company to do – that’s taking money under false pretenses and dumping work on your colleagues.”

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Mike Petricevic, co-founder and creative partner, Waste Creative: “All creative businesses should champion those with unique hobbies and side hustles. These are highly driven individuals brimming with entrepreneurial spirit and rigor. Our team, featuring DJs, rockers, writers, artists and even brewers, is testament to this. They’re bursting with creative mojo and inventive ideas, as shown by our animation studio This Thing of Ours, which was once a side project and is now a team of 10 with multiple accolades. As for policy, the word feels like it’d kill creativity, I’d say some gentle guiderails will be sufficient. Most of us are grown-ups and should know where the line is.”

Eric Kallman, co-founder and chief creative officer, Erich and Kallman: “We always encourage work-life balance and for this exact reason, we have a generous PTO and remote work policy. We also allow for extended leave on a case-by-case scenario for people to follow their passions for things like surfing, photography and world travel. One of our advertising-addicted creatives spends his free time as an advertising professor at the University of San Francisco. And while the results have been mixed, I continue to try my best to get all of our employees to share my rabid passion for Giants baseball and take advantage of our company’s season tickets.”

Louisa O’Connor, managing director, SeenPresents: “Upfront communication is our policy here. It’s relatively simple – you can’t do anything that directly conflicts with our agency offering. If you want to use a holiday to teach yoga at a retreat, do a DJ course or farm rapeseed oil (we have had that!), that is totally cool. If you want to go and freelance for another agency at a gig or start a small event agency on the side, not that cool. It’s to protect the skillsets we are curating, but also it’s to protect some of the client non-competes we have.”

Dan Hocking, chief operating officer, Trouble Maker: “Being able to support people in their side hustles is hugely important – in fact, it’s in employee contracts, where we ‘reserve the right to make [their businesses] as brilliant as possible.’ Whether it’s providing a space to help someone qualify as a yoga teacher or allowing varied working patterns to fit in studies, we love seeing Trouble Makers succeed. An added bonus is increased engagement at work and a more diverse skill set when we present to clients. Plus, we build a broader network of genuinely talented people whom we can partner with in the future!”

Patrick Affleck, UK and Ireland CEO, Havas Media Network: “Our industry needs fresh ideas and diverse thinking in order to better connect with the sheer abundance of established and emerging industries out there. We won’t do that by preventing people from exploring their interests and keeping them neatly confined to regulated swim lanes. Worse still, they might leave the industry if we do.

“We set up our Meaningfully Daring Side Hustle two years ago to support people in their side hustles so they didn’t have to choose between that and their job. If, as a result of this experience, they then stay, great; we have happier, more motivated staff that have gained extra and invaluable skills to think more innovatively. If they choose to pursue this dream, we wish them well and I’m grateful that we provided such an enabling culture as a catalyst for it.”

Got an opinion worth sharing? Get in touch via sam.bradley@thedrum.com and I’ll clue you in on next week’s debate.

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