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Burnt-out agency staff try to reset client boundaries blurred by Covid

Working from home has meant clients often expect responses from agencies around the clock

Agency staff have always felt pressure to appease clients, but Covid, lockdown and working from home have blurred the boundaries that used to exist. Some have told The Drum that round-the-clock demands have led to exhaustion, therapy and quitting an agency altogether. Agency bosses know it’s a problem. Here’s how they are trying to find the balance.

Before March 2020, agency life for Livvy Moore, the head of creative production at This Here, was full on but manageable. On a typical day, she would commute to her east London office and have a coffee as the first of the client calls started. The agency handles a good deal of international business, so she was more than familiar with a day spent on Zoom and regrouping with her team after each meeting to share the workload, before making her way home at the end of the day.

“I hate to use these words, but there was an ‘us and them’ – an agency and a client,” she says.

Like many other businesses, This Here was forced to put staff on furlough. Overnight the previously healthy workload shared between a team became Moore’s responsibility. She began receiving texts, calls and emails around the clock – from clients that she acknowledges were equally worried about the future of their own companies. She describes it as a “shared trauma.”

“Suddenly, I’m sat in my kitchen with my camera on seeing a client’s five-year-old say ’hello’. I’m seeing their bedroom in the background. It stopped feeling like ‘us and them’. We were no longer an agency and client, we were just a bunch of humans trying to keep our jobs and keep doing work.”

Moore admits that, for a while, the constant work was a distraction from what was going on in the world. She threw herself into it and working from home meant there was no real ‘end of the day’, no difference between 6pm and 7pm, so she would find herself working later and later, weekdays blurring into weekends. Then clients came to expect it.

“I didn’t spot it happening to me. My colleagues said: ‘You need boundaries, you need support, you need to take a step back, you need space.’ I was as bad at setting those boundaries as the clients were and I turned to work when I couldn’t do anything else. I couldn’t see any effect on my mental health. But I can spot it in someone else. It’s a lot easier for me to look at my junior who has been bombarded on evenings and weekends and say ‘that’s out of order.’ But it’s hard to recognize it in yourself.”

To reset the boundaries, she tried a soft approach – “combating it with humor, making bad jokes about how even though you love working with them, you don’t want to hang out on a Friday night.” When that failed she was more direct and (supported by her boss) she highlighted the toxic culture of them habitually working late and putting the same expectation on the agency.

“The approach was to be direct and head on and basically just say, ’we don’t work this way because it really affects the mental health of our staff, and I feel like it’s probably affecting yours as well.’ We tried to make it an open conversation on how we can fix it together.”

This Here has since put strict measures in place on the use of WhatsApp (other that for comms on a shoot day, it is banned as a work communication tool) and has created an account management team to take the load off staff who have found themselves dealing directly with clients post-pandemic. It has also encouraged people to remove workplace apps, like Slack, from personal phones.

Saying ‘no’

But others aren’t so lucky. This Here is a founder-led independent agency with a small staff count. Two people from two different network agencies have told The Drum they have experienced similar to Moore, but that their agency has either ignored the problem or, worse, actively encouraged it over fears they’ll lose the account.

James* was a senior executive at a leading media agency in London. In January, he had a mental breakdown and was urged by his doctor to stop work as a result of the pressure he’d faced over the course of 18 months.

He was the UK lead on a new global client that the agency had landed at the start of the pandemic – a multi-billion-dollar account that, in a bid to win, he says his bosses overpromised on the staff that would be available to service it. Instead of the assured staff of over 40 on his team, James was initially leading a team of 10, eventually getting to 30 after a year of fighting.

“As you can imagine, the volume of work exploded, and there was no structure or support,” he says. When he wasn’t in back-to-back meetings, he says he was trying to handle a workload fit for 10 people.

“The pandemic made it worse – people were online all the time, contactable all the time. It would get to the weekend and I would collapse with exhaustion. The work/home separation has been disrespected. It’s harming people’s mental health and it’s getting worse every single day. People are going on sick leave – why are people sick? We’re just making ads.”

He has since left the group for another network agency and says he knows of at least four others on the account who have quit after burn-out last year.

It’s an experience shared by Robert*, who worked for over a year at a global network agency. “I was working late every night until I had a panic attack and told my boss enough was enough. I’ve actually now had to sign up for cognitive behavioral therapy and I’m going for counseling as a result. I’ve worked in high-intensity jobs before, but I found that I’ve been pushed so much that I burnt out a few weeks ago.”

For James and Robert, the problem doesn’t lie so much with the client but with the fundamental business model that has led them to expect round-the-clock service from agencies. It’s an issue that has been exacerbated by the pandemic, and correcting the balance as we emerge will require more than the banning of WhatsApp and a conversation on boundary lines. The whole model needs rethought for post-pandemic when working from home could become the norm.

“The problem comes from procurement,“ says James. “They create these work streams that are distractions from the core job and that take up leadership time. And, in the meantime, that leadership is screaming at their team to deliver.” He stresses that clear boundaries need to be set from the first meeting with a prospective client, rather than agency bosses overpromising and ultimately underdelivering.

“It’s all about numbers. There is no humanity. And agencies don’t say ’no’, so the work gets worse. Fundamentally, the agency model is not negotiable. I still think agencies are a great place to work, but boundaries need to exist. Clients need to be told ’no’. You can’t have them dictating things at all hours of the day.”

Roberts agrees, saying that over the past year he’s seen a level of fear emerge among agency bosses who are now willing to do anything to please clients, even if it comes at the expense of their staff’s mental health.

“The powers that be are so desperate to keep the accounts. That eagerness to please clients and keep them happy has increased so much, there’s less pushback. They don’t say, ‘we don’t have capacity to deal with that.’ Instead they say, ‘we’re going to make this work for you, no problem at all.’”

Missing the physical boundaries of an office

With remote working policies being drafted in agencies right now, both James and Robert have pleaded with bosses to ensure staff are able to have the same boundaries a physical office provided.

”Before Covid, you could get on the tube at the end of the day and when you’re home, you’re done,” says James. ”But now there’s no start time, no end time. It’s just work.”

And the tools used for remote working, such as Microsoft Teams and Slack, are becoming increasingly invasive. Robert says that over the past year there has been a breakdown in trust among senior leaders and staff, and he is constantly having to justify what he is doing and how many hours he is spending on it. And with Teams, he feels “hounded” at all hours of the day and there’s an expectation of an immediate reply from clients.

“People are now treating it like WhatsApp,” he says. “It’s so disruptive that I find my concentration is severely lacking. I’m falling behind on things and starting to question if it’s my ability. But I have to keep reminding myself that I’m only able to do a certain amount in two or three hours. Everything seems to be a priority. And everything just seems urgent and needs to be delivered in real-time. It’s chaotic.”

If bosses can’t learn to trust their staff, they have to invest in proper project management systems that give everyone – including clients – visibility on the workload of individuals.

“Senior management are quite removed from it and don’t realize how busy we are and how little capacity we’ve got,” Robert adds.

So far, only a few clients have cracked the code in how to work flexibly. Richard Robinson, the managing director of marketing consultancy Oystercatchers, says agencies have to ensure every account with every client has a clear, mutually-written charter that is agreed at the start of the relationship by the senior lead of both companies.

“The lead agency staffer needs to articulate why the client is important, what their aspirations are for the year ahead and what the behaviors are that the client team can and should expect in the coming weeks and months. Likewise, the most senior client must vocalize why they are working with the agency, what their dreams and goals are for the partnership and ensure their team is left in no doubt that the agency is part of the top table team.

“Once this is in place, it needs to be embedded into the way of working and reconstituted every year, with artefacts bearing its words shared and seen, and every new starter needs to understand their role in upholding it going forward.

“The simplest charter I’ve ever read is: ‘We will be nice and do good work.’ It was signed by every member of the client and agency team and hung in both their offices. It was the ultimate leveler and everyone used it as a point of positive reinforcement when bad behaviors crept in.

“Make no mistake, time has sped up. Agencies are being squeezed. The hours people work has become unsustainable as brands try to get ahead of the conversation their customers are having in real-time all around them. However, the client is not the enemy; the client is the answer. Reach out and tell them you want better, because they do too. Reset your rules of engagement and reset them mutually.”

And if that fails, clients might find themselves paying every time a boundary is crossed. Tanya Brookfield is chief executive at Elvis, a creative agency. She says the lack of boundaries with clients has grown to become a “real problem” in the industry over the past year.

“Where text messages used to be saved for emergencies out of hours, WhatsApp is limitless and familiar. It’s the new ‘I’m staying in the office late to show my commitment’. I’m super guilty of it – I always respond on holiday, I always say I’m available, I always answer. So I’m setting an example, even though I don’t actually expect it back, and don’t think it’s at all healthy.”

Drawing a line, Brookfield says her agency is now charging clients time-and-a-half for any overtime, with the extra fee going to the staff who are working late or at weekends.

“This has helped clients to evaluate whether a brief really is urgent because there’s now a commercial penalty, and we appropriately recompense anyone who has been asked to work out of hours. It’s a small step forward, but it’s a good starting point and all of our clients have signed up to it.”

*Names have been changed to protect anonymity