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14 - 18 June

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Ken Hein

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Shavonne M Clark

senior manager of marketing

Worth the squeeze? How agencies can ditch overwork culture and recruit young talent

Some agencies can only do business because they ‘sweat people’, says Neil Henderson of St Luke’s

Young creatives are increasingly wary of the ad industry’s reputation for a poor work-life balance. What should agencies be doing to make sure they’re still seen as career destinations for the next generation?

Esdras Da Costa, Jo-Dee Longstaff and Benedetta Bovone are finishing their second years of study at Kingston School of Art (KSA). Between the travails of remote learning and lockdown, it hasn’t been easy. With the semester coming to a close, Longstaff says she’s been working “24/7 in term time”.

But easy doesn’t seem to be what any of them are after, since all three hope to some day gain jobs in, or adjacent to, advertising. Longstaff, for example, wants to work on out-of-home (OOH) creative: “It feels more rewarding when other people see the work out in the real world instead of just on their phone.”

Bovone aims to work as an animator, while Da Costa – who’s just won a D&AD New Blood award – has his heart set on a design role.

They’ve had a taste of agency life through Studio KT1, KSA’s in-house studio, where they work on real briefs set by external clients as well as the school itself. Recently the studio launched a new exhibition space for students of the art school in partnership with the student union. It created a new concept and branding for the space (formerly an outlet of PC World) and managed a successful crowdfunder to bankroll the location, dubbed Not My Beautiful House (pictured below).

But while these students are each looking forward to beginning their careers, they’re also looking for a work-life balance.

“I aim to integrate my work with friendships and relationships and free time,” says Bovone. Both she and Longstaff are aware of the industry’s reputation for long hours, and Longstaff says she expects to face “really time-consuming work”.

She says: “It’s the one thing I’m worried about. I know that the time you put in does pay off. But if you put all your time in ... it’ll feel like you’re working to death.” Longstaff plans on going freelance after an initial stint at an agency and hopes to gain a better balance once she’s established a foothold.

Heavy workloads and the burn-out that follows have long been aspects of agency life. Until recently, graduates and new starters entering the industry were expected to make their bones through long hours and hard work sweetened by company perks and enviable pay. But the next generation of talent places a higher emphasis on decent working conditions – and they’re not willing to burn themselves out for the sake of a beer fridge in the studio.

As departing Wieden+Kennedy chief executive officer Neil Christie put it in a recent interview with The Drum: “If the hard work gets harder, and the fun gets less fun, then clearly there’s a point at which people say the juice isn’t worth the squeeze.”

Sweat shops

An IPA study conducted last year found fewer and fewer young people consider the industry a viable career option. Could its reputation for a culture of overworking staff be to blame? And if the next generation of talent is less willing to put up with crap working conditions, what should agencies be doing to make sure they can still attract young staff?

“I think there’s agencies that realize that the only way they’re going to make money is to sweat people,” says Neil Henderson, chief executive officer of independent agency St Luke’s. “That’s no way to make money. You make money by doing the right kind of work in the right kind of time with the right kind of clients.”

His agency was recently awarded platinum for its continuous professional development (CPD) by the IPA, and has been named one of the best places in the industry to work by Campaign for three years running. St Luke’s operates a rolling placement scheme and a three-month internship paying the London living wage. As a recruitment tool, Henderson says: “It’s been hugely successful for us. We’ve had several people who have gone on to stay for five or six years.”

Concerns about overwork are becoming more widespread within the industry. Stephanie Drakes, managing partner of Social & Local, says that long hours, stress and ensuring poor mental wellbeing “is the enemy of creativity in our industry ... our goal is to eradicate practices that cause unnecessary and dangerous levels of stress in agency environments”.

Alongside Nabs, the IPA and the Advertising Association, she recently spearheaded an effort to create a mental health code of conduct. “We’d like the industry to sign up to it and commit to embedding its principles within organizations to create an industry where negative workplace stress is reduced, talent is retained and the UK protects its pole position in the world for creativity as clients, once again, get the best out of their agencies.”

At St Luke’s, Henderson points to a number of measures the agency has put in place specifically to combat overwork. Every new start – from interns to executives – gets a line manager with whom they can discuss concerns, with regular reviews staged.

Mentorship is increasingly recognized as a powerful tool for staff development, and at St Luke’s every staffer gets a small budget to take co-workers out for a coffee to promote casual catch-ups and guidance outside the formal setting of the office. And prior to lockdown, studio doors were locked every night at 9pm, and were off-limits at weekends.

To prevent staff feeling like they’re toiling away on projects they’re not invested in, Henderson says everyone in the business is given a voice. “There’s a real sense when you come in that you are a significant player and part of the agency. When we do strategy, everyone that’s involved does the strategy. It’s not just the planner. So the interns, new business director, account director, planner, account manager, creative director – they’re all in the room doing strategy together. That gives people the confidence to be very much part of it, and therefore that they have the power to speak up.

“This is the important thing – people feeling like they can say something, that they can raise concerns and make observations. There’s not a fear of the hierarchy.”

Henderson says pitches “are where it all goes wrong”. He feels the agency does “everything we can” to avoid working weekends for pitches, despite the temptation of industry norms.

Out of the window

But the pandemic – and the crisis it caused in the ad industry – has heightened concerns around overworking. Despite the agency’s protocols, Henderson says the St Luke’s team were working ”outrageous” hours throughout last spring, when the pandemic first arrived in Britain. While redundancies were avoided, the entire staff took a pay cut while the agency pitched its way through the pandemic. ”The weekends and nine o’clock thing went out of the window,” he admits.

“But I think everyone knew what was at stake. And while they felt exhausted, people felt it was very much a team thing. We explained what the plan was ... and when we came out of it, I think everyone really understood. It was painful, but they understood.”

Henderson points to its collective bonus scheme – a legacy of the agency’s past as a co-operative, prior to a management buyout in 2010 – as one glue that held the team together. ”Everyone gets a percentage of their salary as a bonus, and everyone gets the same percentage. If we hit a certain target, everyone’s in it together. If we didn’t make the target because we lose a client, everyone shares in that.”

In lockdown, the agency began surveying everyone regularly for their thoughts on the direction of the business and their own wellbeing. He says they’ll stick with the practice once normality, such as it is, resumes – mirroring a wider trend in the industry towards internal monitoring of staff mental wellbeing.

The agency kept hiring throughout the pandemic, and has brought in 15 new faces in the last eight months. “You’ve got to work as a team. And everyone’s got to be valuable in that team. Then you give yourself the best chance of avoiding these kind of problems,” he concludes.

Back at Studio KT1, Da Costa says he hopes the pandemic will have provided an impetus to change the industry’s working conditions for the better. “The pandemic has taught us that we need to find a balance for our mental health,” he says. “I don’t think we’ll be coming back to where we left off.”

After all, he points out – it’s hardly a matter of life and death. “The most important thing is that agencies and studios start adapting and respecting people’s lives. At the end of the day, advertising isn’t everything. You know what I mean? I understand that it makes our lives more interesting and creative. But it doesn’t save lives. It’s not the NHS.”