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Will adland be bringing back the agency Christmas party?

Several ad agencies are planning to bring back Christmas parties this year

Does the need to cater for remote and in-person staff, plus caution around rising cases of Covid-19, mean agencies are in for another unusual yuletide?

Last year was a quiet one for the office Christmas party. In years past, staff might have expected tinsel in the boardroom, party games (fun or otherwise) and drinks on the boss. 2020, however, saw all that replaced by Zoom breakout rooms and a canned cocktail on the sofa of our cold, locked-down winter abodes.

With the festive season again approaching, many businesses – including ad agencies – are busy planning their end-of-year bash. And while some will be set on re-embracing the hedonism of years past, they may be going against the grain.

Agency advent

At Superunion, the Christmas party is set to return. Global chief executive officer Jim Prior tells The Drum: ”I think it’s great to have everybody together. The culture of any company has to have some degree of interactivity between its people.

”It’s an important part of life that people get together and just enjoy the company of other human beings. Working together isn’t always easy; you’ve got to create moments of levity, moments of humanity. Otherwise it’s miserable.”

Similarly, over at Dentsu, chief executive officer of creative EMEA & UK James Morris says party season is making a comeback. Its creative agencies across the country are set to each stage their own Christmas parties, though they will each also be participating in a festive breakfast.

He says that this year it’s really important to bring parties back for staff. ”Equally, it’s also really important to be responsible as an employer and not put any pressure on your teams of people to feel like they’re obliged to attend, so we consulted quite heavily and spoke to people on all levels.”

Safety for the season

At industry wellbeing body Nabs (Christmas party: in-person), Paul Wells, director of wellbeing services and culture change, says there are a number of measures companies can put in place to make staff feel safe.

”Companies could consider asking for Covid passes and/or inviting attendees to take a lateral flow test before the party. However, asking for proof of vaccination could discriminate against people who have chosen not to have the vaccination or who cannot have the vaccine due to medical reasons and do not want to disclose their choice or medical reason and exemptions should be respected. Ensuring your venue has current covid measures in place, in particular adequate ventilation is key to reducing risk and re-assuring attendees.

”Companies should also remember that this year in particular is one where people may not feel comfortable going to parties at all. There should be no pressure on staff to attend.”

Prior confirms that Superunion will be asking staff to take Covid tests before attending. ”We’ll ask people not to attend if they feel in any way unwell and we’ll ask people to take a lateral flow test,” he says. Dentsu’s Morris outlines a similar plan; its offices already require staff take a lateral flow and check their temperature on arrival.

For those agencies staging in-person Xmas dos, there may be an attempt to provide an alternative to the heavy drinking – or at least the heavy socializing – previously associated with the tradition.

VMLY&R London, for example, is avoiding putting all its Christmas eggs in one party basket. Instead, it’s staging a whole series of events throughout December for staff, whether they’re in the office or working remotely. Alongside the ’traditional’ party will be wreathmaking classes, Hanukkah celebrations, a charity gifting drive, a virtual quiz and a family-friendly party in the office.

Justin Pahl, chief executive officer of VMLY&R, tells The Drum: ”After the past 20 months, it has never been more apparent to me that it’s the little things that matter. While we are still 100% flexible, I am starting to see the benefits of people stepping back into the office and connecting in real life. And as we enter ’the most wonderful time of the year’, I want to give people a reason to come back and spend time with one another. So instead of one big blowout, we’ve created meaningful moments throughout the month. We’ve done our best to make this festive period as inclusive and accessible as possible.”

The agency is splitting its office party over two floors, one with a ”chilled vibe” and one set to ”party” mode. Wells suggests other agencies consider a similar set-up: ”Companies might consider organizing celebrations that don’t revolve around alcohol – perhaps something with various different elements that people can dip in and out of.

”Not everybody wants to, or is permitted to, drink alcoholic drinks. You should create a space where people can enjoy themselves with or without a drink in hand. An inclusive Xmas party is one where everybody feels safe and able to celebrate in a way that is comfortable for them and where their boundaries are respected.”

While Morris says the company doesn’t want to be too ”parental” towards employees, he says Dentsu UK hopes to ease the pressure on staff, whether they drink or not, by hosting its parties in the evening (rather than all day) and at venues with non-alcoholic options and mocktails on the menu. ”Especially for younger staff, they’re perhaps not quite forcussed on heavy drinking... we don’t want anyone to feel obliged to drink heavily.”

Wells also points out that Christmas parties – and the associated drinking – carry a ”heightened risk” of sexual harassment. TimeTo’s 2019 Christmas campaign, which Nabs supported as a founding member of the group, worked to highlight that risk, and Wells says it may be playing on the minds of some workers. He suggests agencies bear in mind that not every employee will be looking forward to the event.

”This is particularly pertinent this year as some companies will be holding their first IRL party for a couple of years. TimeTo’s latest research shows that 49% of adlanders are worried about sexual harassment intensifying as we return to offices, and this fear will certainly apply when it comes to the Xmas party. Organizations can create a safer atmosphere by reminding employees beforehand what constitutes inappropriate behavior, and reminding them that work parties are bound by the same HR rules as in the office.”

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