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How do you solve a problem like... Covid staff shortages?

How can agencies cope with Omicron-induced staff shortages?

Each week, we ask agency experts for their advice on real problems facing today’s marketing practitioners. This time, we consider how agencies can weather the surge of staff shortages caused by the Omicron variant of Covid-19.

With the advent of the Omicron variant over winter, businesses across the US and UK have seen the return of staff shortages, caused by employees needing to isolate, or recover from catching the virus. While the travel, service and care sectors have been particularly hard-pressed, the issue is also affecting advertising and marketing agencies, as well.

So, we asked our expert agency readers how their businesses were coping with staff shortages, and how they were working to keep clients on side in the meantime.

How do you solve a problem like... Covid staff shortages?

Anthony Santiago, managing director, Pink Sparrow

In our experience, project cancellations around Omicron have been more of an issue than staffing shortages. We heavily focus on protecting our team from exposure and major internal outbreaks. We have protocols around notifying employees of potential exposure, vaccine and testing requirements, and isolation and masking guidelines. Because we've been able to limit outbreaks and we have a robust staff, we can efficiently shift resources to projects experiencing staff shortages.

Justin Pahl, chief executive officer, VMLY&R London

We must acknowledge that Omicron has no boundaries. We are working from home again to help limit contact for our employees, and if people do need to head into the office we are encouraging lateral flow testing the morning of coming in. And yet, we may be one of the lucky ones. We haven’t been taken out en masse like so many other industries, and we have the privilege of being able to service our clients from the comfort of our homes if we are feeling fit and well.

But, we do need to remember that this variant isn’t just affecting ourselves, but our clients too – their staff and their suppliers. We are a people-based industry, working with and for each other, so agencies must have candid conversations about the need for flexibility, whether it be adapting once again to changing health and safety requirements or understanding the role freelancers can play in bolstering affected teams. We are all navigating this next stage of the Covid-19 crisis together so a little empathy will go a long way.

Charlie Hurrell, chief client officer, Engine Creative

Managing Covid related staff absence is often a measure of how strong and equitable the partnerships are between agencies and their clients. We have honest conversations with our clients about what it’s possible to achieve when people are off sick. We had already streamlined our processes during the pandemic, so we are used to being flexible and deploying staff when and where they are most needed. Clients understand the need for flexibility, especially when they are in the same situation. So much depends on the reservoir of trust and cooperation built up over time between agencies and clients to manage this latest challenge together.

Matthew Conley, head of production, MKG

With the arrival of Omicron, we’ve been developing a robust staffing contingency plan so we can be as prepared as possible to step in for on-site support. Our clients understand that there are certain things beyond our control during this complicated time, so we are working with them closely to ensure their projects’ success remains top priority, alongside meeting all necessary safety precautions. With the resiliency we gained in 2020, we’re ready to face the challenges 2022 may bring.

Garrett Garcia, vice-president, PPK

It’s always been firmly imprinted in PPK’s company DNA that everyone, regardless of title or tenure, carries an incredibly strong roll-up-your-sleeves mentality. Whatever it takes to get the job done is something that we all believe in and buy into. This creates a hefty amount of ’bench strength.’ And voids created by those who have the misfortune of getting sick are quickly filled and the work gets done without a hitch.

We’re proud that through the entirety of the pandemic – and more specifically the last couple months of rising cases – our client work hasn't missed a beat, or a deadline.

Bridget Arik, chief operations officer, Redmill Solutions

This is where your partnership between clients, agencies and suppliers is very important, all parties should be working together to ensure business continues because everyone is in the same boat. Communicating team absences is absolutely necessary, all parties should always know who to contact if there is an absence – whether it be an account executive or the CEO. Most media roles are more suitable than many for remote working and that is why making sure that staff are set up to work effectively from home so they are easily reachable for clients, has become essential.

Faye Daffarn, UK managing director, Tug

The trick to maintaining our high standards throughout staff shortages lies in the fact that no one person holds all the cards. Client and channel teams work from shared project management tools and have sight of what is happening – and what needs to happen – across the board, meaning we can deliver the best results for clients regardless of who works on any given day.

It’s been harder to navigate absences on the client side, as plans and budgets requiring sign-off have sometimes had to be delayed. But rigorous client communications, as well as twice daily team scrums across the agency to feel connected, means we have successfully negotiated the worst of the pandemic.

If you’d like to join future debates, email me: sam.bradley@thedrum.com.

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