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WFH? WTF! The case for agency staff to get back to the office

With further job losses looming amid client cutbacks, advertising writer Paul Burke argues the 16% of agency staff who have no desire to return to the office again should be careful what they wish for.

I must say I was a little surprised.

Though if I were a client of a major ad agency, I’d be more than surprised – I’d be horrified. Because according to a recent survey by Nabs, agency staff seem idly reluctant to get back to work.

More than half claim to be afflicted by a “lack of motivation and drive” and almost two-thirds feel returning to the office would be “unsafe” and would increase their feelings of “anxiety”.

So I have one more question for them: “Are you out of your minds?” You need to get back sharpish, or you may discover that there’s nothing left to come back to.

Surely you know that an agency’s greatest asset is the agency itself. That collective of talented, hard-working, collaborative people, all under one roof, fostering a culture of creativity that’s so conducive to great work.

A good agency is always greater than the sum of its parts. You can feel an aura the moment you walk into one. But without that aura, and the presence of those who create it, agencies are severely diminished. Their staff, literally and figuratively, are now all over the place. They’ve been unable, but now seem unwilling, to provide clients with the full service they’re used to. So don’t be surprised if they’re drawing up plans to cut their agencies’ fees or even dispense with them altogether.

And that’s when it’s going to get tricky.

With drastically reduced revenues, agency finance directors will be sharpening their scythes and, to appease their own paymasters, won’t hesitate to use them. Sadly, some have already started and scores of good people from big agencies have only returned to their desks to clear them.

So if you don’t want to clear yours, you really need to get back behind it. You don’t work for the NHS, the BBC or the London Borough of Islington. You don’t have the luxury of bulletproof job security and a gold-plated public-sector pension. You work at the sharp end of capitalism. And at times like this, it can be a cold and ruthless place. In the autumn, it’ll get even colder. The leaves will fall and the trees, including Rishi’s Magic Money Tree, will no longer bear fruit. What then?

You might want to wake up, get real and start asking yourself some difficult questions. How can you be so scared of a virus, which is statistically unlikely to endanger you, yet be bizarrely blasé about the very real threat of losing your livelihood?

If you’re one of the 16% of the agency staff who said they had no desire to return to the office again, be careful what you wish for.

Your conduct, in your clients’ eyes, is becoming increasingly hard to justify. They’ve always bought – with actual cash – the idea that agencies thrive on teamwork, particularly creative departments. Creative teams routinely talk about how, when they’re together in the same room, they create an alchemic “third person” who conjures up their magical ideas. So since the mythical third person was been killed by Covid, how have the other two managed to do any work?

And talking of work, how will you persuade clients to buy a “brave” campaign when they know you weren’t even brave enough to get on the tube?

They were happy to pay handsomely for their agencies to, quite literally, be there for them. But if you’re not there anymore, do you seriously expect them to keep paying?

Dave Trott, as he so often does, put it very well: “The client pays for posh offices, fancy furniture, awards entries, lavish entertainment and, of course, large profits for agency shareholders.” Nothing wrong with that but at the moment, agencies aren’t keeping their side of the bargain.

I’m not saying the work of an ad agency can’t be done without posh offices, fancy furniture and lavish entertainment. On the contrary. It can all be done by quite easily highly motivated and hugely experienced freelancers. What’s more, it can often be done faster, better and for a fraction of the cost.

Hang on a minute, I’m a freelancer.

So yes, sorry, just ignore everything I’ve said about returning to work and stay right where you are.

Follow Paul on Twitter @paulburkeradio

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