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Lockdown 2.0: is the office a huge cost or a huge asset?

As we drift in and out of lockdown, Iris' chief exec Ian Millner asks: "is the office a huge cost or a huge asset?"

With England going into lockdown for a second time, is the office a huge cost or a huge asset? Founder and chief exec of Iris, Ian Millner, makes a case for the latter.

The weeks just ‘zoom' by at the moment, don’t they? I really don’t know where the year has gone.

But all this ongoing self-flagellation about the destiny, purpose and direction of our industry has got me thinking. With all of our working from home efficiency, are we starting to create an echo chamber that is misleading our views about one of the foundations our businesses – our offices?

I wonder what clients think about agencies that are only interacting over Zoom, email and phone? Or of those that have somewhat opportunistically decided to dispense of their office space altogether?

Much has been said about the impact of Covid-19 on our industry’s working practices and agency culture, but with many describing the new normal ‘positively’ as we all put on our brave game faces and deal with sweeping and universal challenges.

The truth is that we live and work in a very competitive and dynamic industry that is generally poorly differentiated and oversupplied. It’s a talent business, so it’s a people business. It’s a people business so it’s a culture business. It’s a culture business so it needs differentiated office environments.

Any 'people business' can only really be any good if it is able to unlock the power of the ‘discretionary passion’ in its people and in turn its clients.

Clients generally view their relationships with their agencies through the ‘peak-end rule'.

They formulate an opinion about their agency based on the most intense peak of the interaction and its end….rather than the average of every moment of the experience.

Against this backdrop, it is all too easy to underestimate the importance of the physical, but this underpins some of the most valuable pillars of a successful life and career in this industry, so it’s worth calling a few things out as we settle down to our post-commuting careers.

Emotion

This is such a big part of what we do and how we do it. We need to ‘feel’ our work. It is this that motivates us to keep bouncing back and seeking to make a difference to the world. We have to ‘believe’ in it, each other and the people we work for.

Effort

There are lots of smart and charismatic people in our industry but if you are prepared to continuously go above and beyond the call of duty you will win. Talent on its own is simply not enough. The ability to keep going when others have knocked it on the head….the ability to understand when and how to adapt….are all formed through interactive experiences.

Personal theatre

Physical presence often creates higher emotional presence, which can in many cases become key to what sets an agency or and individual apart. It is also a big part of creating allegiances, bonds and trust…within the team but also with clients. Quite often clients need explanation, reassurance and guidance around sometimes quite complicated or even risky issues.

Whatchamacallit

What are we talking about again? I wonder how many times people just drift through the day, with one back-to-back meeting being impossible to distinguish from another. Often with little to signpost or create significance around a key topic that needs to be understood and supported or one that is subtle, complex or requires careful input or thorough discussion.

Post-tech

Culture has always been a powerful differentiator, even more so as employer branding starts to become a thing. For many, technology will become widely used and play a role within the mix of channels at our disposal. But we have to be aware of the ‘genericising’ effect that tech has on how we interact, get things done, build relationships and build reputations. Just as colour, music, humour, storytelling plays a key role in differentiating broadcast and digital communication, we will look to do the same with the increasing mundane communication through zoom, teams and the like. Face to face meetings and even phone calls will be used as a noticeable and welcome relief.

So, as people start to think about the role of the office, we clearly have to think about the role of the brands and the role of our people.

So much of what we do is about differentiation and distinctively, with personality and passion being key elements driving this.

Of course, people will feel more enabled to experience the benefits of a tech-enabled and flexible work/life balance, but we will all see the ever-decreasing circles of impact and effectiveness if we are not constantly topping up our cultures with the conviction and likeability needed to make success both sustainable and inevitable.

Clients want to see the agency in their office, as it is this that lifts their experience, enables more clarity of decision making and also helps to make ideas both easier to understand and more significant.

Agencies should want to keep and protect their offices now more than ever and they should use the office as a backdrop for their own storytelling and cultural well-being. So while it is tempting in the short-term to offload or mothball these generally expensive commitments, when you have a good one, they can be a source of extra competitive edge. And if you follow the ‘peak-end rule’ they are very likely to be the precise location where most positivity from the client is felt.

Ian Millner is global chief exec and founder of Iris.

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