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The Drum

UK Digital Agency Census: how we made our agency a great place to work

The Drum’s Digital Agency Census, released from this week, reveals a slew of findings about the satisfaction levels of UK digital agency staff. Here, Anne Stagg, the chief executive officer at Merkle (a company that our report found to be one of the best agencies to work for in the country), discusses how the agency has maintained its status as a good place to work while still producing good work amid the uncertainty and stress of the pandemic.

Supporting our people to do their best work for clients is the cornerstone of any agency. Last year, this tested the skills of every agency leadership team in the business seeking to support clients as they transformed to deliver against their customers’ rapidly changing needs.

At Merkle, with over 900 staff in our UK business and a varied client roster all at different stages of maturity on their customer experience transformation programs, we had a big task on our hands.

But whatever size your business, the same principles apply. We needed to make our people feel supported in order that they in turn could support our clients as we entered a year unlike any other with very little warning for what was to follow.

When I became chief executive officer, we thought we were coming out of the pandemic. So not only did I have the challenge of a new role, I also had the challenge of managing a business going back into lockdown. It really was a case of starting a brand new job. I met new people across [parent firm] Dentsu and Merkle globally, all virtually. This gave me fantastic insight into what it was like for all our new joiners starting in lockdown and how our onboarding process needed to reflect our new normal. And, as I joined from client services, I wanted to remain client-facing and coach other senior leaders to put together the complex deals required for customer experience transformation.

At Merkle, we led from the front and our leadership team made a huge effort to be visible, accessible and human. Initially, this process involved a period of intense over-communication. We used a mixture of video and written communications to ensure everyone heard our messages. We established office hours, instituted morning coffee drop-ins and provided direct access to leaders and colleagues.

The pandemic highlighted that we are all human and experience many of the same challenges, whether that be stress, grief or worry, or simply juggling home life with work life at home. We felt it was important that there were ample, transparent conversations where we could share our experiences. When we can’t see each other in person, it’s even more important to create those opportunities for interaction, as we have all found out with this extended period of lockdown.

There were many times when the blurred lines between work and business brought much light-hearted relief. Dogs barking mid-meeting, doorbells ringing, children wanting to make a guest appearance on Teams. We made sure that these events were humorous and insightful, not something to try and hide or seek forgiveness for.

Quickly adopting a flexible approach to home-working included recognizing that more breaks might be needed – especially ones that involved being away from the desk and in fresh air, such as taking walking meetings and calls.

We understood that not everyone has the same home set-up, and that for many working from home can be difficult, if you have relatives or young children living with you or you live in a house share. Wherever possible, we tried to be flexible around home-schooling or were forgiving on deadlines. Priority was placed on proactively supporting colleagues’ mental health, providing meditation sessions and mental health drop-ins to ensure they were looked after. We run regular drop-in sessions with the leadership team – the last one, a Time to Talk, was attended by nearly 100 people.

A big part of wellbeing has also been to ensure that our staff are ‘working from home’, not ‘living at work’. This involves setting clear boundaries, ensuring that people aren’t working long hours and, where possible, that computers are closed down by 6.30pm. It’s important to spend time with friends and family as well, to keep a healthy work/life balance.

This duty of care also extended to our clients. We knew that in many instances, their workplaces would be operating under similar pressures. A more hands-on, partnership approach was adopted, which often involved putting our own ideal outcomes to one side and being flexible and adaptable to client needs.

We focused on how we could support them and their business continuity. We were already well on our way to rolling out our new Customer Experience Management (CXM) proposition, and well placed to help companies shift to digital in months rather than years. For some, this meant the difference between surviving, while some even thrived.

Despite the pandemic, the collaboration we see from our teams and the different skills and expertise that come together to navigate clients’ challenges has been inspiring. We’ve had to find ways to have those casual corridor conversations that often lead to us unearthing barriers or discussing innovations that might otherwise not have come to light.

And, just as we’ve had to innovate with our clients, so we have had to within our teams and with each other. At Merkle, we have a strong culture that is driven from our global leadership, through our regional and local leadership and throughout the organization. We’ve had to find ways to ensure that this remains strong, even in a virtual world, sharing our vision and communicating big news such as our changes in leadership and bringing people along on the journey. It’s all been a learning curve.

The outcome of this crisis will be more emphasis on developing behavioral and values-driven leadership. It’s about how you operate as a leader, putting your team and clients first. It’s about building a truly collaborative workforce, engaging people and using positive influence within the organization.

While the events of 2020 were tough for everyone and we’re far from in the clear yet, I believe that the pandemic has really brought out the best in people and a sense of ‘we’re in this together’. It’s been an opportunity for organizations to drive new leadership agendas to respond in the short-term in ways that will sustain their organizations over the long-term.

Learn more about The Drum’s UK Digital Agency Census 2021 and sign up for future updates here.