All Change Please, All Change

You don’t need a smart-arse blogger to tell you that these are uniquely difficult times, nor that some things won’t ever be the same again. All of us have examples to hand – from our attitudes towards home working, to how we feel about walking into shops or eating in restaurants right through to the likelihood of ever again paying for anything with cash.

So far, at least here in the UK the impact on the size and shape of the various organisations involved in our industry, be they agencies (of any type), advertiser marketing departments, ad tech businesses or publishers has been comparatively minor.

This is not to gloss over the redundancies, nor the businesses that have had to close, but various Government schemes have done a lot to buy time.

However – economic reality is about to kick in. I fear it’s not going to be much fun.

Previous recessions have of course been horrible. My own memories go back to the 1970’s but I’ve lived through variations virtually every decade since.

The one thing that happens for sure in a recession is that the ad business shrinks. Advertisers spend less, pressures on fees kick in and the only realistic option for agencies is to reduce staff numbers.

We shrink, but we hold our shape. Advertising and media agencies emerge as recognisable albeit with fewer people working in them.

A survey by Moore Kingston Smith, reported this week in ‘Campaign’ indicates that 58% of agencies plan on cuts impacting up to 20% of staff numbers, and a further 22% suggest a number over 20%.

The survey, involving 100 agencies from several disciplines also found that: ..”the situation could get worse before it gets better, (but that) 87% of respondents believe the crisis presents them with an opportunity, with more than half saying it allows for a “rationalisation of their business”.

I’m not sure that ‘rationalisation’ is the right word. Why shrink when you could restructure? After all, the agency sector has for years been criticised for carrying on as before, with processes and structures no longer fit for purpose.

What is ‘fit for purpose’? And whose purpose?

Over recent years this has become a pertinent question (farther back it was far more obvious – agencies succeeded or failed based on how well they met their clients’ needs). You could argue that public ownership via the holding companies changed the dynamic; certainly technology, online media forms and the whole matter of media transparency have rewritten the rules.

Now there is an opportunity to rethink structures and processes and for agencies to base what they do unequivocally around the needs of their clients.

In short, to reconsider what value an agency can add in an age of data-driven decision making and in-house operations.

On the list must be a clearing away of anything that detracts from creativity, a more integrated approach to communication, and a more rigorous approach to metrics, research and learning.

But it’s not just what we do, but who does it, and where. It may be a cliché but it’s still true that an agency’s assets are its people. Many have got used over the last few months to different ways of working, and to different priorities.

We all understand the need to create an environment within which talent can flourish. An important part of this has been physical location, and in-house proximity.

Now there’s the challenge of rebooting many organisations given that some staff have managed the last few months comparatively well, others less so.

The online site Fastcompany.com carried a piece this week on how to knit together what the brilliant young author (ahem..) refers to as a psychologically fractured workforce.

“Organizations of all sizes and across all sectors and regions have such a disparity of employee experiences of the pandemic that creating a sense of “oneness” is a formidable task”.

Agencies have become used to a certain way of working. They grow, they shrink, but they carry on doing much the same thing. The biggest have become industrialised. Complacent. Unquestioning.

Any reboot would normally take an age (let’s be honest, it has taken an age). The pandemic and the coming recession are speeding things up.

Agencies have a chance to look afresh at everything they do. To focus on what’s important and to cut out time-consuming irrelevancies.

There’s also the uncomfortable truth that many working and employment practices are simply inappropriate, not to mention self-defeating today. Others have commented on the lack of diversity and the shortage of opportunities for those outside the cities and the bubble of privilege, and, encouragingly are doing something about it.

It’s clear that we have to get a lot better at thinking outside the traditional box if we are to meet both the changing requirements of our clients and the resetting of the priorities of our people.

We have an unfortunate track record of pontificating about change in this or that industry whilst continuing down our own same old path.

Circumstances outside of all of our control are going to give us the chance to walk the talk. The question is are we up to it. The irony is that we may have little choice.

 

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