Agency leaders are looking ahead—and looking forward—to a return to an old style of easy collaboration: sweaty rooms full of crumpled paper and half-empty coffee cups, and glass walls covered in Post-Its. At the same time, the lessons of lockdown will change the way agencies operate—likely permanently, hopefully for the better. Far-flung colleagues have had a yearlong crash course in remote teamwork, and new hiring has relied less on local networking and it’s-who-you-know glad-handing.
“We had our best new business year ever last year. All agencies look the same size on Zoom,” says Jonathan Schoenberg, executive creative director and partner at Boulder agency TDA, which has a few dozen employees but competes in pitches against much larger shops. “You're not going to have more than a certain number of people on the call.”
But how many of these changes remain in place long-term is an open question, and the answer depends on an agency’s size, location, clients and leadership. As the pandemic winds down, the expectations and opportunities for a new way of working are piling up.
Everywhere you want to be
Zoom (and sure, Microsoft Teams) have redefined what it means to work together, and that’s thrown open the doors to a new wave of workers. “Historically, the first question we would be asked when talking to someone about a new role—which quickly becomes the single biggest barrier—is ‘Where is it?’” says Jay Haines, founder of executive search firm Grace Blue.
“Moving away from a city they love, away from friends and family they are connected to and moving school-age children normally means the majority of opportunities outside of their current city are an immediate ‘no.’ That is simply no longer the case,” he adds. “People now have access to companies they have always wanted to work for but just couldn’t physically get to.”
Even people who might have taken the job anyway and dealt with the consequences of a cross-country move will benefit from having the option to stay put, reducing the strain on family, finances and work-life balance.
Creative leaders have begun to embrace the change, too. “In the past, probably every ECD or CCO would say, “No, you have to live in New York if you're working on X account. I need to see you in the office,’” says Rob Reilly, global chief creative officer at WPP. “I do believe we've gotten really good at being able to work remotely. I don't think you can have everybody doing it, but who knows, it might be possible.”
Career paths will change in years to come as people select for fit and function rather than location, and competition for choice positions at agencies that are open to remote roles should increase. It also means agencies will have access to talent that was previously out of their reach, or that required persuasion and a hefty relocation package to bring on board.
Obligations and opportunities
With an expanded pool of applicants, agencies have a chance to begin to fulfill the promises many of them made in this last year, pledging to diversify workforces, senior leadership, supply chains and output.
“Flexible and remote work can certainly complement and accelerate progress, but making the commitments and statements live beyond a social media post is every day work and difference-making that has to occur no matter our geography. What is clear is that ‘business as usual’ is not an option,” says Kali Beyah, global chief talent officer at Huge. “The fact that I’m an Atlanta-based CTO for Huge, headquartered in Brooklyn, reflects an appreciation that doing things differently is requisite to the future of work and diversifying our organizations."
A shop in Oregon (or Sweden, for that matter) is no longer bound by local demographics—or excused by them. There’s one less barrier to filling a diverse slate of candidates before every hire. “The talent pool for those hiring is so much broader and more diverse by every metric, Haines says.
This global work-from-home experiment also proves much of the reluctance to adopt more accommodating policies was ill-founded. These digital tools for remote work have been available for years, but widespread adoption didn’t happen until lockdowns forced the issue. “Prior to the pandemic, working remotely was often viewed by many corporations as impractical and ineffective,” says Josh Loebner, director of strategy at ad agency Designsensory in Knoxville, Tennessee. “In many instances, disabled staff requests to telecommute were either rejected outright or became contentious issues.”
But technology once considered too complicated, expensive or low-priority is now standard. Accessibility features like live captioning and automated transcripts are rapidly being deployed, but even just the widespread acceptance of videoconferencing makes life easier for disabled people in the industry.
“As a blind person, I don’t drive and have previously relied on others in my commute to and from work, but with remote working, I’m able to promptly jump on a video chat anytime, along with so many others who’ve experienced the pleasure of attending meetings from home,” Loebner says. “For those disabled employees in wheelchairs, or for example a little person that, in the past, may not have felt as liberated to speak in a boardroom meeting due to differences in stature, videoconferencing creates a uniformity of sizes where everyone is in a 'Brady Bunch' square.” The sameness sometimes decried as dull can be a great equalizer.