Opinion: Can ad agencies get culture right in 2021 to attract back talent?

Two months after the outbreak of COVID-19 in Singapore, many ad agencies were forced to enter cost-cutting modes moving into three or four day weeks, freezing headcount and making redundancies. In its early days, we saw Publicis Groupe implementing a global US$540 million cost-reduction plan, while WPP's executive committee members in all markets volunteered to take a 20% salary cut. And, while these moves were made early into the year, it certainly wasn’t the end of it. The pandemic went on to take jobs for the rest of the year with Omnicom’s BBDO shutting down its Malaysia office, Dentsu reducing jobs by 12.5% and PR firm Edelman, which previously reassured its employees there would not be job losses, making cuts to 7% of its global workforce.

In Singapore, agencies were thrown a curveball early into the pandemic as the government imposed the circuit breaker measures in March last year, mandating employees to work from home. This, according to agency heads, posed one of the biggest challenges when it came to building a culture for their teams in 2020.

Jacqui Lim, group CEO at Havas Singapore, told MARKETING-INTERACTIVE that working from home elevated stress levels for employees having to juggle virtual connections and family obligations. Not being able to meet face-to-face and attending to a barrage of calls also added on to the stress, seconded Alvina Seah, MD at independent agency GOVT Singapore.

Even for S4's content arm MediaMonks, where employees had been familiar with working with one another virtually even before COVID-19, on-boarding new talent in 2020 and making them feel truly included posed a challenge, Joris Knetsch, managing director Singapore and Southeast Asia, MediaMonks shared.

Of course, all of these challenges, coupled with the forced isolation, also raised concerns on mental well-being of employees working in Singapore. According to media reports, during the circuit breaker period, the number of calls made to the Samaritans of Singapore (SOS) hotline increased from 3,826 in March to 4,319 in April, and hit 4,265 in May. The figures were about 30% to 35% higher than a year ago.

In an industry known for long hours and being cut-throat in nature, agency heads MARKETING-INTERACTIVE spoke to, said supporting employees and creating “bonding moments” virtually quickly became a priority for them. GOVT, which describes its culture as one where employees “take care of each other” decided to personally deliver meals to fellow colleagues and their families to create what MD Seah describes as “pockets of interaction”.

Meanwhile, MediaMonks created interactive moments through spontaneous virtual coffee breaks, online games and online Show and Tells, all of which offered its employees a different lens to see their coworkers through. Aiming to build a tangible culture, MediaMonks’ Knetsch said the agency also kept its employees connected through Shift, an internal video content platform, and celebrates both individuals and teams for the work they do. Its local offices have also gathered virtually to celebrate their successes. “Most recently, our office in Buenos Aires put together a live festival broadcast with the same caliber and production value that we offer to clients. These are a few ways we try to stimulate cultural integration,” Knetsch shared.

Similarly, global agency Havas launched “Havas From Home” – a sharing of curated content to keep all staff connected, engaged and supported. In Singapore, it also put together programmes such as online meditation, yoga, and mindfulness to help out employees cope with the health crisis.

So how do you foster culture in a hybrid world?

Fast forward to today, as many countries still struggle with lockdowns, the Singapore workforce has seen many individuals slowly trickle back to the office after the government announced the start of Phase three on 28 December. However, given that offices in Singapore are highly unlikely to operate at full capacity as of yet, it is safe to assume that most agencies will continue to adopt a hybrid way of working.

Mandy Wong, managing partner at TBWA\Singapore, said that the key is in striking a good balance and assuring its employees of the safety measures implemented for their well-being. At the same time, it is important to remind them of the importance of face-to-face engagement in a physical environment as it helps build culture and sense of collaboration, she added.

To achieve that, TBWA\Singapore has put in place a comprehensive “return to work” plan and protocol, which takes into consideration best practices that adhere to the Singapore government’s regulations. Wong added that the agency is doing so in phases, and constantly finding the best solution that suits its people while delivering the best work for its clients in a safe and effective manner. “This is a work in progress and so far, with a clear direction, communication and assessment, the agency is adapting and doing extremely well,” Wong said.

Meanwhile dentsu’s HR director, Yvonne Tan said the new norm will be a hybrid way of working with a focus on value creation, trust and empowerment. This will be done by holding its leaders and employees accountable for their behaviour, and actively encouraging everyone to “lean in and address difficult conversations”. In a new world where virtual collaborations are the new norm, Tan said dentsu will be creating a culture of where the agency "teams without limits and actively seeks out radical collaborative opportunities”.

Creating an inclusive agency culture in 2021 is also about having adaptability and understanding the concerns that people may have, Havas’ CEO Lim explained. It is about listening and working together to ensure that the agency is delivering. Going into the new year, Lim said the agency plans to continue placing importance on diversity and inclusion in the workplace which it hopes will help all employees feel accepted and valued.

Independent agency lead Seah said that once GOVT resolved some of its teething issues around working from home, it saw many of its employees performing at the same level of efficiency as they would have in the office. The agency also noticed that many of its employees were exploring their passions outside of work and growing personally – something the agency was fully in support of. As such, in 2021, the agency will be pivoting to focus on the importance of creating a culture of growth which includes personal growth goals beyond performance reviews.

Attracting talent in 2021

Talent, in the recent times, is one area ad agencies have struggled with. This will continue to be an issue in the near future, many agency leads predict. While it is no secret that there is a challenge when it comes to attracting and keeping the best talent throughout the ad industry, Havas’ Lim told MARKETING-INTERACTIVE that inculcating respect and providing a nurturing place for its people to grow is critical.

Agreeing with Lim, Mandy Goh, director of talent and new business at TBWA\ Singapore said remuneration, although a big factor, has never been the top reason for talents to stay in a company. “The brightest stars in our industry stay because they are passionate and want to succeed by creating work that is purposeful and makes a difference,” she said. Thus, agencies should step up and place a lot more focus on its people and culture.

Additionally, the creation of experience goes beyond internally and applies to the external work of agencies. “ ‘Ads’ (in their traditional sense) no longer exist. We now talk about creating brand experiences throughout the full brand ecosystem - designing and executing connected experiences. Where there are great creative solutions, great talent will follow,” Goh said.

Amidst the fierce competition for talent, there is also a need for the industry to band together and educate those beyond the industry on the “magical” side of adland, dentsu’s Tan explained. She added that “there is so much good work that comes out of our industry”, which led dentsu to champion meaningful progress not just for its clients, but also for the society at large, and that this should be tapped on to attract and retain talent.

But with the world changing so rapidly, and agency structures also revolving, what then makes for the best hire?

“We are always on the lookout for the weird and the wonderful ones out there, and evaluate candidates on both their skills as well as their personalities. That’s the only way we can keep delivering on our promise of premium quality work,” Knetsch tells MARKETING-INTERACTIVE. He added that for MediaMonks diversity is a key component for its hiring practice.

Meanwhile, Havas is of the view that given consumers today are channel-agnostic and interact with brands on the platforms that are the most convenient for them, skills that enforce silo-ed thinking are definitely outdated. In lieu of this, skills such as people-relation, client servicing, entrepreneurial skills are very important in addition to technical skills will remain crucial for the industry, Lim explained.

TBWA\’s Goh said that while creativity is listed as the most in-demand soft skill of the future by LinkedIn, she sees it as just solving problems in an original way. Thus the agency looks to attract talent who can “dream up new solutions and who embrace an attitude of constant experimentation”.

Agreeing with Goh is dentsu’s Tan, who said the agency will be focusing on hiring talents who are intellectually agile and curious about the world of possibilities in solving the problems faced by its clients and that of their clients. “We will be attracted to talents who have an insatiable hunger for excellence, resilience to weather the storms, and a competitive spirit to win in the marketplace,” she also said.

(Photo courtesy: 123RF)

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