Everyone knows advertising agencies have crazy hours, unpredictable days, lengthy meetings and plenty of back and forth, so that with time we start to believe this is the only tried and tested way to get work done. The process may seem to be set in stone, yet, how creatively do we approach the process itself? And if it involves grunts and sighs, long faces and headaches, it is probably not the most conducive environment to create inspiring, out-of-the-box campaigns.
Although, as creative professionals, we have developed immense respect for the traditional method of getting work done, developments in the virtual world have brought us new systems. Perhaps what we have failed to explore is the value of a virtual workforce, be it in an advertising agency or the design and creative space.
Young creative professionals today want flexibility of time and place and many of them start working as freelancers or small business owners during their university days, well before officially entering the job market. Yet, business owners and the team managing the creative resources are apprehensive that this flexibility may translate into inefficiencies. How do you account for the number of hours spent working in a day? How do you ensure confidentiality? How do you keep creative minds on the same page as the team in planning and strategy? How do you brief them effectively? Most importantly, how do you deal with urgent tasks or changes in a project (of which there may be many) when a client calls? Despite these misgivings of not having ‘control’ over employees and monitoring their output, there are seven very good reasons why developing a virtual workforce is a good and much-needed method for organisations that want to distinguish themselves by delivering innovative and creative solutions to their clients and customers.
When developing design solutions or a creative communication, perhaps one of the most significant factors is trust. Trust between the client and the agency. Trust between business owners and their team. Trust between the manager and the art director, the copywriter, the illustrator and the photographer. Understanding that they all have a stake in the result they produce. Trusting the team to deliver excellence, respect timelines, think on their feet and think like the client. Similarly, if a creative employee is trusted to create with focus and enthusiasm while inhabiting a time and space of their liking, the chances are they will get back with something worthwhile. They will uphold the trust.
During art or business school, most students discover what their personal process is when they work on a storyboard, make a project presentation or work out what kind of a start-up would be feasible. Some draw inspiration from loud music; others prefer peace and quiet. Some people need sunlight streaming in; for others, it may mean a migraine. Managers, particularly people who are in charge of creativity or product development, must realise that creative people, whether designers, writers or visualisers, deliver their best work when they are not confined. A virtual working arrangement, therefore, is very likely to boost creative excellence. Restricting people within space and time may result in work that meets the criteria, but almost closes off the path of creative brilliance.
Creative people often slow down to dream and change pace to focus on an idea. Irrespective of how efficiently the Client Service or Finance Departments try, no creative can be enslaved by the clock. An idea may strike in the moment before a meeting, or even during or after. Virtual working works because a 9 to 6 (read 9 to 9 in the ad world) day may not be enough to nurture an idea or develop a concept. Creative progress often happens outside the realm of set timings. We must encourage the habit of pricing creativity based on how effectively it delivers on the brief, and not on how many hours are spent in the office at a designated desk.
Another reason virtual working helps the creative professional is something we have watched in many Hollywood films. A frustrated ad agency guy has nothing to present to the client. Time is running out; the ashtray is full, cups of coffee are strewn around and the room is musty. He walks out feeling despondent and chances upon a children’s playground and there, where a toddler is playing on the seesaw, comes his eureka moment. He scribbles something on a napkin and rushes back to the office exhilarated. An integral part of any award-winning creative piece is its ability to connect the dots, draw surprising parallels and use analogies from real life to illustrate a brand’s message. The flexibility of working from anywhere increases the chances of making those intangible connections.
Finding perspective is always a challenge when communicating with people. We wonder how our target audience will respond to the work we produce. If one does the rounds of advertising agencies today, will we find sections of society that are (unintentionally) not represented in the creative space. Let’s say, women with young children. Don’t most of them leave the office space either to freelance or teach? It should be of concern to an ad agency and their clients that one of the most significant members of their target audience are mothers between 25 and 45. Yet, they are hardly there to represent their segment in the brainstorming sessions. Would it not be ideal to have their perspective on a new noodle brand or a social campaign on education? They may have more insights than an entire room of experienced admen. Why do we continue to own and operate agencies that attract, by sheer deduction, only the creative people who can spend a specified amount of hours at a fixed place?
In many parts of the world, workstations are now rotational first-come, first-serve spaces. Virtual workforces may seem like a risk but for the day-to-day budget, a business could actually save money by investing in them. Powerful laptops, a spacious portable drive and a dependable internet connection are the only costs involved. Once these are in place, all the agency needs to do is dispatch a monthly salary. Housing an entire creative staff takes running cash, air conditioning, floor space, furniture, tea and coffee.
We walk up to each other’s desks in a typical agency environment. Why not keep the tempo alive digitally now that we have free and easy tools at our fingertips? The quality of communication and the practice that goes into doing it eloquently is fostered through virtual working. Multiple project management applications such as Basecamp or Slack are available to encourage virtual work and are nothing short of an agency’s huddle room. Conversation flows, is instant, ongoing and can always receive support from a relevant global online community. Communicating effectively is an art and virtual working enhances it. We learn when to say something and what to say with clarity and purpose. We learn to manage our tone of voice and visualise how others interpret it. We learn to stir emotion using words and sometimes pictures (or even better, GIFs). We share creative ideas or critique them, improve on each other’s thoughts and assess their impact. All these are components of the creative process.
I discovered the joy, and productivity, of selecting the hours of my choice and working through them, thanks to some amazing mentors. After five years of agency life and nine of virtual work, it still fascinates me how much ground can be covered in two to three hours of work at home or in a café. A logo, content ideas and taglines are sometimes hard to come by within the confines of office cubicles. As valuable and important as the briefing sessions, presentations and meetings with the team are – virtual working can unlock a new level for both young creatives as well as seasoned professionals. It has the potential to encourage focused yet imaginative thinkers and engender integrity and a sense of responsibility towards the projects in hand.
Nagin Ansari is Group Head, Marcom, Ithaca Capital and Creative Head & CEO, Backspace Design and Media.