Published in Nov-Dec 2021
I have read several articles on the troubles advertising agencies have gone through in these unsettled times. However, what is all too often missed out, is the stress and fatigue the people working in these agencies have been through and how to make this situation better. Agencies, no matter the brand they represent, are defined by people. They rise because of people and they fall if their people lose morale – and agency morale cannot be quantified by the smiles on the agency’s Instagram page; it runs deeper than that. Morale doesn’t just happen; great leaders make it happen.
The tough patch agencies have been going through recently can be attributed to diminishing ad spends, more competition, increasing unreasonable demands by clients and a broken retainer system. Then came Covid-19 and everything went south. Agencies have had to deal with wave after wave of issues, forcing them to learn new ways of remaining in business while their staff worked from home. Then when Covid-19 finally stopped threatening our way of life, agencies had to deal with ‘pandemic hangover’; a devaluating currency and rampant inflation.
If you believe that the last year was tough on agencies, think about how brutal it was for people forced to deal with unending uncertainty and anxiety. Agencies will bounce back quickly, but I am not so sure about the people. In fact, I think they will need extra help. They have had to deal with longer working hours, unprecedented stress and insecurity and they now need help in coming to terms with what they have had to endure and with the new normal thrust upon them. I think it will be a few years before things truly settle in the new normal, and in the meantime, agency leaders will have to make extra efforts to help people bounce back. At the end of the day, this is for the good of the agency, because a happy agency, poised for growth, is where people want to work; no one wants to work for an agency fielding a burned out workforce.
Here is what I think agency leaders need to do to improve morale. Owners and their senior management need to ask themselves if their agency is truly a stable organisation or have they turned into pressure cookers waiting to explode? Negativity and uncertainty kill workforce morale. A little stress helps the best people stay on top of their game, but non-stop stress burns out good people. A motivated workforce with high levels of morale is the best way for an agency to thrive in these uncertain times.
Forget the old carrot and stick approach. Agencies need a new brand of tough love and their people need a steady hand to get them back on their feet and guide them towards an island of stability in a sea of chaos. They need reasons to be optimistic. They need to feel part of an organisation on the right path, with leaders who show their human side and are not egomaniacs.
It saddens me to see so many people stuck in panic cycles, while their management sit, oblivious, in their ivory towers. People go into panic cycles when they have to deal with situations outside of their control. Leaders should not sit and wait for things to unravel, they need to take proactive steps to break the panic cycle.
Managers need to embrace flexibility while delivering results – one should not come at the cost of the other. I have my reservations about people working from home as a practice, but I do recognise it is not the end of the world. Good people want to be productive and they can deliver while dealing with situations at home and at work. A little flexibility demonstrates empathy and care, and good people will reward this by giving more than 100%.
Another issue is when excessive pressure and focus on unrealistic targets turn good managers into bullies – the last thing a distressed workforce needs. People like to connect with inspirational leaders, not bullies. Agency people need to be appreciated and given reasons to be optimistic, because change (which ultimately can lead to better times) is never comfortable. Not everyone will be able to keep up with change, and some will need special attention to ensure they do not end up feeling disconnected and disempowered.
Agency leaders need to be cautiously optimistic. It does not help when leaders become unnecessarily enthusiastic and build-up unrealistic hopes only to have the hard realities drop on people’s heads like a bomb. Leaders need to be transparent and take their people along with them. The road to improving workplace morale comes with many small victories and setbacks as well. Two steps forward, one step back. Leaders need to take every opportunity to recognise success when it comes and celebrate it with the team as a combined effort and not with the selected few. This is the way to build morale and resilience among their people.
Afzal Hussain is General Manager, M&C Saatchi World Services Pakistan. firstname.lastname@example.org