What's next for agencies in 2021?

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The year we’ve just been through will certainly make history. We’ve seen society move from globalised, frenetic and somewhat overcrowded streets to the unforgiving solitude of our own houses pretty much overnight. And the ways we coped with this social and economical crisis are certain to shape our future in many an interesting way.

From those who loved detaching from the outside world to loneliness, mental health issues and burnout, this pandemic has brought out the true essence of most of us, welcoming the world in our living rooms and changing them forever. Agencies in the industry haven’t been exempt from this pretty picture, and it is enough to speak to a couple of industry leaders to realise that everyone has had a different experience. Though many would still agree on the same key points.

The coronavirus pandemic has changed the industry in a way we could never expect. Looking at the year that’s past, we can now keep a hopeful eye on the future – even as we step into a third lockdown that is bound to last for months. What’s next for agencies in 2021? Not knowing precisely what to think about that, I thought I could get in touch with three amazing people from the industry, with varying employer sizes.

This article will include quotes and thought by:

  • Matt Eastwood, Global CCO at McCann Health;
  • Estelle Wackermann, Managing Director at Wolff Olins London;
  • Kerry Bolt, Co-Founder & Client Partner at B&B Studio.


Image credit: Francesca Chila

The Positive Effects of Lockdowns

Yes – quite interestingly, there are some positive effects derived from all the lockdowns we’ve been through, and some of these will impact the industry for years to come. Agencies were impacted in different ways, with some experiencing even more volume of work than others – McCann Health, being in healthcare, was of course one of these. Wolff Olins was lucky enough to have differentiated its client base and, although some dropped out of certain big projects, others decided to stay.

This third lockdown, however, is quite different compared to the first two. Even the second one already felt like a whole other story compared to what happened in March 2020. According to Estelle, clients are now more aware of the new opportunities and even the workforce is more focused, meaning there is an even higher productivity on the business side and teams are more united than ever.

This could easily be due to the lack of contact with the outside world. Estelle says: “This lockdown is coming at a time when people are tired from what has been a long year, where the need to get together in more physical and informal ways is real and pressing.” We strive to connect with others even while apart, and this changes our entire approach to work.

The future of the workplace is hybrid.

As a result, we get the sense that the workplace has now been changed forever. According to Matt, 2021 will see more remote working, but also a number of agencies adopting a hybrid working model, with part of the workforce focused at home and another fraction in the office – depending on the needs of each individual. “I don’t think we’ll ever going back to a 100% office-based working model,” Matt says. “As so many agencies have discovered, we are equally as effective (if not more so) with people working from home. The future will undoubtedly be based on some form of hybrid working model. Excitingly, this new model will also open up the talent market, allowing agencies to hire talent from anywhere, no longer restricted only hiring from the city where they are based.”

This hopefully globalised talent pool has dual benefits of course, whether you are an individual or an employer. True, there will be even more competition – but the workforce will be spread on a more global level, meaning there will be more opportunities for everyone to tap into. And here come new opportunities for international business partnerships that would never have been possible pre-pandemic.


Image credit: Amir Abou Roumié

Is it all fun and games?

But clearly, the pandemic hasn’t been kind to everyone. We know for a fact that freelancers and the production/event industry have been struggling quite a lot, and the smaller and weaker players in the industry have found themselves going through some economic hardship.

“It would be wrong to gloss over the pressures that many creative agencies and clients are reeling from as a result of the crisis - both professionally and on a personal level,” says Kerry from B&B Studio. “However, if we allow ourselves to try and find positive consequences, I hope we will see a renewed creative bravery in the industry.”

After the first wave of Covid, and especially as lockdown restrictions were eased over Summer, clients were found willing to risk more and invest in their future to seize the unique brand opportunities this year has brought to them. With consumer habits shifting like never before, there have been new challenges for brands and agencies in the industry, and according to Kerry, it is creativity that which will set brands apart this year.

2021 will all be about finding a new balance

There have been, of course, the much discussed issues of mental health and burnout. Luckily, the creative industry is one of empathy and human connection, and the best employers were all keen to adopt new initiatives and ideas to support employers through this tough time. Matt confirmed that McCann Health has adopted new employee assistance programmes to address the stigma of mental health and support employees when they needed it the most. Managers and leaders have spent more time with their team, reaching new levels of intimacy. “We’ve even launched an ongoing social campaign around a group of characters called ‘The Buddies,’ who give regular tips on how to manage your mental health,” Matt adds.

And 2021 will all be about finding a new balance, as we slowly ease back into a semblance of normality. “Everyone has different pressures and with work predominantly being at home it’s easy to find yourself working all hours. Set boundaries so that when you are working you can be as productive as possible, and when you stop you can have proper personal time to restore and re-energise,” Kerry adds. “Where there is an opportunity to connect with your team, take it. It’s easy to forget the ‘buzz’ you get from socialising/connecting with your team and sharing thoughts and ideas.”

It’s impossible, of course, to set our own minds off some fears and worries that this new year brings along. The fact we will still be stuck at home for quite some time may hurt creativity in the long run. “One challenge that I think we face as creatives moving forward is making sure that we step away from the screen and our comfort zones, and find inspiration in new experiences. We have to be proactive about this as it isn't always as easy as it sounds,” Kerry adds.


Image credit: Camille Benoit

And there are, of course, the aftermaths of an economic crisis looming in the background, which will still continue to have major consequences all over the industry – not to mention Brexit. According to Estelle, “Economic hardship is a real fear for many: there’s a lot of debt to repay, tax and price rises are on the way. I hope we’ll learn from the last recession that investment is needed to create momentum in the marketplace. Our industry fortunes follow the local and global economy closely, so we’ll need to be very focused to maintain our success and ensure clients recognise our value.”

There is a risk that this crisis will result in a “lethargy” similar to March 2020, and that there will be less room for risk. However, Estelle believes we should remain hopeful; brands and clients have shown their good will to dare and risk over Summer, and who’s to say they won’t be willing to do it again for a whole year?

So what’s next for agencies in 2021?

A whole lot, really. With an economic crisis still underway, there are growing concerns that things may get even worse for some of the smaller and weaker players in the industry. At the same time, it’s hard not to keep up hope when we look at all the amazing brand and marketing work that was made last year.

Employers are changing, the workplace is changing, and our working habits with them. Clients seem willing to risk more, industry leaders are more focused on mental health than ever, and teams overall feel more connected. This pandemic has all the potential and elements in place to make us believe it will create a new generation of deeply human leaders and professionals – people who are bound to change the industry forever.

Header image: Daniel Quirke


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