We are physically distant, but emotionally closer.
It's no secret that the lockdown and the COVID crisis have had a huge impact on agency work. Some agencies have struggled more than others, but we know that the lockdown was quite a heavy and crippling blow to most.
Still, among the pleasures of homeschooling and queueing up to enter a supermarket, COVID-19 has also shown us what films, novels and video games have been trying to teach us for decades: the resilience of the human being.
It wasn't too long ago that we preached about having to adapt, endure and embrace change for post-lockdown times. Fast-forward a couple of months, and we were right: the creative industry is slowly getting back on its feet, even as the cases are rising.
And Billy Faithfull, chief creative officer at the Engine Group, has a compelling argument to describe what happened, based on the experience he had with his team: contrary to any logical prediction, the lockdown has actually brought us closer together.
Below is his experience with leadership during COVID times.
Have the lockdown and the COVID crisis impacted agency work? If so, how?
Luckily, before lockdown was even a word in our vocabulary, we’d already put into play the concept of a performance vs attendance culture, essentially freeing people to work how, when or where they wanted in the name of better work.
Lockdown just made it real and forced the stragglers to get with the program. As far as the work goes, it’s had a huge impact, we’ve produced some great work as a result of people coming together and trying to do right by our clients and their customers.
We shot a campaign on iPhones for Women’s Aid in a week, remote-produced a belter with Aardman for Creature Discomforts, we helped Jägermeister champion the idea of staying at home with Meister Drop-Ins, and even reimagined our planned launch for MoneySuperMarket under very strange conditions with a 2000lb bull as the hero for the brand. All in all, we’ve experimented more, learned a shitload and come out fighting, creatively speaking – we all get on pretty well.
What are (and will be) the consequences of the above on the industry?
As an agency culture, and as a group of humans, I think we’re a little closer. We’ve seen behind the curtain, literally, of our colleagues’ private lives. We’ve been invited into their living rooms, loft studies, bedrooms and wardrobes. The consequences of these experiences shouldn’t be played down.
We’ve seen our colleagues’ other halves make them cups of tea, we’ve seen their children interrupt client meetings, we’ve heard their dogs barking at the Amazon deliverer. We are physically distanced, but emotionally closer. These experiences could and should make us better organisations, better employers and better employees. And the work should reflect that.
It’s time to get comfortable being uncomfortable in the comfort of our own homes.
The industry will, I hope, be a more generous and open place to work. Inclusion, which we all could be better at, starts with understanding. That we are all different, work differently, live different lives, use different language, have different biases and needs that companies and the industry should be conscious of.
I hope this baring of our lives will push that agenda forward and make for a better place to work. And naturally, where the world throws you a curveball, creative people tend to innovate, be that in the kinds of work we’re doing for clients, or in our production processes. This thing we’re in is the great accelerator, and disruption is headed our way like never before, so we all have to buckle up and get ready for that ride. We can’t dig our heels in forever, we have to try new things, in new ways. It’s time to get comfortable being uncomfortable in the comfort of our own homes.
What new challenges have arisen for team leadership in these tough times?
Uncertainty is a culture killer. Transparency is the only answer. Tell people the truth, as soon as you can. Be open and clear, with simple, human actions and language. It’s harder to tell how people are feeling over Zoom, so you have to ask them. Call it out if you spot doubt or misunderstanding and keep repeating the important things so they sink in.
Whilst it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, I desperately miss the camaraderie of the pub on a Thursday and Friday, a short, refreshing dose of humanity that did the world of good. It’s about the only thing that isn’t more efficient by wire. I’m getting to know people I’ve never seen from the neck down, our new colleagues who joined mid-lockdown, that’s working well. But doing that at scale? That’s next to impossible.
If we’re in for another year of this, we might see work becoming far more transactional and less built around relationships, which will be a huge challenge, especially as the industry has (wrongly, in my opinion) relied on the generosity of its workforce to top up what a client actually pays for, but it’s always been worth it for the work and the culture. If you remove the culture, the value exchange for creatively motivated people (of any job description) is dangerously off-balance.
How have you worked to tackle these challenges?
Mostly, I’ve just been working my ass off for the good of my people and my clients. For me, energy and enthusiasm are what I expect from anyone I work with, including myself. So, despite the fact that my diary looks like a map of hell, I’m all in on everything and I hope that rubs off on the crew.
I also think a little levity goes a long way. Life’s too short not to laugh, and when the world seems to be crashing down around us, there’s nothing like a daft idea to lift the soul a little bit, even if it is about bread, or insurance. I can’t abide people or organisations who take themselves too seriously, so I try and bring the opposite to everything I do and go from there.
How did you safeguard the mental health of the team?
We're lucky enough to have a really supportive and open culture around mental wellbeing. We have a team of 30+ Mental Health First Aiders who are trained to listen, provide support and signpost support services to anyone struggling, and I make sure I check in as much as possible with all of the team. Our people can also access free therapy and counselling sessions through private healthcare.
What will the “new normal” look like for the team?
The best thing about the new normal is there won’t be one. The work will start to fit around individuals and teams, rather than monocultures that insist you work in a particular way.
I like that people who found the open plan, hot desk set up a challenge are able to do two hours work in two hours because they’re at home, uninterrupted. I like that I can have lunch with my wife. I like that I no longer have to have a difficult discussion with someone because they want to drop their kids at school, but don’t want to sign a new contract. I like the idea that we’ll eventually be able to mix this with good old fashion face to face time and that we’ll cherish those opportunities to inhabit the same expensive, reduced space with our work friends. I like the idea that spaces will be designed differently, agencies won’t have to waste millions in having a central London office, that good people will just simply be available regardless of their location. I like the idea that one of my team might want to work from Papa New Guinea for a bit. Although some of my peers might disagree...