Why Advertising Should Embrace a More Flexible Way of Working

A fluid future of creativity and company culture

Over the past 18-24 months, there has been a heightened spotlight on working culture across the globe. What is achievable from home, how effective can we be from our living room, how we can maintain a sense of company culture whilst remote, and will we ever return to the fundamental office week we've all known? Over the last three decades, I've worked with creatives, artists, engineers and strategists across content creation, and the common thread leading to success has been recognizing the needs of our teams in order to get the best creative work out of them. My goal has always been to develop working practices that facilitate the best output—and the pandemic has provided a new platform to rethink the ways in which we work across our industry. 

A lot has changed since the 1990s when I started my first company. Long hours in the advertising and entertainment industries have always been the norm—stuck in the office over nights and weekends. There has always been a sense that if you weren't desk-side, you weren't working, and the concept of working from home was inconceivable, least of all because the technology available just didn't allow it. The world hadn't really broken this concept of office culture until the pandemic forced our hand. We have finally proven that we can be successful outside a corporate Madison Avenue setup, outside of secure suites and boardrooms. The rigidity of corporate culture has changed, and we would do well not to return to it if we want to get the best out of our staff. 

The global pandemic created all sorts of new challenges for us in the world of production and advertising. On March 13, 2020, many of us went home after work and did not return to the office for months, a year, or ever. We had to review our systems and our thinking. How do we make this all work from home? What are our clients doing to stay in business? How do we engage in a new workflow with them? Can this new normal work in the long term? Fortunately, companies and, more importantly, people had the resolve to adapt to new ways of working and did so very quickly. So now that we are all working in some new capacity, what does that mean going forward?

For me and my teams, this really has signified the end of the 40-hour work week—five days at the office for eight hours a day is dead—thank goodness! The first problem with the old work model was that many of us work a lot more than 40 hours a week. Throw in commuting, client entertainment, company events, and we were all sacrificing a great amount of personal time. Finally, we have autonomy over our time and our working hours. My philosophy is to build a level of trust with your employees to manage their own schedule, get the work done and facilitate an environment that works best for them. 

As a business owner, you might think that the death of the compulsory 40-hour desk-side week is bad for me, but it isn't. The fuel to any company is its people. What I have learned over the past couple of decades is that the welfare of my employees is critical to the success of my company. When employees begin to sour on the company, often due to not being able to create balance in their lives, you lose them. Years of time and effort trying to hire them, train them and have them build relationships with their co-workers and clients is out the window and you have to start from scratch with someone new. It is much more effective to have a culture that takes into account that people have a life outside of the job.

Years ago at one of my previous digital agencies, we merged with a company that had offices in Avon, Colorado. At first it would seem that would be an odd location for a global digital agency. At the time, a lot of employees were jumping from studio to studio across the industry and we were constantly hiring and replacing staff. However, this location at the foot of world-class ski resort Beaver Creek was a magnet for retaining our staff of about 100 people. The main difference at this location was the fact that the company made adjustments for a staff of avid skiers. Employees would come in early in the morning to begin work. At around 11 a.m. a decent number of employees would cross the road and ski for a couple of hours and then return to work and work into the evening hours. The work was done well, the clients loved visiting our office there, and employees were incredibly productive. 

It's easy to muse on creating the perfect utopian workplace. However, the challenge of creating a new model where we can create the perfect work-life balance also has to work for our clients, too. Work hours, meetings, workflows, connectivity, security issues are all mandates that come from our clients. The capability of wholesale change has been there for some time—it's now our challenge to get everyone in the advertising ecosystem on board. 

The cultural shift of the past months provided an excellent platform to take what we know and flip it on its head. Instead of trying to unpick the cultural norms in an old company structure, I partnered with a couple of likeminded individuals to build a new normal from scratch. Our goal was simple yet complex. With all the evolution we have seen that has come out of the pandemic, how do we build a new creative advertising studio that holds flexibility for both our staff and clients at its heart.

The technology that enables this flexibility is now prolific—5G, cloud-based working, virtual production, there's little that can't be done remotely. And for those who simply prefer the creative collaboration of an in-person meeting, we can facilitate that, too. I truly believe the future success of our industry and creativity has to be hybrid. That's how we'll get the best out of our people and the best out of ourselves.

While change in a company's operation can be difficult to keep up with its culture, it is absolutely needed in order to avoid being obsolete. Change is great—let's embrace this opportunity as an industry. The takeaway? Trust your employees, empower them to do their work in the best way that facilitates their creativity and growth, and if you can, go skiing at lunchtime… 

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Art Williams
Art Williams is president of Assembly.

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