There’ve been quite a few headlines recently about agency employees being overworked to the point it affects their mental health. In this week’s post, I want to explore how that connects to agency new business and what can be done to address it.
How did we get here?
Poor work-life balance has always been an issue for agencies. Each year, as clients expect more work, faster, for less money, it further compounds the problem. Then, last year’s abrupt switch to remote working conditions introduced the expectation of being “on” 24/7.
That alone is plenty. But on top of it, the pandemic set the pace for shorter turnaround times, while agencies cut salaries, bonuses, and reduced staff numbers. Clients once again asked agencies to do even more with even less. And, with each contraction, agency employees have been spread unnaturally thin as they reach to do the work of multiple people, faster and better than ever.
This is getting depressing, and I haven’t even layered on the new business needs yet.
For much of 2020, new business pitches were put on hold, while agencies put everything they had into their current client relationships to avoid losing their business. Since the end of 2020, pitches have been coming back at an increasing pace that has “many agency new business leaders privately very worried about how to deal with the volume” (Campaign). Industry insiders expect a flurry of new business activity throughout 2021 as marketers revisit the searches they postponed in 2020.
In a new survey of agencies, 51% said they pitch one to three times a month, and 38% said they pitch at least once a week. 70% of them plan to pitch even more in the next 12 months (Digiday, The State of Agencies). There’s no end in sight.
How does this affect agency employees’ mental health?
Agency employees are beyond burnt out. It is proving too much to bear for even the hardest-working and most committed of employees. Something has to give. Many of them are leaving (and sharing their stories of 15-hour workdays, nonstop pitching—even through the holidays, and pandemic burnout).
A recent survey of UK agencies by pitch consultancy The Great Pitch Company found that agency employees do not feel their personal time, mental health, or existing workloads are respected by agencies when it comes to new business pitches. 61% said heavy workloads were the biggest challenge to new business in 2020, and 58% said their regular workload is not taken into consideration when new business is concerned.
Another survey found 75% of marketers (at brands and agencies) said their mental health had worsened since the beginning of the pandemic (The Drum). 62.6% of them reported that their workload had a major impact on their mental health. And 43% of them said their employer offered no mental health support.
“Five to eight people have left my company in the last couple of months, and we're a small agency. Half a billion people are out of a job, and this job sucks so much, they're leaving." — A senior art director at a San Francisco agency (in Business Insider)
How does this affect agencies’ new business prospects?
Employee burnout is causing agencies to miss out on opportunities to grow their client base. Business is either not pursued or passed on due to staff burnout and employee attrition. We've had clients turn away multiple opportunities due to a lack of internal resources. They can't take on new business until they fortify their employee rosters.
Additionally, agency pitch performance will suffer. The more pitches an agency takes on, the more it will stretch its team members, increasing the likelihood of a lower quality pitch and lost opportunity, which will further damage employee morale. In fact, Digiday’s recent survey found that agencies pitching a minimum of one to three times a month were only winning new business about once per quarter.
“One of the challenges inherent to agency work is burnout. For a team, pouring their heart and soul into a pitch only to narrowly lose business to competition...is exhausting and discouraging, and recovering can take a while. Agency employees, discouraged by lack of results, may feel dissatisfied, which in turn may lead to high turnover rates.” — Digiday and StackAdapt, The State of Agencies
The responsibility for change is shared
There is widespread recognition that the current conditions are not sustainable. But where does the responsibility lie? Earlier this month, Omar Oakes asked whether marketers should take more responsibility for the welfare of pitching agencies (Campaign). Ultimately, agencies can't maintain humane working conditions and a reasonable work-life balance for their employees without marketers’ willingness to meet them halfway. The responsibility for change must be shared.
Agencies, many of which have grown accustomed to not pushing back against client demands, must stand up on behalf of their employees when asked to meet unreasonably tight deadlines without concessions for expected deliverables. Marketers, in turn, should consider forgoing pitches for project work and cutting unnecessary elements out of their search process.
Until then, this unhealthy pitch culture will continue unchecked, with peoples’ health at risk. (And, for what? There was quite a bit of forgettable and bad advertising work created in 2020. Let the people sleep, in the name of better creative).
“It’s not enough to just say: “Well, agencies have a choice, they don’t need to pitch.” This is an irresponsible position to take. To survive, to pay their staff and keep the lights on, the vast majority do. In a pitch or starve situation, most agencies will take their chances and pitch.
Marketers have every right to call a pitch, but they must acknowledge and take responsibility for the wastage inherent in that pitch process. Enlightened marketers will consider the human impact of the pitches they call – and take steps to reduce the frequency, length and scale of them.” — Julian Douglas, IPA president, and vice-chairman, VCCP (in Campaign)
If there were awards given for well-run searches (and why aren’t there?), MassMutual’s recent search would take home “best-in-show.” With the help of Sunday Dinner’s Lindsey Slaby, MassMutual was able to execute an efficient and effective four-week review without RFPs or spec work. It’s an efficient, respectful model that (hopefully) represents the future of agency searches. But agencies can’t get there alone.
A better, more sustainable agency search model depends on search consultants, brands, and agencies working together. We must be willing to have difficult conversations, embrace positive change, and take the necessary steps to protect the wellbeing of our people.
Best practices for agencies
Agencies should create plans to manage burnout and protect their employees—if they don’t already have them in place. This will allow them to take full advantage of the many new business opportunities that are projected for the back half of this year.
Here are a few suggestions specific to new business:
- Put your people first (you already know they “go hard”—protect them)
- Communicate to potential clients and search consultants when the pitch timelines don’t seem reasonable
- Opt-out of searches that aren’t well-run
- Only pursue opportunities you truly have a right to win
- Work harder and smarter on fewer pitches to win more of them (and better manage your human resources)
Additionally, Michael Farmer of TrinityP3 USA suggests that agencies "document and measure the amount of work they commit to (via Scopes of Work) to assure that the work does not exceed the resources they're being paid for." He notes, "I've worked with agencies for 30 years, and I have yet to find an agency that has a decent SOW documentation and measurement system...in fact, SOWs are not even negotiated."
Business Insider recently spoke with ad agency executives to learn how they are trying to curb employee burnout more broadly. Here are some of the strategies they mentioned:
- Model the importance of vacations from the top down
- Create a culture where weekend work and excessive overtime is not the gold standard
- More company-wide vacation
- Programs to help people with stress
- Reorganize internally to manage individuals' workloads more efficiently
- Cut down on Zoom meetings
- Institute agency-wide days off
- Use fewer communication channels
- More mental health days
- Limit late-night emails and manage expectations for response times
- Mindfulness, meditation, and psychotherapy sessions
- Mental health support on demand
- Destigmatize mental health at work
Talk to your employees and figure out what they need to continue being successful. Not every concession or courtesy costs money. Support them however you can.
Many studies demonstrate the correlation between employee happiness and workplace productivity. If agencies and their clients are focused on business results, it’s a mistake to overlook the people who will help make it happen.
Industry-wide, agencies and their clients have created conditions that are untenable for agency employees. It’s no longer just an issue of business margins; people’s health and wellbeing are at risk. Collaboratively, industry stakeholders must delineate appropriate boundaries.
Separately, agencies that proactively manage their human resources to avoid burnout will be in the best position to gain new business and add clients they want to work with to their agency roster.