As #detoxwork posts took over the internet, agencies across the country were quick to take note and come up with countermeasures that would help their employees sail through this tough time. One such countermeasure was the 4-Day work week.
However, despite a slew of posts describing various countermeasures taken by various agencies, many ad folks still remained skeptical. Many employees of the advertising world believe that this is a PR gimmick where working hours of 5 days will be scrummed to accommodate that one extra day off in the 4-day work week.
The most popular one, I must say.
In an industry where weekends are a joke at many places, their skepticism is understandable.
But how did we get here?
How did we go from being partners to becoming vendors?
How did we go from being prestigious white-collar workplaces to becoming sweatshops?
Well, many factors contributed to this change.
Over the last few years, as digital captured market share, it practically ate into the revenues of some large mainline agencies.
Many other smaller agencies cropped up, did amazing work at much lesser costs while mainline agencies still struggled to adapt to this wave of digital transformation. (If you ask me, they are still struggling)
That, in turn, prompted the holding companies of these mainline agencies to go on an acquisition spree. Why compete with them when you can own them?
However, as they kept acquiring more and more agencies, more and more agencies kept cropping up in hopes of being acquired. This is not to say that every new agency wants to be taken over by a holding company, but let’s face it, it’s an attractive retirement plan for many agency owners.
These agency owners definitely worked hard to grow their agencies, but they made their employees work even harder to chase targets, make new business pitches, close more clients, get more business from existing clients, etc.
Meanwhile, the holding companies and their mainline agencies struggled to adapt to the new entrants in the system – the digital counterparts. In many instances, instead of adapting to the way of working of these new entrants, the holding companies almost bullied them into following their way of thinking and working. You see, mergers and acquisitions cannot solve mindset problems.
The result of all this was a massive shift in the demand-supply paradigm between clients and agencies.
Clients had already been looking for agencies outside of their traditional agency on record to handle the demands of the digital world, and now they had the negotiating edge on their side, thanks to the ever increasing numbers of sweatshops aka agencies.
In an industry where competition was already fierce and margins were already thin, competition grew fiercer and margins became even thinner. The average retainer went down, the average team size went down and the average affordability of empathy dropped to inhuman levels.
But profit sheets still had to show a rise, and the workforce still had to be motivated to aid that rise. Hence, like martyrdom is glorified to a soldier, passion has been glorified to the advertising workforce over the years.
However, the meaning of passion has constantly cheapened itself by acting as a replacement for bending over backward in the form of skewed timelines and poor resource allocation.
Advertising has transitioned from being a glamorous and respected profession to becoming a cruel joke of crony capitalism.
We have reached a point where we are willing to trade lives for meeting deadlines to create TVCs which will be muted, social media posts that will be ignored, and making ‘award-winning’ work that will only be appreciated in advertising circles.
The cost of this imbroglio is indeed a human cost. Most ad professionals today suffer from stress, anxiety, depression, and some even worse mental/physical conditions for a job that continues to be thankless and merciless at the same time.
In fact, we have no right to complain about the lack of good talent in the industry as talent likes to go to a place where it can thrive. No wonder, so many advertising professionals end up opening their own shops or join the client side.
We are all collectively responsible for the mess we are in, and we must do something about it.
Is there a solution?
Of course, there is.
At the risk of oversimplifying and probably even repeating myself, I would categorize most work-life balance-related problems into three broad headers.
- Lack of planning.
Perhaps the biggest cause of all causes right now is that we don’t plan our campaigns well in advance. Last moment briefs, urgent briefs, Friday evening briefs, etc. are all common phenomenons across the industry. This is not to say that it is only the client that is unplanned. Along with clients, even senior agency folks are known to give last-minute feedback, send late-night texts, and emails.
- Lack of respect.
When the conversation is quantity-driven and not quality-driven, respect is a luxury. So many retainers are closed on the basis of media deliverables rather than strategic creative deliverables. We have literally downgraded ourselves from being business consultants to becoming mere service providers.
It’s difficult to have a spine when you are chasing volumes and not quality.
- More competition = More compromise.
As mentioned earlier, the competition is even stiffer today. Many agencies fear losing out on business if they don’t comply with the whims and fancies of clients. Some clients are notoriously known to threaten the agency with non-renewal of contracts if the agency doesn’t ‘support’ them in dire (read poorly planned) times. In turn, the agencies are almost forced to compromise on timelines and quality to deliver on a brief.
The stiff competition also means negotiating a retainer that is cheaper than your competitor in order to win the business. This translates into cost-cutting on the resourcing needs across agency parallels.
Long story short, we are already under-resourcing our teams and then making those under-resourced teams work for unreasonably long hours to do work that is devoid of any value. This is a recipe for disaster.
All these three pointers can be addressed through a simple yet effective solution.
And the inspiration for this solution can be found in the workings of companies across the world and some other industries within India that have managed their show in a rather better way.
Take for example, the IT industry in India. Across most IT companies, you have overtime payments, paid compensations for weekend work, and shift allowances as well. And such models hold true for many other industries in India. Even the film industry has to pay overtime to the spot boys if the shift extends beyond agreed hours.
Now imagine if advertising were to introduce overtime as a concept.
The first thing that would happen is that the base price of the average retainer will go up. Agency owners will be forced to appropriately resource their teams because hiring one extra hand is far cheaper as compared to sustaining overtime costs for an entire team which has to stretch in the absence of that one extra hand.
Planning will have to improve within the agency and from the client’s end as well. Because, if the agency doesn’t plan well, it will have to bear the cost of overtime. If the client sends a brief beyond working hours and expects delivery in shorter timelines, he pays a premium over and above the retainer as a separate cost. We already charge clients separately for a lot of things, this can be included in that list.
Respect for good quality of work may still be a longer battle, but respect for the agency’s time would definitely go up.
Competition would still be fierce, but the compromise would not be a part of that if charging overtime becomes an industry practice. Because now compromise would come at a cost to the client, to the agency management and the employee would not be the only one suffering.
One may argue that introducing overtime may actually affect flexibility at work. However, that doesn’t hold true even for a second. Most agencies already charge clients on the basis of timesheets filled by employees. These timesheets help in tracking the time spent on any given brief/project. So, it’s not like we do not have a mechanism in place to track time spent on a project. Of course, in their current form, timesheets are a joke. But there are smarter minds in the industry who can work out a way to track time and productivity.
Why would the clients pay for overtime though?
Well, at the end of the day, they are also human beings. An unplanned brief from their end often means an unplanned brief was handed to them by their higher-ups in the hierarchy of their organization. Paying the agency punishing overtime may actually act as a means of negotiation with their higher-ups to either give more time or more money. And given how cost-conscious most of these companies are, we will end up getting more time unless the brief is really really urgent. The fake urgency of briefs may not completely vanish, but would significantly reduce. In fact, accounting for overtime and other extra charges also helps them negotiate better marketing budgets with their management.
Now, we can argue about the practicality of this solution. And perhaps there are better solutions than this. But I refuse to believe that an industry that is engaged in providing creative solutions cannot be creative enough to find a solution for a long withstanding problem with itself.
But, what about the whole narrative?
As far as the narrative and the mindset of confusing passion with unreasonable working hours is concerned, that will only change when our thinking collectively changes. It is when we stop thinking of ourselves as indispensable hacks and start thinking of ourselves as value providers.
If you are an agency employee, you may want to team up with other employees from within and outside your agency to discuss how you can collectively help out each other.
If you are a client, you may want to treat the agency as a collaborator rather than a vendor. It’s easy to ask for work that is similar to Zomato, Netflix, and Swiggy, but two out of those three brands have in-house teams and one has a fully dedicated team within an agency. A simple practice of treating agency members as your own team members will go a long way in improving things.
Lastly, if you are an agency owner or part of agency management, you may want to unite with other owners and management members to figure out a rather long-term solution to this rather than a short-term one. And do try and make a genuine effort. People can see through the PR.
Now is the time for you to do something.
Or you might as well bring in Artificial Intelligence to automate jobs. At least, it won’t complain about work-life balance or toxicity.
Looking forward to the same kind of promptness with which 4-day work weeks were introduced.
Treat this as an urgent brief.
The Author is a Creative Professional with experience in working with leading mainline and digital agencies