‘Everyone is so worried about their job they’re not doing the work’: Confessions of an agency exec

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As the coronavirus has rapidly spread across the U.S., advertising agencies are among the companies grappling with a new work from home reality. That said, getting agencies to allow employees to do so hasn’t been nearly as simple as it has been for large tech companies. In the latest edition of our Confessions series, in which we trade anonymity for candor, we hear from a chief creative officer at a holding company agency about why that is and how employees are dealing with the it.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

How are holding company agencies dealing with the impact of coronavirus?
Agencies are nervous from a legality point-of-view. Will they be held accountable if someone gets sick? But also they’re accountable to the stock market as well and they don’t know which way to go at the moment.

What do you mean by which way to go?
Meaning should we send people home or should we keep them in the office working. Agency executives are thinking: Will work get done? Do we trust [our employees] enough at the moment to send them home? It’s a huge trust area.

Do you think that’s why there hasn’t been a massive push to send everyone home and instead do tests to see if remote work is viable?
Yeah, that’s exactly right. Companies like Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft have had their employees work from home for almost 10 days. They’ve got the technology to do that. Agencies don’t have the technology to do that.

Why do you say that?
Tech companies are testing their VPNs to make sure that they can handle 50,000 people jumping online [from outside the office] all at once. Those companies also have a clean desktop attitude, meaning that you can access files on servers and stuff like that. You look at any desktop of a copywriter or art director or anyone like that and that’s where they store their files. Being able to access the files is critical. Also the infrastructure of agencies, it isn’t big enough to be able to handle all these people using VPNs to login.

How are you dealing with clients? How are account people managing? You’d assume creatives can keep doing their work but it seems like it might be more difficult for account people.
Most clients are working from home already. Clients aren’t coming in as much. You have Zoom for meetings. The meetings are still going ahead they’re just happening virtually. Texting and phone calls become more prevalent.

We’ve heard that some big brands are pausing campaigns. Are there any areas that aren’t slowing down? 
If you’ve got a big PR business you’re seeing an increase [in work from clients]. If you’re negotiating or looking after brands that need PR of any sort, all of a sudden you have to make sure you’re sending the right message out there. [Clients] are sending out messages to consumers about how they are handling the coronavirus, how they are staying clean. [They need help] putting the right positive message out there internally and externally.

With clients slowing down campaigns, what does that do to agencies? To employees? If everything is paused until the fourth-quarter it will impact their business.
Agencies are feeling a little bit out of control right now. Business has been slowing down for agencies — first-quarter and third-quarter are always quieter months — but I do feel like they are going to suffer with less billings in the next three to four weeks. But I expect coming out of that [clients] will want to surge and spend more going forward.

Do you think this will hurt agencies long-term?
It is going to be another thing that will hurt them. My sense is that 2020 is going to be a really tough year for agencies. Everyone is nervous about their jobs. Working at an agency is like Lord of the Flies right now. Everyone is so worried about their job they’re not doing the work.

So people were already scared about their jobs but they’re even more nervous now due to coronavirus?
Yes. People [have been] so scared about their jobs that they’re willing to throw people under the bus to make sure they have a paycheck coming in every two weeks. It’s becoming a very caustic environment, which is affecting business as a whole because they are not performing at their best. Trust is lacking in leadership. People will want to defend themselves, their paycheck and their family. It’s a critical issue for the industry as a whole.


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