The biggest lie in the industry: ‘Our people are our greatest strength’

This lie (sorry, line), or similar, is often found about five slides into an agency’s creds document – usually accompanied with a full-bleed image of smiling agency employees in wetsuits from that one summer surf trip in 2012.

Do the people or the agency come first, the author asks (pic credit: Getty Images)
Do the people or the agency come first, the author asks (pic credit: Getty Images)

The first question I would urge any agency to ask when this slide appears in your next agency pitch presentation is: how many of those employees still work here?

Because the uncomfortable truth is that, until every agency has regard for the mental health and wellbeing of its people, many of those valued team members have moved on because their agency held out on long-earned promotions, offered below industry benchmark pay increases, or simply left good people to rot on sweatshop accounts or in monotonous roles.

Let’s be clear, this isn’t just about agencies – which are bound by the parameters set by client and procurement teams: too many agencies asked to pitch, excessive tender requirements, focus on price over quality, unrealistic demands, unwieldy approval processes and lack of awareness of agency pressure points.

Client, agency and procurement all have a part to play in protecting our people’s mental health and wellbeing.

And that means a deep, uncomfortable look at our own behaviours – the part for which we are each responsible.

I have been working in agencies for more than a decade, and the further up the ladder I climb, the more I see how dangerous this lie about our people is.

As a grad at my first agency I was urged to believe in this sense of esprit de corps, this grand ideal of a team who would work hard, play hard and have each other’s backs.

I was made to feel a sense of importance in how my own role directly benefited the success of our agency. And I 'drank the Kool-Aid'… right up until they started firing people.

Lies and hypocrisy

The emphasis agencies place on their people is staggeringly hypocritical in many cases.

We talk about empowerment, but deliver ever-higher workloads for ever-smaller financial rewards.

New challenges don’t come your way when the agency has you locked in and high-performing on an account no one else wants, but when the agency is pitching and it’s all hands on deck, empowerment becomes a tool for the emotional blackmail of frazzled account-handlers.

What does it say about me if I tell them I can’t take this opportunity on? Am I blacklisted for the next round of promotions?

We talk about flat structures and removing hierarchy – yet it’s often the junior designer earning £25,000 a year who is left cleaning up pitch documents at 2am.

When it comes to bonus time and that pitch win is added to the annual financials, the top brass will take home more than that designer earns in six months.

This line about people being the biggest asset is perhaps the greatest sales pitch of all time.

Of course it is: because when a client buys an agency, it’s the people – their ideas – that they pay for.

And year after year, it’s still working, even when we all know how broken the agency model is.

It’s an incredibly smart piece of psychological manipulation.

It says to the young graduate – yes, you’ll only earn £20,000 a year. Yes, you’ll be expected to work 60-hour weeks. Yes, you’ll give up weekends and put your social plans at the whim of clients and pitch work.

But you’ll be empowered. You’ll be part of something bigger than yourself. You’ll have a real stake in the future direction of our business.

Except that when the chips are down – and right now in 2020, they most certainly are – that personal stake counts for very little in the fight to protect the bottom line.

My experience of the team ‘coming first’

Back to my first agency experience; I heard about redundancies via my phone blowing up with increasingly excitable texts from colleagues the minute I stepped out of a client meeting.

By the time I got back to the office, faces who had played a key part in my formative years in the industry were already gone, their empty desks left as monuments to the carnage.

Let’s just reflect on that for a moment.

For two years I was fed the line that the team came first, that people were the heartbeat of the business.

In exchange, I was asked to give all the time, sweat and passion I could muster.

But when the business decided to look after itself, the ethos of open dialogue, transparency and honesty was instantly forgotten.

In some ways I was lucky.

I learned early from the experience that, when it comes to agency life, no one will look after your career better than you.

But more than a decade on, I’ve seen history repeating in many agencies I’ve worked with.

I’ve seen account-handlers work full weekends and receive a single day back in lieu.

I’ve seen young account execs expected to take the late-night Tube home alone from event shifts, because the board members who order themselves private cars won’t sign off the cost of an Uber.

I’ve seen colleagues work 72 hours straight on a pitch, leave at 3pm on a Friday and be whistled out the door with ‘Half-day, is it?’ comments ringing in their ears.

And each of those agencies has, at the same time, waxed lyrical about its culture, and about how much it values its people.

A broken ‘people culture’

When will more agencies realise how broken our 'people culture' really is? When will we realise that it is these exact behaviours that have such an impact on employee mental health and wellbeing and diminish creativity – the very product we are trying to sell?

How much more creative talent will agencies wave out the door because they wouldn’t reward hard work with fair pay, only to spend more than the cost of a pay increase on recruitment fees to replace the role?

When will more agencies begin to pay fairly, to reward the hard workers and star performers with tangible, financial benefits, rather than meaningless job titles and the opportunity to take greater responsibility?

I know of live examples in 2020 where agencies are attempting to offer a promotion without a pay increase.

We all understand pay freezes right now are sensible. 

But whacking ‘senior’ onto someone’s email signature and doubling their workload is not a promotion – it’s giving nothing and demanding everything.

While we’re on the subject of pay freezes and redundancies: in the current climate they're a brutal reality, but one that most of us understand.

However, in the context of my very recent former agency (for the record I left for a new role, not as part of redundancy measures) I know of at least one junior/mid-weight redundancy on a salary somewhere around £35,000, when said agency has also spent more than £100,000 on freelancers chasing a combined total of zero pitch wins over the same period.

Yet the next time they present to a client, you can bet that slide five will read: ‘Our greatest strength is our people.’

The author worked in a senior role in an integrated agency setting for 12 years. His story is part of the Brilliant Creative Minds campaign to stamp out behaviours that have an impact on employee wellbeing and diminish creativity in the comms industry.

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