Suveer Bajaj
Guest Article

Decoding Agency Culture - An Ad Man’s Perspective

The perceived ‘easy-going’ and ‘fun-filled’ work culture of advertising agencies has come under the radar.

Before we talk about culture, allow me to share an interesting personal anecdote. A couple of weeks ago, we were brutally pulled up in industry conversations for a hiring post we had shared on LinkedIn. We had listed “ability to work under pressure” as one of the requirements for that particular role, given that we were hiring for a particularly challenging client. However, it was misconstrued in a negative light wherein pressure was seen as a metaphor for a toxic work culture. Our intention had purely been to be as forthcoming, transparent, and honest as possible. The agenda was to set the correct expectation for potential candidates. As an ad-man who has been in the industry for over a dozen years, I can personally attest to the fact that the nature of the industry that a client operates in, determines the function and quantum of work we deliver. And it is our duty to communicate this to current and potential employees.

Recently, the perceived ‘easy-going’ and ‘fun-filled’ work culture of advertising agencies has come under the radar, opening the floodgates for media slander. From being accused of misunderstanding ‘urgency’ of work to being questioned for breaching weekends, ad agencies are being probed on their practices and ethics

Fundamentally, I am of the opinion that there is no smoke without fire. While many may make the case that most people are stoking the fire due to personal disgruntled biases, the truth of the matter is that all these reports are an indication of a long overdue self retrospection. We need to take a step back and assess why this imbalance has reached the position it has, what has caused it, and what steps we as an industry are going to make collectively.

The Battle Between “Ideal” & “Actual” Culture

Before we foray into the depths of decoding the agency culture, let us narrow down on what culture at the workplace really represents. Every organisation has a predetermined vision and mission statement. However, it is prudent to note that fewer people buy into an organisation’s statement as compared to its value systems. They are united by the relationships they build and the sustainable values that an organization embodies. However, these values hold no real merit unless they are translated into everyday work. Simply put, the boundaries deliberated by our values eventually seep into our ways of working and thereby, define a company’s culture.

The tenets of an ‘ideal culture’ can manifest into multiple connotations depending on the nature of the organisation. For some it may personify excellence, happy employees, perfection in delivery, work satisfaction or for others, it may mean equality of opportunity, lack of biases, an organization enabling the growth of its worthy and key members etc. However, it is important to note that we are a young country with a developing economy. Despite being a USD 2.71 trillion economy, we have a long way to catch up before we realise our dream of becoming a global superpower.

It was only in the 2000’s that India even began to realise the components of a corporate culture. The boomer generation struggled in the 90's to usher in a corporate era that was bound with plenty of opportunities. Today, almost 30 years since, we are working in a culture where we believe the best way to reach our next milestone is by burning the midnight oil and by saying yes to a client's every demand. What is truly unsettling is that the challenge of an ‘unhealthy work-life balance’ is native to all industries, and not just the advertising and media fraternity. A 2019 survey by Monster.com stated that 60% of Indians rated their work life balance as terrible. It is fair to assume that the percentage would have grown since the pandemic. It probably comes from a deeply seeded need to constantly upgrade our standard of living as a growing economy. Therefore, there’s a strong need today for leadership teams across industries to re-define ‘real’ hustle and culture.

Rise of the Creative Class

I read an interesting book called “The Rise of the Creative Class” by Richard Florida which draws the parallels between work, leisure, community and our everyday life. The book throws light on a really interesting aspect when it comes to the creative class. For centuries, the creative class that comprised poets, writers, potters, loomers, artisans and the likes have been subjected to unwarranted prejudice of not being professions of value. The creator economy, which includes us advertisers, continues to face this prejudice. One may argue that our values and efforts are under constant threat and question the limited nature of their tangible contributions to the growing economy. Industry constantly views us (and other service providers) with a critical lens, as they are the ones cutting the cheques. Since we contribute to softer metrics like brand equity, awareness, consideration, creation of goodwill etc., ours is a ‘perceived’ value to most organisations. The real value (according to them) is probably driven from sales. This reflects every day in our compensation structures.

This is one of the primary reasons why there is a massive pay parity in advertising as compared to other sectors, be it investment banking or law for that matter. Which is why advertisers feel the need to go the extra mile to be able to earn at par with their corporate companions. There is a long way for the economic parity to vanish unless the creator economy is supported wholly by all industries.

The Role of Stakeholders

As a part of the advertising agency, our key external stakeholders include clients, competition, vendors, and partners. Let’s try to dissect them each in detail:

  • Clients: Since clients pay fees to agencies, it automatically puts them in a position of power. It probably leads them to believe that they have the leverage to push us discriminatorily. This could be in terms of time, deliverables, cost etc. While the creative class may be getting its due in terms of dignity of labour, the same can hardly be said for the commercial value of our time and efforts

  • Competition: The only way for us to get out of the rut of no work life balance is if we stick it out together. Today, if one refuses a weekend turnaround time or asks for a higher pay, clients are quick to retort with the threat of taking business elsewhere as there are “plenty of players who are willing to work shorter timelines and for less pay”. Increasing competition in the industry has also been one of the primary reasons for demeaning culture. Our argument that our experience will hold true weakens against the backdrop of affordable talent and the shorter timelines. Increased competition has resulted in the creation of a fictional sense of fear. Business leaders feel threatened that their fees will slip away should they refuse to work within unrealistic deadlines or costs. When business leaders acquiesce to a particular job due to this insecurity, we are promoting a toxic work culture. Leaders need to be empowered to take a call on how they deal with their clients and the increasing competitive threat

  • Vendors and Partners: They are one of the most crucial tenets of the agency ecosystem. Since our vendors and partners treat us as clients and are in the ‘rush’ to make us ‘happy’. They may end up agreeing to terms and conditions that may not necessarily be agreeable. As we subcontract work to them, it is our prerogative to ensure that we treat them with the respect that they deserve. We need to be able to draw accommodating timelines when sharing work or even determining the cost of talent.

Our industry lays heavy importance on softer skill sets and values. Thus, a conscious effort needs to be made on the role of every stakeholder vis-a-vis each other as we learn to co-exist instead of trying to one up each other. Leaders need to be cognizant of pushing back to clients on unrealistic expectations.

Leadership to Drive Culture

Culture has always had a top-down approach. The way an organisation functions will be influenced by those who dictate the pace of the place. As a leader, if I expect my immediate team to be available post designated working hours and work through the weekend, it is obvious that the same attitude will percolate into their respective teams as well. A leader defines what is acceptable and what is not. When it comes to upholding culture, leaders need to learn to adhere to balancing work and personal life.

  • What we Can Learn from the French: There are innumerable international best practices that we can try to emulate at work. For example, France passed the “Right to Disconnect” law which stipulates that employees cannot be held accountable for not responding to work messages/calls outside of designated work hours.

  • Making Work Life Balance Cool: Social media has made the ‘hustle’ culture very impressive. Our feeds are replete with posts of people who believe it is cool to be working beyond designated hours or running on coffee and little sleep. We have accepted this as a standard cultural practice by glorifying and celebrating it on social media. What one really needs to ask is when should one draw the line while trying to impress the manager?

  • Change in Perception Internally: Change needs to trickle down from the top-down. Any employee who has been working diligently during the regulated hours should not be made to feel guilty for wanting to log off at acceptable working hours. In fact, as leaders we need to not only try to appreciate the attitude but also implement the same with our clients.

  • Work Ethic at an Individual Level: As an industry, we are all guilty of leaving things to the last minute and taking multiple long breaks or getting distracted by social media. As individuals, we need to try to implement an environment that values digilience over anything else. It is crucial we appreciate employees who work smart and hard throughout the day to create time for themselves at the end of the day. It is very important in setting context to culture and expectations for all.

  • Role of policy in implementing work-life balance: As leaders, we need to set certain boundaries with clients. While emails and briefs may come in late, teams should not be held accountable for unrealistic delivery of those expectations. Implementing policies such as ‘no client meetings post 3PM’, (which we have implemented at Zoo Media), have moved the needle in that direction. Leaders must understand that the ‘burn and churn’ culture only results in poor performance. In fact, they should be empowering their teams and managers with the right to refuse work outside normal working hours.

"Organisations celebrating a 4-day week need to ask themselves whether they have really made life easier for employees or is it a reflection of their inability to maintain a healthy work-life balance in a 5 day work week."

The ‘cancel’ culture

Recently, we have seen multiple organizations speak about the best practises they follow, hoping to reign in talent. This could either be in the form of extended leaves, or offering paid holidays etc. All organisations have undertaken multiple initiatives for the welfare of their employees. However, employers have now taken to broadcasting these activities while addressing the growing challenges on hand. These initiatives, steps in the right direction as they are, need to be a part of the employee’s rights. Institutionalising these activities does not take away from the fact that they are an admission of guilt from our industry. Organisations celebrating a 4-day week need to ask themselves whether they have really made life easier for employees or is it a reflection of their inability to maintain a healthy work-life balance in a 5 day work week.

In conclusion

Eventually, it all boils down to taking responsibility. As leaders, we need to set expectations right from the beginning and our teams will follow suit. We need to make examples of leaders and employees who have found the balance between work and personal life. Employees need to feel comforted, confident and empowered to prioritise their own work, lives and mental health and stick to their daily routines which includes time for work, family, exercise and other activities. This is the kind of culture we need to celebrate; one that values diligence at work and a thriving personal life.

The author is co-founder of Zoo Media and FoxyMoron.