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A year of upheaval: How 2020 forced agencies to rethink how they get work done

By Lizz Kannenberg / September 22, 2020

There are a few things all agency people accept as status quo. The 40-hour work week, for example, is a myth. Tension between creative and account teams are commonplace and asking to work from home is frowned upon.

But thanks to the events of 2020, the landscape of #agencylife is changing. For starters, the pandemic forced agencies to embrace remote work. Nationwide protests for racial justice have inspired some agencies to invest in diversity and inclusion programs for the first time. Shrinking revenue and rampant furloughs are teaching agencies to learn to do more with less.

While some shops recognize these changes are only temporary, others are weighing the idea of making permanent these new ways of doing business. The events of 2020 upended old assumptions that have long been accepted by agencies and their replacements are proving to be more effective than anticipated. Lengthy retainers and bloated account teams will be swapped out for shorter projects and a more dispersed workforce as agencies adapt their tactics to fit the times.

The agencies of the future will be agile, more intentional with their work and above all, more empathetic. And those who cling to the past will find themselves struggling to keep pace with the rest of the industry.

Goodbye to the old way of doing things

Agencies are notorious for guarding their office cultures. It’s why you rarely hear of agencies that have flexible work-from-home policies and why most shops are reluctant to enlist a dispersed workforce.

Quarantine, naturally, forced agencies to adapt their tactics. And—spoiler alert—agencies are learning that working remotely doesn’t make their teams any less productive or creative. Just look at what Wieden+Kennedy did for Nike or what FCB was able to create when they combined Cottonelle, T-Pain and Animal Crossing. In fact, perception around remote work has evolved so much that data from Fishbowl reveals 62% of employees would actually choose to work from home permanently if their agency allowed it.

In addition to this new way of working, agencies struggling to retain their full-time employees are rethinking their stance on freelancers and influencers in the ever-expanding gig economy. Research shows the ad industry lost more than 36,000 jobs in April as agencies pulled back on spending and prepared for a COVID-induced recession. As a result, there are a number of qualified agency veterans on the market looking for work and agencies in need of a stop-gap following layoffs.

For the immediate future, outsourcing work to freelancers and contract workers will ensure work still gets done without having to invest in full-time salaries and benefits. In the long run? I think we’re going to see more agencies utilizing freelancers as they shift towards more project-based work and flexible staffing. Not only does it help agencies save on the cost of hiring full-time employees, it also gives shops the ability to adapt if and when the demand for work takes another dip.

In other words, if a client in Stockholm needs a creative director on a project, agencies aren’t going to fly out their US-based employee anymore. Instead, they might tap a freelancer with the same title and experience who lives in a country less than 4,700 miles away from Sweden. And if the work suddenly dries up? Agencies can back away from the project without needing to lay off or furlough the teams assigned to that client.

Agency work is getting a facelift

How work gets done isn’t the only thing undergoing maintenance this year. The actual substance of the work agencies produce is also headed in a different direction.

Because no one cares about the brand advertisements of yesterday anymore. Between the pandemic and recent protests, consumers aren’t interested in hearing about why your client’s cheese products are better than a competitor’s. We’ve seen commercials for brands like Kentucky Fried Chicken and Miller Lite shelved because they were considered tone deaf under pandemic circumstances. As brands align their values and messaging to what people care about right now, agencies also need to reflect that adjustment with their work.

This year more than others, agencies are being asked to do work they’ve never dabbled in before. Some are handling crisis communications for the first time as clients navigate tense consumer relationships and a volatile political landscape. Others are learning how to take a stand and participating with their peers in campaigns like the #StopHateForProfit boycott.

Finally, the reduced demand for client work gives agencies an opportunity to audit what they currently do well and identify new areas for responsible growth. If you’re an agency that’s always done social creative for nonprofits, what other social media services can you provide? Remember: your clients are also hurting at this time and looking to maximize every dollar spent—if they’re even in a position to spend. My gut tells me the old agency mentality of “let’s do everything for everyone” is going to soon be a thing of the past.

Empathy is in high demand

Perhaps the biggest change I’ve seen in agency land has nothing to do with the work or who the work is getting done. Agencies are becoming much more humane and, most importantly, empathetic—something they haven’t been known for before 2020.

The creative work as of late, for example, reflects agencies’ newfound discovery of empathy. At the beginning of the pandemic, Budweiser commercials pivoted from selling beer to highlighting first responders. During protests for racial justice, brands like Vans asked people to donate to social justice organizations instead of spending those dollars on shoes. This year, more than others, agencies are taking off their advertising hat and giving people feel-good moments and a commitment to social causes.

And the empathy doesn’t stop with the work—it’s infiltrating agency culture too. Most notably, paid parental leave is getting a second look at agencies. In 2019, one survey found 41% of staffers were unhappy with their shop’s paid leave policy. And with parents now juggling working and schooling all at once during quarantine, agencies are realizing working moms and dads need more support than the average employee.

I’m not sure why it’s taken agencies so long to warm up to empathy, but I’m glad to see the adoption of a more human-centered approach to their work and culture. Empathy endears consumers to brands just like it endears employees to agencies; it’s a win-win strategy for everyone involved.

A better kind of agency

There’s nothing “business as usual” about 2020. Therefore, nothing about how agencies work or the work they do should be business as usual either.

While the pandemic and recent protests necessitated agencies to adapt in the short term, don’t be surprised if some of these changes become the new agency status quo. There’s an advantage to being more agile and empathetic, and the shops that fully embrace these qualities will find they’ll not only survive 2020 but be positioned to come back stronger than ever.

Lizz Kannenberg

Lizz Kannenberg

Lizz Kannenberg is the Creative Director of Brand and Story at Sprout Social. Kannenberg is a career strategist and creative lead for social content. She has developed and executed social content campaigns for CPG, automotive, alc/bev, government and lifestyle clients by creating credible, compelling conversations between brands and communities. Offline she can usually be found playing bass in an indie rock band or out exploring with her husband and young son.
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