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Game Changers in Big Agency Culture



DDB Group Hong Kong’s Associate Strategy Director Ronald Lee weighs in on the pains and gains of agency life

Game Changers in Big Agency Culture

Advertising is often accused of taking advantage of young minds to come in and put in a ridiculous amount of hours while not paying as much as other industries that demand the same levels of talent and commitment.
During the frequently occurring late nights, we often joke and fantasise about leaving agency life be-hind for something less “gruesome”, but the fact that we’re all still around for the next pitch proves that there must be something wonderful enough in agency life to keep us here.
But how can we resolve this tension? How can we retain and amplify what’s great about working in an ad agency while reducing the pain that’s become so entrenched in our industry’s culture?

A call for volunteers, a generous budget, and an open brief

In the first half of 2021, our CEO sent out an agency-wide email asking for volunteers for a team that he was putting together. Aside from sitting in the management meeting once a month, this team would have a very generous budget and an open brief on how best to use that money to benefit the agency.

The idea was about driving culture from within and trusting that the people who best knew how to make staff happy were indeed the staff themselves. Those interested were to simply reply to the email with a short description of how they would use the money. 
After a few drinks on a Friday, a few colleagues and I talked about how it might actually be quite fun to be part of the team. I decided to submit a proposal that I thought was simple, highly achievable, and would have the biggest impact on my personal day-to-day quality of life in the office – using that money to stock the office with a wide selection of free food and drinks. Other volunteers proposed ideas such as looking into compensation, streamlining processes, or various other ways to make agency life better.
And that was how the Game Changers, a team comprised of six mid-level employees across departments, was formed. 

One year onwards, we’ve not only stocked the office with more food and booze, but we’ve also fought for more generous expense claim rights, streamlined some frustrating internal procedures, introduced a mental health day, and launched a compensation leave policy for weekend and holiday work, ultimately allowing staff to take back their weekends. And, we also hosted a lot of parties. As a result, not only does the agency feel a better place to work, but according to our bi-annual engagement survey, recent employee satisfaction levels were some of our best ever, increasing by 15% over the year.

This is not just about fixing one agency’s culture, but the entire industry’s

In our Game Changer discussions, we often stumble upon problems that cannot be solved because the problem lies not in the culture of our own agency, but the culture of the entire industry (such as compensation and pitch fees). But on the flip side, we have also been inspired by, and able to push through, initiatives already in place in other agencies in the market.

The realisation that fixing agency culture is also about fixing the culture of the whole industry motivated me to consider sharing our learnings. By having more open conversations about how to better our industry’s culture, surely we can collectively influence change for the better, destroying a lot of the toxic characteristics our industry is known for, and that all too often, contribute to driving talent away.

So, based on my experience as part of a team of Game Changers, who feel like we have in fact changed the game, here is some advice for agency leaders who want to create a better work environment:

Humble leadership is the first step 
The first step to fixing a problem is admitting that there is one. Our industry attracts a lot of big egos at the top, and it is very easy for big egos to intuitively react. “If you aren’t happy, then don’t work here”. But that gets you nowhere, truly talented people will simply go elsewhere.
Rather, asking humbly and sincerely for help, will more often than not, get you help. 

Put your money where your mouth is
Bill Bernbach once said, “A principle isn’t a principle until it costs you something”. We don’t want to admit it, but as I’ve observed through countless internal initiatives, money is crucial in all of this. If you are serious about wanting to improve agency culture, commit a budget to it. Not everyone will have an opinion about how to better the culture, but everyone will have an opinion on how to spend a large amount of money. 

Amplify the voices that are heard the least
Let’s face it, agency life is, in many ways, hardest on the juniors. Your average junior account executive or assistant art director puts in the most hours, while receiving the lowest pay and recognition. Their situation is most in need of improvement and yet they are the group of people least likely to speak up. Unfortunately, management teams often fail to address their pain points because either they themselves feel everyone has to “do their time” (just like they did), or they simply don’t remember what the daily grind for a junior is like. 
Success is when you’ve activated the most junior and quiet employees to share an idea or suggestion from their perspective. One way we’ve been able to do this is just through an old-fashioned suggestion box where people can submit ideas and complaints anonymously. But I’m sure every agency has had a suggestion box at some point that’s sat empty in a corner… which leads me to my next point…

Show that you’ve listened… to literally every single suggestion
In our monthly town halls, there is a dedicated session for the Game Changers to share what we have been up to in the past month. We have used that session every month to publicly share every single suggestion or complaint that we’ve received in our suggestion box - no matter big or small, and also how we, and management, aim to tackle it. 

The day after we had our first sharing session, the suggestion box immediately filled up. Of course, we were not able to provide a solution for every item raised but having one’s idea be publicly acknowledged and discussed is empowering, and only encourages greater participation. Not every single problem can be solved, but it is still important to have every single conversation.

The smallest things matter more than you think 
During our time as the Game Changers, we’ve fixed more small issues than big ones, partly be-cause fixing them is more achievable, and also because we’ve received more suggestions about small issues than big ones. Suggestions as small as providing emergency sanitary pads in the female washroom, getting better coffee beans, and pushing claimable overtime half an hour earlier. 

Providing better coffee may not solve agency culture overall, but small things like this matter because they add up to our daily quality of life. If we spend so much time working at the of-fice, then we should do our best to make that time as comfortable as we can.

Don’t forget to have fun
There’s a reason why we all choose to stay in this industry despite the long hours and constant pressure. It’s because advertising is fun and attracts fun people. Nobody is here just for the money. 
I consider one of the greatest achievements of the Game Changers is simply the amount of fun we’ve brought to the agency. We have thrown some great parties, and while this might seem superficial at first, I have to say that parties are in fact important. After every party you see an overall boost in morale, and new friendships made across departments. Just make sure there’s a generous budget, and don’t let management plan it.

Fun has also been what has motivated us Game Changers the most. Something like the Game Changers can only work when they are people who are deep in the trenches. Senior enough to be able to talk candidly with management, but also junior enough that they haven’t lost touch with the working lev-el. But this also means that they will be some of the busiest people in the agency. And what motivates us to do all this extra work voluntarily is simple. It’s fun.
So, invest in the fun of your agency, empower and entrust this to the right people, and watch the joy of people doing what they love in an environment they love doing it in, have an effect on the work, your clients, your partners, and most importantly of all, your people. 

Yes, agency life is tough. So, if it’s not fun, it’s not worth it.

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Genres: People

DDB Asia, Fri, 26 Aug 2022 04:40:04 GMT