10 things agencies can do to end long hours

The long hours culture is created by things that are both in and out of an agency’s control. Here are some suggestions of what they can change.

1. Improve pitch management

When you hear stories of people working at 3am the night before a pitch, the question should be: why didn’t you manage your time better? A creative having a brilliant idea at the eleventh hour should be the exception, not the rule. Start earlier, get the key people involved from the beginning and don’t automatically factor in late nights or the weekend. If you are a senior person, realise you will hold up progress if you don’t commit to the schedule.

2. Be more selective about pitches

“If you’re pitching for something that will look great for your reputation but doesn’t pay much, you should ring fence your time and produce the minimum viable product pitch,” Julie McKeen, head of media at recruitment consultancy Odgers Berndtson, says. Don’t put the same effort into every pitch, regardless of its importance. Drop the ego. Also be more discerning about what pitches are really worth your time, and which accounts will improve your bottom line.

3. Cut back on meetings

Employ better time management in agency processes. “We want people to be free to say where their time will be best spent so they don’t spend all day in meetings and start their real work at 6pm,” Sarah Douglas, who recently stepped down as Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO’s chief executive, says. AMV BBDO has launched initiatives to empower staff to be more intentional about how they work. These include not adding people to unnecessary emails, and “Jump Ship”, to encourage people to leave meetings where they can’t add value. “We are confusing activity with progress. Only be in a room you can influence,” Douglas says.

4. Know when to stop

When it comes to creativity, it can be difficult to know when to stop. But perfectionism doesn’t help anyone. You need to leave time to rehearse for a pitch and rest before the presentation to do your best job. Olympic athletes aren’t still training the night before a big race. As Marc Nohr, group chief executive of Miroma Agencies, says: “You need your brain rested. If you want cows to produce milk, they need to eat grass.”

5. Be clear about your business objectives

If you explain the overall context of a piece of work to your staff, they will be more effective because they can anticipate how to help in a more meaningful way, McKeen argues. She advises individuals to ask managers to explain a task’s business context: “Not only might you find a better way of doing it, but you can manage your time better because you know what to prioritise and what can wait.” McKeen urges leaders to include even junior members of a team in the macro strategy setting: “You will get a totally different level of engagement.”

6. Simplify hierarchies

Time is lost when agencies are too dependent on convoluted sign-off processes. Trust your staff and build strong relationships with your clients so you can make decisions quickly. As Nicola Wardell, managing director of Specsavers' inhouse agency says, her team can be more efficient because they are closer to their clients.

7. Set healthy communication habits

Leadership and role modelling is key. “Only send emails during office hours. Use the ‘schedule for later’ function to help manage this,” Nabs’ head of careers, Uzma Afridi, says. “Also be clear about which communication channels can be used for work purposes, so that staff don’t feel under pressure to answer work messages through private messaging channels during their non-working hours.”

8. Proactively manage workloads

Step in if you see someone under strain – or working at their sick child’s bedside. Some staff may not recognise, or feel comfortable telling you, there’s a problem until they snap. Quiet Storm co-founder Rania Robinson helps her staff manage their workloads: “We will take things off their plate if we think it’s too much. We say it’s not healthy and they can’t keep operating like that.”

9. Be imaginative around working patterns

When one of Nohr’s agencies was working with a large US company that needed staff to be responsive in the evening, he set up shift patterns. “Some people started work at lunchtime and loved the idea of sleeping in until 9 or 10am. There’s no reason ideas like this can’t work. We need to use our imaginations on how to structure work,” he says.

10. Respect individuals’ boundaries

“Technology makes work a 24/7 possibility and competition is fierce,” Zaid Al-Zaidy, group chief executive of The Beyond Collective, says. But individuals need to be disciplined about setting their own boundaries. Don’t skip important personal events for work – you may regret it. As freelance comms director Veronique Rhys-Evans told Campaign in 2018, her friend, Visible PR founder Lara Leventhal, summed it up brilliantly by reminding her: “You will remember missing the school play, but you won’t remember why.”

Picture: Getty Images

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