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"The IPA will help agencies and the industry to be resilient, to reorient and renew"

Adapting to unprecedented change is the new norm for us all. As an industry, let's recognise the chance to shape how we work in the future

One year ago, in my inaugural speech as president of the IPA, I remarked that "…our age looks to be seriously chaotic, challenging and occasionally brutal". Those words may seem prescient now. In truth though, when I spoke about disruption, I didn’t mean this.

Before coronavirus started to spread with preternatural speed across the globe, our industry was already faced by the need to adapt in a world of rapid and fundamental change. That is what my ‘Reimagine’ agenda is all about. It is a commitment that the IPA will help our member agencies and the wider industry to be resilient, to reorient and renew. ‘Reimagine’ is about understanding what you do best, how those qualities must adapt in a changing world, and what we must transform in order to best partner with our clients for growth. If ever there were a time to focus on making that change, it is now: we owe it to our clients, our agencies and our people.

I don’t wish to make light of the coronavirus pandemic, for it is as great a human tragedy as most of us will ever experience. It has taken lives and affected lives. It has had a profound impact on the way we behave: on how we interact socially, how we consume and how we work. This change has all happened in a matter of weeks, and within those weeks we have begun to comprehend the knock-on effect on businesses and entire industry categories, their employees and, in turn, economies and financial markets. The economic impact is significant, and the resulting interventions by the government are extraordinary.

We will come out of it. That’s not intended as a platitude but more of a date and destination on the not too distant horizon on which to focus. In the weeks and months ahead, we will return to normality – some aspects of normal business will return quickly while others climb back more slowly. Here’s the thing, though: how ‘normal’ do we really want things to be?

Look back to look forward

A year from now, our industry will report on the gender and BAME diversity targets set by former IPA president Tom Knox in 2015. Last year and this, Campaigns ‘School Reports’ have shown that some agencies are already at or approaching those targets; for others the targets remain a stretch.

Every 10 years, the IPA creates a major review and report on a talent-related area. For 2020, we will focus on diversity and inclusion in our publication ‘The Future of Fairness’. Ahead of its publication this summer, it is interesting to look back on some of those previous decade reviews and see what they predicted for our industry today and what, if anything, we have learnt.

‘The Future of Work’ (2010) by Liz Nottingham and ‘Women in Advertising: 10 Years On’ (2000) by Debbie Klein warned of a looming crisis in talent attraction and retention if we didn’t get our agency cultures and people policies in order. Klein’s study noted that both men and women working in advertising wanted better work-life balance and that it was no longer just a ‘women issue’. For her part, Nottingham explored Generations X and Y in the industry 10 years ago and their attitudes to when and how they wanted to work.

Among other findings, Nottingham noted: "HR needs to be more proactive in offering flexible working for everyone at all stages of their careers and as their ‘life’ responsibilities change; not just working mothers …working with the grain of people’s lives, rather than taking the approach of flexible working as an anomaly, is where agencies need to focus. Flexible working should be considered as ‘the norm’." Decades on, I wonder what these industry experts and authors would make of a situation in which, across the UK, the vast majority of our combined workforce is working from home – a collective and considered response to the spread of coronavirus, and one actively encouraged by the government.

Re-evaluate and reimagine

It would be wrong to call this an opportunity, but our current enforced situation does provide a once-in-a-generation experiment and environment in which to challenge legacy assumptions and prejudices, and to try out policies and processes that agencies regularly remind themselves they should be implementing but which tend, just as regularly, to get deferred.

Campaign’s recent ‘Best Places to Work’ survey found that flexible working, fitness and mental wellbeing top the list of what employees want or expect from their agency. Almost 90% said they could work from home (and now, no doubt, are). Yet, as an industry, where we should be leading, we are lagging behind the national average for flexible working. Timewise’s ‘Flexible Jobs Index’ found that 15% of all-industry vacancies had flexible working options, compared with just 12% in the advertising and marketing industries.

For those agencies that get it right, the benefits are clear: 87% of UK employees want a job that offers flexible working options. Flexible working is also key to increased gender diversity in agencies – in particular at senior levels where the gap is widest. As an industry we proudly talk of talent being our greatest asset, but we have to look harder at the effects long hours and presenteeism are having on our people and on the diversity of our teams.

We have put a number of excellent IPA initiatives in place to help the industry think and act differently:

• Participation in the IPA Agency Census will become a mandatory component of CPD Accreditation from 2021 for all our member agencies. We work with agencies on how best to compile their diversity numbers so that the Census provides an accurate industry baseline

• We encourage agencies to sign up to Creative Equals’ ‘Equality Standard’ to audit and improve their inclusivity and diversity

• We give them access to potential future talent through Creative Pioneers and Advertising Unlocked, the industry’s annual open careers day. Both these initiatives are designed to widen the talent funnel and attract diverse candidates

• We will launch our first IPA ‘iList’, in partnership with Unilever, to showcase and celebrate the people who are driving inclusivity in adland.

For all that, the greatest chance to reimagine how we work has come about by accident, not design. It’s borne out of adversity, but is being shaped by our need and ability to quickly and creatively adapt. Letting go of traditional working patterns seemed like a risk in stable times. While we hope for a speedy return to normality, let’s also recognise the chance that’s been presented not to simply go back to business as usual.

Nigel Vaz is president for IPA, and CEO, Publicis Sapient 

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