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Out Of Office: The New Normal for Ad Agencies

Covid has made working from home mandatory for most agencies. Life after lockdown may never be the same.

Over the past decade the pharmaceutical industry and the agencies that serve it have undergone seismic shifts in working practices. The transition from print to digital communication. The rise of electronic media. The advent of online approval and asset management. The decline of the salesforce. The growth of global campaigns.

Compared to other industries, the pharma sector has been slow to change. Although innovative in many respects, regulatory constraints and conservative instincts have made us sluggish adopters of new technology and new ways of working. The death of the salesman has been predicted for decades, yet we have clung to the belief that selling medicines depends on face-to-face persuasion, requiring vast herds of salespeople. We have long recognised the need to be patient-centric, but have been reluctant to bypass the role of the HCP and seek direct contact with the end user.

The industry’s attitude to change has been more of a slow migration, like wildebeest searching for new pastures when the old ones are bare. On approaching a river, the herd bunches together, reluctant to make the leap because there might be crocodiles. Only when the press of the herd triggers a tipping point do they all plunge in.

However, the pace of change has been turbocharged by the impact of Covid. It’s ironic that a global disease has forced the pharma industry into changes that other sectors made long ago. Over the past year, face-to-face selling has become impossible, so salesforces have been culled. International meetings and symposia have become virtual. Above all, the pandemic has provided a forced experiment in working from home, for pharma companies and agencies alike.

These changes have been enabled by advances in digital technology and telecoms, and incentivised by savings in time and money. Efficiency has improved, even if quality hasn’t. But what have we lost? Potentially, the relationships that come from human interaction.

Historically, the most important interaction between the client and agency was the visit to the agency office, usually on a Friday. The highlight of the visit was a long lunch, uninterrupted by mobile phones (which did not exist), where campaign strategy and budgets were agreed and gossip swapped over a 3-course meal with free-flowing wine. These lunches were the crucible in which relationships were forged and personal trust was built, and anyone who left before the brandy and coffee was a wimp.

This custom had already died out before the pandemic. On the rare occasions a client could be persuaded to join the agency for lunch, they would go straight to the main course and drink water to keep a clear head for the urgent meeting they were expecting to be summoned to by mobile phone, which they would nervously check every 5 minutes.

If you can’t meet in person, can you build a relationship online? Tinder suggests that you can. Humans are social creatures, and lockdown has shown that people crave contact with their friends and family. But business can be conducted pretty effectively on screen. Visits to the agency have become Increasingly rare, and when a physical meeting is necessary it can be held offsite wherever it is most convenient. A long liquid lunch may be more fun that a conference call, but a healthy relationship should be based on the agency’s ability to deliver high-quality results to the client, not its willingness to render them legless before they drive back to work.

The huge benefit of mobile computing is ubiquity: the ability to be anywhere and everywhere. As long as you have an internet connection, you can work just as well in Warsaw as in Windsor, and it doesn’t matter whether the client is in the same town or on a different continent. When your website lives on a remote server farm and your data is stored in the Cloud, physical location becomes irrelevant. Your workspace is in your head, your laptop is your desk, and you carry both wherever you go. Why meet in the agency boardroom when you can do so online, with a tropical beach or space station as a background?

The most vital product of a creative agency – in fact its founding attribute  – is the ability to come up with creative and strategic ideas, and the skill to execute and deliver them. The power of ideas becomes greater as the number of channels grows. In the absence of a human salesforce to build relationships with customers, we need creativity to build relationships between our customers and our brands.

Ideas don’t care where they are born, but they are more likely to arise in a relaxed setting. Our experience during Covid is that people are not just happier but more industrious working from home. Meetings now take place on web conferencing platforms like Zoom, workflow is streamlined by collaborative platforms like Teams. Some miss the banter and camaraderie of sharing a workspace, which is hard to replicate online. It takes strong management to coordinate and motivate people working remotely, and it requires a good IT and Ops team to keep everything running smoothly. But when clients report that we are just as accessible and even more responsive, it confirms that agencies in our sector can migrate successfully to a virtual office environment.

WFH has required some adjustments by the workforce. But on the plus side, the only chance of them being late for work is if their kids leave a skateboard on the landing, and the only danger of workplace conflict is fighting the family for space on the kitchen table. Online meetings are not just more productive but more democratic, as there is no faffing around with tea and biscuits, and less likelihood of the conversation being monopolised by the loudest voice in the room. Remarkably, meetings have reverted to their original function of discussing important issues and making decisions.

Relationships with our clients have not suffered. If anything they have been strengthened by the sense that we are all going through this together. Seeing our co-workers and clients in their messy homes and casual clobber, with a backdrop of kids and cats causing mayhem, only makes us feel more connected. Realising that everyone else has gone for the same lockdown look (post-apocalyptic Worzel Gummidge) makes all of us feel more human.

After 12 months of this clinical trial, we have adapted to the reality of the virtual office. We are accustomed to sharing an online room crammed with socially distanced colleagues. Web meetings are still slightly weird and stilted – the wi-fi is sometimes flaky, people freeze at random moments – but they have become the new normal. In the future, the robustness and reliability of your internet connection could be as important as that of the car you used to drive to work. Superfast broadband could become regarded as a basic utility, like water and electricity.

One of the revelations of WFH is the flexibility and work ethic of our employees. They may not work conventionally normal hours - they’re not conventionally normal people - but we see their conscientiousness every day and night. It’s not unusual to receive a PDF at 04.30 from an insomniac colleague ‘working late at the office’. We have successfully presented, and won, online pitches to clients thousands of miles away. We have even worked with creatives on the other side of the world, briefing a job overnight to find it magically completed the next morning, like the elves and the shoemaker.

‘The agency’ is a term that describes not just the building but the people, who are its most important commodity. It’s no cliché to say: “Our biggest asset goes up and down in the lift every day”, because the essence of an agency is not the working space, but the flesh and blood that occupies it. A recent report has echoed our finding that remote working increases the time that ad agency staff can spend in deep, uninterrupted work, and they feel healthier as a result. It also found that 98% of agency employees favoured a permanent remote working policy.1

As the end of covid hoves into view, many companies can’t wait to press Ctrl-Alt-Delete and return to factory settings. But what if we make permanent some of the changes enforced by the pandemic? Should we take the plunge and leave the office for good? Many agencies are on the verge of doing so. Since the era, virtual companies (without a salesforce or physical premises) have thrived. And Covid has led global advertising networks like WPP to commit to remote working, joining corporate giants such as BP, Lloyds and Aviva. In the post-pandemic world, ‘going to the office’ could seem as quaint and archaic as the agency lunch. Brick-and-mortar agencies may become as rare as high street banks. We are about to enter the post-office era.

Life may never be the same, but maybe it’s time to close the door on outdated practices. Will the last person to leave kindly turn off the lights?

Reg Manser, Chief Creative Officer, Life Healthcare Communications

1. Float Global Agency Productivity Report.


  Out of Office
MS Word Document: 22.9 KB

17th March 2021


  Out of Office
MS Word Document: 22.9 KB



Company Details

Life Healthcare Communications

+44 (0)1344 899050

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Life Healthcare Communications
The Hernes Oak
North Street

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