EXCLUSIVE - Fatigue hits advertising as lockdowns drag

Chris Pash
By Chris Pash | 2 September 2021

Advertising staff are under “extreme” pressure as workloads rise and lockdown fatigue bites, with agency resources under strain, according to industry insiders.

Consultants who organise and advise on pitches say clients are generally doing better this time during restrictions and this means they expect more from agencies.

But some agencies are turning their backs on opportunities to protect staff from lockdown burnout and many have introduced extra benefits, designed to relieve pressure, including additional paid days off. 

The industry’s general talent shortage -- referred to in the US at the moment as “The great resignation” as experienced staff look for better-paying roles -- adds to the pressure within agencies.

“In lockdown and working remotely, it’s proving harder to squeeze the same capacity out of the agency resources that you could when everyone is in the office,” says TrinityP3 founder and pitch consultant Darren Woolley.

“A lot of client businesses seem to be coping a lot better this time around and therefore the attitude to pitching is it is business as usual. 

“But I think a lot of the agencies are struggling more this time because agencies appear to generally have a greater volume of work going on as the clients have not stopped. 

“Marketers need to understand that this is not necessarily the best time to run pitches and that if I do need to run them, that they need to be more flexible and forgiving as agencies deal with the challenges. 

“While agencies generally put a positive spin on it, we are seeing pressure with agencies disappointedly walking away from opportunities to protect their staff from the health impacts of overwork or rejecting clients’ invitations to pitch because the agency does not see the value in what is being offered.”

Sophie Madden, CEO, Media Federation of Australia (MFA), says advertisers should be absolutely confident that a pitch is the best course before they start the process.

“It is a time-consuming and lengthy process for all parties,” she says.

“For pitches that go ahead during lockdown, the MFA suggests that in the spirit of respecting each other and the time, effort and work required, advertisers should adjust their pitch process and timing.”

The work doesn’t go away for agencies in lockdown.

“If anything, it increases as plans are re-worked and continuously adjusted to adapt to the constant lockdown changes and unknowns,” says Madden.

“The stress and pressure on people across the industry is extremely high as they try to cope with the workload, look after the wellbeing of their teams and peers, while also managing their own personal lockdown circumstances such as home schooling, looking after family and other demands on their time and emotional capacity.

“Added to this, there is currently a very real talent access issue facing our industry and many others. This is an issue that will continue for some time, even after lockdowns end.

Madden points to the Agency Tender Process Guidelines launched earlier this year in partnership with the Australian Association of National Advertisers (AANA). The core pitching principles: Respect (for each other); Fairness; Transparency; Accountability.

Pitch consultant Greg Graham says the level of productivity, engagement and passion is definitely impacted at the moment.

“Agencies will put on a brave face however their talent is struggling and the level of motivation is suffering,” he says.

“Clients won't get the best work when the agency and their best talent are experiencing mental health issues and just going through the motions.

“Show some compassion and empathy with agency people and really consider is now the best time to pitch? If you have to pitch due to statutory issues and procurement requirements please consider if you can effectively lighten the process and take into account the current lockdown fatigue. 

“Your agencies will appreciate that and you will end up with a more effective outcome.” 

Tom Frazer, managing partner, Half Dome, strongly believes that happiness and motivation are intrinsically linked.

“More happy people no doubt leads to more highly motivated and productive people in the workplace, so we think it is a super natural part of the environment we are all facing that there has been a drop off across the board,” he told AdNews.

“Whilst we have a better understanding of the things we can control with respect to COVID-19 and how to operate effectively in the face of long-term remote working, there are a whole heap of things we can’t.

“Look no further than emotional connection for example – we’ve tried everything under the sun to ensure our team remains connected and engaged, but nothing beats that morning coffee or afternoon stroll with your co-workers.

“Lockdown fatigue is real, we don’t hide from that, and it is no doubt causing motivation levels to suffer.”

Half Dome has adjusted expectations. “Our resource planning takes into consideration our employees are struggling, and whilst we are building better processes to deal with this, also acknowledge we need more resources to do the same job as pre-lockdown,” Frazer says.

The agency has a focus on wellbeing, including Thrive Days, an extra five days of paid leave.

“We are just trying to ensure everyone is ok and that we are getting through it together,” he says.

“There is no silver bullet, but our approach is one firstly of acknowledgement and, secondly, planning for success.”

He doesn’t agree that a rise in pitch volume is causing added stress on top of lockdown drag.

“But ... lockdown fatigue is real, we are all struggling, and that’s not changing anytime soon,” he says.

“There are pros and cons of running a pitch during lockdown, but on the balance of things, it is certainly not our preference.

"When it comes down to it, we work in a relationship game and the biggest part of winning a pitch is being able to build an emotional connection with the business you are pitching for, who you will then hopefully be working with for an extended period of time.

"No matter who you speak to, this is more difficult to do virtually.”

Michael Petersen, CEO, Pivotus: “I'll preface my opinions with an admission that we have a remote-working model with a diversified workforce around different parts of Australia and overseas so we are less impacted by lockdowns in some states.

“I've always thought that my staff’s happiness and productivity, or lack of, is my responsibility, not my clients’.

“Sure, people are struggling and motivation can be lacking at times but I'm always appreciative of an invitation to grow our agency and challenge myself and my team. It's up to me what guardrails I put in place about new client opportunities.

“Unless you're a monopoly, I think it's pretty arrogant to dictate when, and when not, a potential client asks you to consider working with them.”

Pivotus created a Health Leave program in July. Everyone, regardless of their tenure, role or country, can have up to four hours per day off work, with full out-of-office mandated, for as many days or weeks as they need while their home is in hard lockdown.

“Out of 25 staff we've had two take it up and one in Sydney still utilising the program,” says Petersen.

“The cost to the business is a little bit of extra stress and pressure, but the messages from staff acknowledging that they were just having a conversation with their spouse on Sunday night about whether to prioritise their kid’s health or their income has many more positive benefits.

“Staff who were previously supported for time off for personal tragedies are pumped to be able to support their colleague who nearly but lost the plot in the last homeschooling episode.

“People are like a (MOOD) tea bag, you find out what's in them when they're in hot water and I believe that the agency boss who supports their people at the moment will benefit in the future.

“If our dream client invites us to pitch and we don't have the emotional and physical energy to do it at the moment, then we decline and continue to serve those clients that have already shown trust and loyalty to us 'in these difficult times'.

“The best time to run a pitch is when you need to run a pitch. There's plenty of hungry agencies out there filled with engaged and growth-orientated staff who are definitely sick of home schooling and juggling a dozen video meetings a day, but they are supported by bosses who protect them, provide for them, mentor them and challenge them. Those agencies could be serving you too.

“At Pivotus we've also just launched expense cards for all staff around the world, with fixed amounts to be drawn down and then refreshed every month to be spent on lunch delivered to home or the printer cartridges staff are now responsible for, or trinkets to spruce up the home office or vitamins or a yoga mat.

“This WFH thing is no longer a hobby, it's a way of life and giving up on the one-off 'food hampers' and fluff to something predictable and ongoing was really important through this wave of lockdowns and beyond.”

Stuart Bailey, managing director, PHD, says the difference between this lockdown and the last, which did have a dramatic impact on pitches, is the client’s level of certainty.

“From the clients we talk to, the outlook is much more optimistic that there is light at the end of the tunnel,” he says.

“We all concede that it will be a hard few months, but we can start moving forward in Q4 2021 and beyond when most of the country is vaccinated.”

Independent agency Bastion has had an unprecedented number of new business opportunities over the past three months.

“I am sure that is the case for many other independents as clients continue to look for alternatives outside of the multi-nationals,” says Jack Watts, global CEO.

“The vast majority of these are integrated, across multiple service offerings within our business. Undoubtedly, it is easier when we can get in a room together and thrash out the strategy across multiple comms disciplines and channels. However with the use of good tools and processes, we have managed to ensure integrated responses and a great win rate.”

Bastion has introduced Happy Days, giving all an extra annual leave day in months when there isn’t already a long weekend, and an extra half day off in months where there is.

A Bastion Happy Day is a day off for employees to focus on themselves, personal care, wellbeing and what makes them happy.

Joel Trethowan, managing director at AlchemyOne: “Our team's mental health is of imperative importance and we are incredibly protective of our team's mental state and stressors.

“We actively work through resourcing and sharing the load alongside shared resources around mindfulness and self-care. We also have daily check-ins with the team to understand where others can support.

“Our agency ethos of ‘no egos’ means no-one is ever ‘too senior’ to pick up any task to help someone out on any given day, we’re all in it together and it’s this ethos that lets us thrive amidst the ‘fun’ of lockdown 2.0 in Sydney.”


Have something to say on this? Share your views in the comments section below. Or if you have a news story or tip-off, drop us a line at adnews@yaffa.com.au

Sign up to the AdNews newsletter, like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter for breaking stories and campaigns throughout the day.

comments powered by Disqus