By Minda Smiley
Scrunched timelines, less travel and Zoom meetings are challenging old ways of working
Hermeti Balarin is itching to get back to the office. As partner and executive creative director of Mother London, he revels in the agency’s communal working space, a breeding ground for the jokes, conversations and coffee rounds that inform so much of its famously eccentric culture. (A few years ago, the agency put a massive inflatable boob on a building to make a statement about breastfeeding).
“That spontaneity and chaos is a huge part of our DNA,” he said. “It’s something that everyone’s been craving and missing.”
That’s not to say things are going badly at Mother London: For instance, Balarin said some creatives are finding it easier to concentrate and think for long stretches without the distractions of the office. He’s also noticed that a good number are actually thriving in an environment where timelines are compressed as marketers act fast to get new messaging out, and is trying to figure out how the agency can continue working in this accelerated fashion once things settle down.
Like Balarin, many creative leaders around the world have spent recent weeks reflecting on this new way of working, which mere months ago seemed unimaginable. As stay-at-home orders slowly begin to let up, they’re evaluating what they’ve learned while working in quarantine—and how it will change the way they work for years to come.
In some ways, the move to virtual communication has brought the people up top closer to the employees who work for them every day. Executives can no longer rely on bumping into someone on the elevator or swinging by their desk, meaning they’ve had to be more mindful about how they interact with staff.
Take Anselmo Ramos, founder and chief creative officer of Gut. His agency recently instituted “gut checks,” which are essentially one-on-one weekly meetings between leadership and employees. He plans to continue doing them once Gut staffers return to the office.
“It’s a great opportunity to expose junior talent to leadership,” Ramos said. “Since the conversation is informal, it tends to be a bit of business and personal as well. It’s like having a quick coffee with someone.”
Karl Lieberman, executive creative director at Wienden+Kennedy New Youk, said working remotely has flattened the agency’s hierarchies and structures. During a recent pitch, he said employees of all levels joined a “Zoom room” to prepare and work together, resulting in a more inclusive way of working.
“A junior creative can hear what a managing director and an executive creative director are talking about,” he said. “That used to be done off in separate conference rooms, and now everyone’s doing it together. It’s great for people to see what conversations are had.”
Lieberman hopes this way of operating continues. After seeing what’s possible, he’s realizing that some of the layers and structures that seemed completely normal just six months ago now appear slightly antiquated.
“We used to laugh about how archaic it was that back in the ‘Mad Men’ era, the copywriter would slide the copy under the art director’s office door,” he said. “I imagine we may be doing the same in the near future about how teams used to present to creative directors and then how creative directors would present to their executive creative directors, and so on. Because now, everyone’s doing the work and contributing to the work all at the same time.”
Pumping the brakes on travel
While perhaps hard to swallow, many creatives in charge are coming to terms with the fact that much of the travel they were once accustomed to may no longer be necessary. Creatives who once didn’t blink an eye at hopping on a flight for a pitch, meeting or conference will likely find it harder to justify these trips moving forward.
“We’re all realizing that there’s no meeting you cannot join remotely,” said Ramos, who admits he was on the road quite a bit before the global lockdown. “I was traveling so much, and sometimes too much. I wasn’t there for my family. Now I’m thinking I don’t need to travel that much.”
Production, too, may never be the same because of quarantine. Agencies and directors have found a number of ways to produce campaigns that don’t involve elaborate sets or travel. Brands including AT&T, Pabst Blue Ribbon and TD Bank, have been able to make it work.
“It’s shown us it’s possible to be more creative and resourceful when it comes to production,” Ramos said. “You don’t have to fly to L.A. every time you need to produce something.”
Margaret Johnson, partner and chief creative officer at Goodby Silverstein& Partners, said the lockdown has her rethinking corporate travel. How much it happens in the future will be up for debate at the agency once business trips start happening again.
GS&P chief creative officer Margaret Johnson works from her living room in San Francisco with her dog Groucho.
“Are you really going to fly from San Francisco to New York for a one-hour meeting? Is it necessary for six people to do that?” she quipped. “Maybe this is a pause that the industry needed.”
Regarding hiring, stay-at-home orders have proven that creatives can work from nearly anywhere, whether it’s a studio apartment in Brooklyn or a far-flung suburb. The dearth of in-person meetings and conversations has only further highlighted that a remote workforce can be just as, if not more, productive than one situated in an office.
This could potentially usher in a whole new era for the industry, one where talent doesn’t feel pressured to move to a particular city or market to clinch a gig.
“I’d say the floodgates have opened in terms of our mindset,” Mike Caguin, chief creative officer at Colle McVoy, said. “We’re open to recruiting and having people work from wherever they may reside.”
Mike Caguin, chief creative officer of Colle McVoy in Minneapolis, prefers to work outside in his yard. When it rains, he moves inside to his garage.
Johnson put it simply: “This has made us all realize that you can be anywhere, make anything and still be excited.”
Working with and presenting to clients virtually has been an adjustment: As Matt Creamer, creative lead at Forsman & Bodenfors New York, put it: “It’s always a bit of a shitshow. It doesn’t matter how prepared you are; there’s always something wrong or someone loses a connection. That stuff all really sucks.”
On the flip side, it’s humanizing. Creamer said that if anything, this entire experience has made it clear that the “days of Don Draper” are long gone.
“They were already dying, because clients were already growing tired of the big reveal. They want to be along for the ride and the process,” Creamer said. “This is making it even more clear that that just doesn’t work anymore.”
The informality that’s come from working from home has only accelerated that trend, especially as production schedules speed up so marketers can quickly push out ads that are relevant for the times.
“You find yourself presenting to a chief marketing officer who’s having a glass of wine, and their kid is coming in to get a hug goodnight,” Lieberman said.
Johnson’s noticed that she feels “more connected” to clients than she did before thanks to the rise of videoconferences.
“I’m definitely seeing them more, because nine times out of 10, we’re doing Zoom calls instead of just a phone call,” she said.
Of course, there are trade-offs to some of these perks. Balarin said he misses having local clients work from Mother London’s office, where they can “genuinely participate and brainstorm” with the agency. He also misses showing off the space, which is aptly decorated with photos of employees’ mothers, to newcomers.
“Our office speaks so loudly about who we are and how we do things,” Balarin said. “We are a people agency. We really like being in the room and looking at faces.”
But even Balarin admits that in-person collaboration isn’t a prerequisite for good work. He points to a project that Mother London did in partnership with The Secret Little Agency, its sister shop in Singapore, before the pandemic hit.
“We flew over once to do a big client meeting, but the rest of the process was entirely done on video calls. And it worked. We got some incredible work that we’re really proud of,” Balarin said.