As economic realities trickle down through the manufacturing and service supply chains, I’m starting to hear distressing news from my colleagues at other agencies. Work is beginning to dry up, either because clients realize that it’s more cost effective to bring the larger projects in-house, or because their budgets are getting cut as a result of reduced consumer spending. Everyone seems to be fairly certain that things are going to get worse before they get better, and as a result everyone is battening down their hatches to weather the expected storm.
Bad news like that is almost inevitably followed up by commiseration about how many hours they’ve had to work recently, how they’re constantly under pressure to put in more, or how their coworkers have had enough and have left for greener… or at the very least less stressful pastures. This in and of itself isn’t necessarily bad- we all understand the pressures of marketing and agency work, and a certain amount of dedication to the project deliverables are par for the course. Yet when weekly hours exceed 50 on a regular basis, you’re buying short term productivity by draining both current and future creativity of your talent. Speaking from experience, gradual burnout is still burnout, leaving long-term scars, and the tightening of client budgets and inevitable cannibalization of the RFP bid has resulted in even more frightening stories: Talented designers and developers are going on antidepressants because of their work load (source withheld).
When I heard that, my first response was outrage. My second was to cast the management of those agencies in the worst light possible, as either willfully ignorant or maliciously exploitative. My third was to do a quick mental inventory of all the openings at Resource just in case there was a way I can get them out of that hellhole. Regardless of those, I’m confident in stating this: Those agencies are going to fail.
Ur Doin it Rong
Your talent is your greatest asset. Designers, developers, strategists, information architects, analytics experts, effectively all the people who actually produce whatever deliverable you’ve agreed to are the guts of your operation, and without them you’re simply a self-style executive or sales guy more useful as a hot air balloon.
So lets assume that you’re said executive with a production team, and hard economic times and active competition from other agencies has forced you to cut timelines and reduce your RFP estimates. A few of your employees are forced to work a few extra hours while you’re busy trying to find more clients, but the pressure doesn’t let up, becomes systemic and suddenly you’ve built a culture that expects 100% lifestyle dedication. If this was intentional, shame on you. If it wasn’t, you’re going to need to take drastic measures to fix it.
Your Reputation Is At Stake
As talented SME’s in the digital space we are of course extremely active online, and have a vibrant community of our own. We keep in touch over twitter, email lists, websites, blog, professional networking groups and what have you, and news like “I had to work a 100 hour week last week” gets around quickly. So while your marketing personnel and senior leadership are busy worrying about how your company’s brand is projected to current and potential customers, that same brand is being systematically undermined and destroyed in the professional communities that represent your talent pool. One single negative report is enough to mark you as an agency to stay away from, and in tough economic times it’s going to be much easier to accidentally cause these. In short, you might look good to potential clients, but when you try to hire the talent for that project which will grow your agency to the next level, the community will laugh in your face.
Let me emphasize this: If you put more pressure on your talent, the stress will reduce their creativity and productivity in the short and long run, you’ll have to hire more, which will refuse your offers because you’re known in the community as someone who works your employees to the breaking point. End result: You’ll be unable to produce high quality work anymore, and instead will leave your client with a bad taste in their mouth as you under-deliver on your promises, ensuring little to no repeat business.
And that’s the crux, isn’t it? If the web has taught us anything, it’s that high quality work (shameless plug) is a better sales person than anyone you can hire, and if your HR policies, culture and project management are systematically draining and destroying the talent which produces such work, your agency is either on life support or is one payroll cycle away from being roadkill. All the sexy, high margin projects will go to those that have the talent to consistently produce it, and you’re left with those clients unable or unwilling to pay for it.
It’s simple economics. If your production talent is interested and engaged, you’ll see the product quality increase while efficiency increases as well. We’ve seen this with Toyota and American Airlines, and there’s plenty of evidence that fundamental truths like this easily translate to the agency world.
And while that’s all going on, community leaders like myself as well as your competition will be waiting in the wings, ready to poach your best and brightest at a moment’s notice. So wake up, face the music, and realize that your agency’s bottom line is only as happy as your employees.