If there's one thing that we've all collectively learned this past year and a half is how important it is to value each other as people outside of our work lives. We spoke with Left Off Madison Co-Founder and CEO, Robert Douglas, about the importance of human engagement and how embracing the change of a flexible work environment can increase efficiency.
Over the past year, work environments have had to change drastically. How has your agency taken employee feedback, coupled with what’s appropriate for the company to create a work plan going forward?
We’ve been empathetic, attentive, and adaptive. When our core leadership team conveyed their interest to relocate away from our home base of New York City, we accepted and encouraged this kind of change. It was better for them and their families and wouldn’t negatively impact our operations. Our industry is based upon people — that is the primary and most important asset. Having and retaining the best talent is the most important attribute an advertising agency can deliver its clients.
The lessons gained from the first several months of the pandemic validated that our leadership and team could function from home at parity or better than being in some communal office. The need to collaborate in person was replaced by video or one-on-one calls. On (rare) occasion, a handful of people working on a shared project will meet in a common space when necessary.
If there is one major benefit to working from home rather than open area office environments, it is the reduction of uncontrollable (and often unnecessary) disruptions and distractions that impede one’s ability to think, concentrate, and get work done. That is some real talk. The office bullcrap that was pulling people away from what is truly important pre-pandemic was getting out of control.
How has the changing work landscape affected the way pitches and campaign briefs are approached and conceptualized?
I think it has gotten stronger, more creative, faster, and far more efficient.
We are getting better pitches because the mostly redundant brainstorm benders of the recent past have been replaced by a couple of intelligent people from our insights, media, and creative teams who form an initial strategy, plan, and approach together from the initial briefing. That is shared with a larger team for input, reaction, etc.
Ad agency leaders and clients must come to grips with the realities that people in general and ad agency personnel can be broken down into two main groups: thinkers and doers. There are far less thinkers than doers in the world. We’ve learned that doers are much better at reacting and building off something solid and firm, than working with nothing or a literal blank piece of paper. As the thinkers on the team, listen, they feed and build off the doers’ comments — even if their ideas are more times weak. We’ve learned that including doers much earlier the process is simply not the best use of anyone’s time.
The result is a more creative output for the pitch. This reminds me of the creative process that I grew-up in where ad agency staffers had offices of their own — before open office environments became vogue.
We have found that the old-now-new-again process is faster. A few of our brightest people — who have familiarity and positive chemistry working together accelerates everything. From initial strategy to planning and building creative and/or media approaches, we are finding the core team moves swiftly and is more fluid.
The result is we are spending less peoplepower resources on a pitch. We are getting smarter, stronger pitches. And we are increasing our win/loss ratio in pitches. Ultimately, we are more efficient than being in the structured, open-office environment.
In what ways has this impacted the work-life balance of your employees and what steps have been taken to mitigate that?
The days of office hours being from 8:30am to 6:00pm are dead. During the pandemic, we’ve all learned a lot about ourselves—what time of day we are best to think and create or in a zone to expedite administrative tasks and connect with colleagues and external business partners. Our team has flexibility to pick and choose the hours that they work so long as they are positive-minded, productive, collaborative, and growing as well as making client-facing meetings and meet deadlines early, whenever they occur.
We must remember that classrooms and offices were built based upon the factories of the industrial era. That chain will now finally break — I think.
We are all adults. There’s no “pretend to work” anymore. We are all invested in our clients and our own business.
Given that each work environment can look a bit differently, what has helped in creating a cohesive working relationship with clients?
Regular, persistent human engagement. Telephone calls and video conferences are a first choice over emails. In my observation over the past 5-10 years, ad agency personnel (and clients) had grown increasingly reliant on email. Void of any human touch. Bringing back humanity into our client communications has cultivated a more open, honest, and trustworthy connection.
What changes that have been made over the past year do you see sticking around for years to come?
Here are a few:
- Entrepreneurial spirit turned into failures and successes
- Video calls (e.g., Zoom, Google Meet)
- Shared work platforms (e.g., MS Teams, Monday)
- Less agency/client travel for in-person meetings. Replaced by video conferences now that we have become more proficient and experts using the technology.
- Flexible work hours by employees.
- Flexible work locations by employees & less waste on commuting