“I didn’t get into the creative industry to be bored every day”, says this month’s Leading Lady, Emma Stone, Client Services Director at Frost*collective.
Emma has worked with some of the most ground-breaking brands in the world from Apple and Mercedes Benz to ACON, an organisation working in HIV prevention and support, and LGBTI health. Not to mention her support for the Snowdome Foundation, an organisation dedicated to improving outcomes for those with blood cancer.
We spoke to Emma about something she’s particularly passionate about – looking after each other at work and how agencies can do better collectively at putting their people first.
Tell us about your work around HIV prevention.
ACON’s mission is to end HIV transmission by 2020 and the work we’ve been doing has been focussed on behavioural change. We need to destigmatise HIV, test more, treat early, and stay safe. If we can do these simple things, we can make a real difference.
We all joke in this industry that ‘we’re not saving lives’, but in this case, we actually are and it’s extremely rewarding.
You’re responsible for the wellbeing of both your clients and your team. What do you think is the biggest challenge for agencies to retain their talent?
To be quite honest, agencies habitually don’t treat their staff very well. The industry has very high demands and often at the cost of their employees’ personal wellness. It’s now become increasingly hard for other agencies to find good talent, people are getting burnt out in the workplace and leaving the industry altogether. We are seeing large, client side corporations investing in workplace strategies that focus on wellness and that place real value on their employees. Creative industry professionals see this shift and are easily able to transition across. As a result, the industry at large now has an account service talent shortage.
Sadly, working people into the ground undoes a lot of agencies’ great work. I have a lot of CVs come across my desk and I can tell you that it’s rare to see anyone stay at an agency longer than two years. Most people I meet will indicate similar sentiments about their workplaces which is the reason they want to shift.
Why do you think that is?
It’s mostly about hot competition within the industry. Agency legacies are hinged on creative teams. This means teams have been well nurtured and the talent has been wonderfully developed, which is why there is always fierce competition for the best creatives. But what that also means is that account services roles are not as highly regarded and as such, the pressure on them to deliver is greater with fewer resources.
Account service people have a tough gig, they’re expected to say yes to everything and constantly deliver to ridiculous deadlines so the agency can remain competitive. This in turn places the creatives under new pressure to come up with effective ideas in unrealistic time frames. The strength of the client relationship is now more important than ever and the smarter agencies acknowledge this and have found renewed respect for the importance of client facing roles in today’s market.
How could agencies do a better job here to retain top talent?
Agencies need to ask – ‘What is the true value of our staff?’ Health and wellness programmes in agency land has the potential to be hugely beneficial to the quality of the work and general creative output while being a massive drawcard for talent. We seriously need to lift our game and implement practices that match the corporate, client side world.
Yes, it’s more than having a fruit bowl in the staff kitchen or putting on beers at the end of a long week. Agencies are their own brand, and sometimes we forget what our brand’s expression of employee engagement should be. Creating tailored programmes that work to different personality types is also key, not everyone wants to do yoga.
Agencies at the same time need to protect their output and understand what toll crazy deadlines put on their staff. Invest in your employees and you’re investing in your clients.
Do you think agencies should have a code of conduct?
Absolutely, but very few do. Agencies need a better duty of care to protect their staff, for one. They need to be having conversations about what that looks like and what the business repercussions might be. They need to make a decision that it’s worth investing and protecting their staff.
I also think agencies can do a better job of educating clients about realistic timelines. Great and effective work is only created when you truly understand the core of the problem. This takes time, otherwise it’s design by decoration and nothing short of a beauty pageant.
What do you think will encourage agencies to take lead on this issue?
If you have a problem with staff retention you need to look at your own behaviours as a business.
You’re going to lose clients. I’ve had clients say to me the reason they have changed agency is because they worked with three account services people in under a year and wanted consistency with a team who truly understands their business. It’s quite shocking when clients are telling agencies they need to be better at looking after their own people.
I forecast a greater talent shortage within the next 12 months, particularly in account services. The good people will, and in fact are already, asking for higher rates as they’re in higher demand than ever before.
Let’s talk about some stepping stones to support agencies to get better at this.
We’re in the creative industry, but we’re not creative in our approach to solving this problem.
First up, I think collectively as an industry we can do a better job of creating clear boundaries on the hours our people are expected to work. If the hours were standardised, agency workers would feel like they could schedule out of work commitments regularly and be supported to leave at a civilised hour. We all need to make time to socialise with friends and family and enjoy our lives.
Agency directors should calculate the costs of driving one person into the ground, versus having two people share a role where both are challenged, rewarded and fulfilled. Agencies talk a lot about busy times, but that shouldn’t be the norm. It becomes an issue of needing to resource better.
Are all agencies like this? What questions could job seekers ask potential agencies to see what their culture is like?
Not all agencies are the same, but it’s certainly fairly consistent among most.
Candidates forget that interviews go both ways. Job seekers are also interviewing their prospective employer and good leaders want you to ask tough questions.
I think you should directly ask, ‘Are any of your staff experiencing symptoms of burnout? Have they in the past? What are you doing to combat that? How much overtime are staff doing here?’
If management has a solid plan in place these questions are easily answered.
Staff who are interested in the team environment, and who have passion and drive, are the people I’m always looking for. You can teach any skill, but these can’t be taught.
Any watch outs for agency leaders reading this?
Imagine how amazing it would be if your competitive edge was gauged by how inspired, fresh, happy and creative your people are.
If you’re sitting at your Mac during dinnertime, not seeing your family and friends as much as you should be, and exercise has taken a backseat for the midnight candle, you’re a workplace burnout candidate. These are the sacrifices your staff are making to get ahead and by turning a blind eye you’re telling them that it’s ok. Perhaps the greater question here is – ‘Are you truly getting ahead?’
Images by Breeana Dunbar Photography.