How the pandemic has changed business for Worldwide Partners

Agency leaders from within the independent network sat down with Strategy to talk culture, retention and entrepreneurial spirit.

LG2-WPI-20211021-2

The leaders of several global independent agencies belonging to the Worldwide Partners network met in Montreal last week. They are, from left: John Harris, President and CEO, Worldwide Partners; Fletcher Whitwell, Partner and chief publishing officer, R&R Partners; John Keane, CEO of Ardmore; Mikael Rubinsson, CEO of Blomquist; Stephen Brown, CEO of Fuse Create and Claude Auchu, CEO of Lg2.

The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted major transformation within the advertising industry, and agencies of every size have seen the way they conduct their business forever changed.

That is no less true for the independents. While the pandemic has provided a rare opportunity for many independent agencies to recruit senior talent they might not have been able to otherwise, they have also had to navigate the same financial pressures and recruitment and retention issues as the larger holding companies – without the same resources.

Last week, the leaders of several agencies that make up Worldwide Partners – a network comprised of more than 70 independent agencies located in 40 countries around the world – met for a strategic meeting at member agency Lg2’s Montreal office. Lg2 CEO Claude Auchu, who come on to the WPI board last month, was joined by John Keane, CEO of Belfast’s Ardmore and WPI’s chairman emeritus; Mikael Rubinsson, CEO of Sweden’s Blomquist; Fletcher Whitwell, partner and chief publishing officer of Las Vegas’ R&R Partners and current WPI chair; Stephen Brown, CEO of Toronto’s Fuse Create and WPI’s vice-chair; and John Harris, who runs Worldwide Partners as CEO.

Following the meeting, they joined strategy for a discussion on the different ways the pandemic has impacted their agencies, the strategies they are implementing to manage those impacts, and the way they are responding to the unfolding “Great Resignation” that is seeing many professionals depart the industry to pursue other passions.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic shaped the way you do business today, respective of the different restrictions and realities in play around the world?

Keane: We’re all united by the same fears, woes and worries of COVID-19, but countries are all in various stages of recovery. In the U.K. and Ireland, for three months we’ve been allowed to fully return to work. We’ve created a safe environment where everyone can come back, but the pandemic has changed forever how things look. A lot more of the work is done remotely, and we’ve concentrated our efforts on creative collaboration. We’ve tried to create incentive for people to come to the office, so that we can keep a sense of togetherness. The average age on our team is late 20s or early 30s, and this is a big part of their lives. For their mental wellbeing, they want it back. They’re more technologically adept and able to work remotely, but still crave and cherish the value of working face-to-face.

Rubinsson: One of the other outcomes of the pandemic is that we work closer together with our clients. The pandemic put a distance between us and we had the digital tools, but all of a sudden, we are in meetings all of the time. The consequence of this is, instead of being divided, we are brought closer together. There’s more cooperation, which also gives us more opportunities within the Worldwide Partners network, because that’s what we’re all about: collaboration.

Auchu: We are closer – not only to our employees, but also as agencies within the network. I think everyone is more in “caring mode” because of the pandemic, and paying attention to the fact that it’s been more difficult over the past 18 months, for everyone. Management is paying more attention and more in tune with the growing demands of our people, and that’s good, because there’s going to be a better quality of workplace, whether that’s at home or at the agency.

Brown: The amount of time we’re spending managing and supporting teams and culture has been a big shift, for the better. We used to be fixated on the client and we still are focused on them, but there’s much more of a balance between client and team needs, and that’s a good thing. The pandemic has also created a unique way for us to invest more into our team, instead of putting it into a REIT. For my agency alone, we’ve cut our space needs down to less than half and bought our office. The physical office relationship has changed a lot. Not everyone has or needs desks, but we still need to meet and still need culture to thrive.

Workplace culture is often cited as an important factor for agencies and their employees as they have navigated the pandemic. Has that been true in your experience?

Brown: Office space has been such a clear and defining aspect of the culture, but when you haven’t had people back in the office, that puts more emphasis on leadership within the agencies to demonstrate empathy and understanding and letting that cultural behaviour take the place of space. That dynamic has become even more critical, and what served the independent agencies extremely well over the last two years has been their ability to really prioritize people over profit.

Keane: It’s not about the financial rewards as it would have been five or six years ago. People want to be part of something with a purpose, that is doing good within its community. As independent business owners within our communities, that’s something we are able to do and we do it.

Rubinsson: One way of handling culture during the pandemic that is unique to Worldwide Partners has been the ability to have roundtables, to discover how other agencies around the world are managing during this period. That has been a fantastic resource for us at this time.

Harris: When the pandemic really hit in March 2020, we were looking to our agency partners in China to learn what was happening. They were talking about working from home while the rest of us were just beginning to wonder what we were going to do. So it was great for those of us in North America and the U.K. to get understanding from our Asian agencies how they were addressing employees working from home and maintaining culture because they had experienced it 90 days sooner.

There’s been a wave of departures as employees have career epiphanies and make significant moves in their professional lives. How has this played out for your agencies, and what have you done to counter it?

Keane: You’ve got to remember that we’re seeing two years of movement in six months. There were people who would have moved last year but they were paralyzed by fear or lack of opportunity. We have to be careful not to overstate it, but we are in the middle of it. And we’ve lost people not to others within the advertising community, but they’ve left the industry. They tend to be making lifestyle decisions and bigger life changes. We don’t control all of those parts – all we can do is create an environment where they feel valued and that they have an influence. During COVID, we spent a lot of money on training. Everyone who was working from home, if they wanted to learn a new skill, we paid for it. We also provided therapists everyone could have access to, we basically had them on retainer. So, we’ve done everything we can, but we still lose people. You have to realize you’re not controlling all of the cards and console yourself that you’re doing your best and just be honest and authentic about it. If you do the right things, people will stay with you, but you’re still going to lose some people you don’t want to.

Whitwell: What we’ve done is really lean into our middle management and emerging leaders because they are and have been committed to the agency for the past five to ten years. Making that extra investment in them to not only retain but then also empower them and give them more opportunity has been tremendous for us. We also doubled down on our foundation efforts, and giving our employees an opportunity to work on purpose-driven marketing in addition to paying clients. That was a great outlet for them, because they were not only helping our clients achieve business objectives but also contributing in a meaningful way to society.

Auchu: The answers that employees want are meaningful ones. It’s not a competition nowadays about which agency has the ping pong or pool table or the most parties, it’s about how you handle this client that doesn’t fit your values, or how you handle DEI, governance, an employee’s development and career plan, and the relationship between colleagues. It’s really interesting, because it’s challenging but meaningful, and it’s making our agencies better places to work.

Rubinsson: What we see both on client side and at the agency is people don’t leave for another agency job, they’re leaving to do something totally different. This has given them time for reflection and that’s probably a good thing. But it’s also a warning sign for our business, because sometimes, we are burning people out. It’s a tough environment. That can be a valuable lesson for the entire business.

Brown: One thing I would add is: pay your people more. People are throwing money at the gap in talent. It’s having a natural supply and demand impact. So go through your staff list – it’s not popular with the CFO, but it’s needed. Try to remove money from being the issue that drives people out. I’m not saying money is the solution, but just try to take it out of the equation as much as possible.

In what ways have independent agencies handled this situation that holding companies might not have?

Harris: We’ve had several conversations with employees who are leaving about where they’re going and why, and I think where we’ve had an advantage is the entrepreneurial spirit of independent agencies and the ability for employees to feel like they’re actually making a difference, not just on the client’s business but also for their agency and the community. The culture within the independent space is much more around enabling the entrepreneur in all of our employees, whereas at a holding company, you’re one of many, you’re put into a system and process and there are many more restrictions around what you can do and how you can make an impact. People come back to the independent agencies because they feel like here, they can make a difference.

Brown: When it comes to recruitment, the big holding companies have amazing clients and sound big. When people are looking to advance their career, just being independent isn’t going to cut it. But it can be a platform for lots of opportunities for an employee.

Rubinsson: The agency industry is in constant transition and finding new ways of working. That’s an advantage for independent agencies who can manage this shift at a faster pace, compared to the holding companies. And being part of a network like Worldwide Partners, that gives us opportunities to find perspectives from other agencies, which helps us understand the world in a more diverse way and puts us in a better position for this transition.

This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.