Seven Tips for the Newly Virtual Agency

By: Jeff Sweat, founder of Sweat+Co, for Media Post

Creativity in ad agencies seems to have always happened In The Room—when a creative team or an account team all get together to brainstorm. The value of an agency comes from the collision of ideas that happen when people intersect with each other, day after day.

So what happens, with Covid-19, when those collisions are impossible—when they’re too risky to allow? As large agencies convert to telework during the coronavirus onslaught, this is one of the most important challenges they have to overcome. 

Smaller, independent agencies may have a head start on remote working. Whether it’s minimizing overhead, a need for geographic freedom, or a desire to mess with the agency model, small agencies tend to build location independence into their organizations. I’ve experienced the challenge and opportunities of telework as the founder of a virtual PR agency, and asked others for their advice. Here are a few things we’ve learned. 

Plan for the collisions. 

The drive-by creativity of the ad agency, when a technologist bumps into a copywriter and stumbles upon a new form of advertising, is on hold for now. So if we’re all truly off in our corners, we have to engineer those collisions. Encourage teams to communicate constantly via Slack, to have random hangouts. The extra interaction will improve morale and keep your teams focused on the problem at hand.

If facetime is precious, make the most of it. Too many agency meetings are the preamble to work. Meetings should be the place where decisions are made, where actions happen. That means teams need to be ready for it. “Have your teams do homework,” says Sara Smith, founder of creative and design agency Hope Creative. “Brainstorm before. Find a buddy and do a two-person call.” 

Over communicate, and communicate face-to-face. 

Coronavirus may be the moment where most of us get over seeing our faces on video. People need to see other grown-ups—and have a reason to take a shower.

For agencies, video is even more crucial. Humans get 55% of our information from body language. If we’re going to create together, we have to capture those nuances. If you aren’t face to face, be extra cautious with feedback. “Be over-positive!” says industrial-organizational psychologist Julie Nickerson. “During brief non-verbal exchanges, missing context is filled in by the recipient and it’s usually much less positive than what we intended. This means that our positive messages are usually received as neutral, neutral as negative, and negative as angry or flaming.”

Change your definition of work. 

Maybe this will be the end of teams vying to see who can be last to leave the building (or at least waiting for their ECD to leave). People are creative at different times, and social distancing is a perfect opportunity to let them make the most of it. Set accountability measures for your people that don’t have anything to do with time. “You’re not a butt in a seat anymore, so don’t expect to be a butt in a seat at home,” Smith says. “Allow yourself permission to move your body. Your 8 hours are going to look different now.”

Make the new normal, normal. 

You can help your teams navigate this new environment by preserving business as usual whenever possible. Keep processes and schedules that make sense. Have an end-of-day review with your teams, set timelines for tasks. That extends to “normal” rituals. “Treat your remote work day the same as an off-site day,” says Samantha Litman, Executive Director of recruitment agency BLT. “Shower, dress comfortably, focus, and perform the same as you would if you were in the office. Don’t let home distractions take you off your game.”

Be clear on how to use your platforms. 

Almost every agency uses productivity and collaboration platforms, but losing face-to-face interactions make them more important—and easier to misuse. “I’m concerned that places that haven’t had practice being virtual are going to misuse the various platforms and overwhelm the crap out of everyone. Which is the death of creativity,” says Mark Ray, CCO of Portland, Ore. creative agency North. Ray recommends video for solving problems in real time; Slack for notes, announcements and direct messaging; Basecamp or Monday for a file cabinet; and email for external contacts such as clients and vendors.

And personal phone texts? “Just don’t,” Ray says. “With everything else going on, people need separation between work platforms and personal platforms.”

Give your people space. 

It’s important to remember that people’s jobs are not their only jobs anymore. They’re home-schooling kids, helping elderly relatives long distance, and trying to find a quiet spot away from roommates and partners. Allow for—no, encourage—personal activities. Smith from Hope Creative schedules at least one IRL activity each day, whether that’s repotting a plant or baking muffins. Not only will that give your teams a breather, it can make them more creative. “When I am stuck I find that just moving circulates ideas,” adds Lisa Solomon of Atheneum Collective, an organization that creates virtual training for businesses. 

While being alone can make collaboration harder, it’s great for creativity. Think of every novelist you’ve ever loved, every artist you’ve admired. They didn’t create in a conference room. Space allows for the ideas to creep in. Embrace distance.

Celebrate together. 

Teams need the camaraderie that comes from the office to feel energized, so make room for it in as many virtual ways as possible. We’ve adopted a Thirsty Thursday cocktail hour…which starts at 4 pm, since none of us are driving anywhere. “Encourage silliness and joking,” says Danielle Wiley, Founder & CEO of influencer agency Sway Group. “We have a water cooler channel in Slack that is pretty much all memes all the time right now (along with some good-natured complaining about our annoying new ‘office mates’).”

That could be the most important thing for agencies to address right now. When people work remotely, it’s easy for them to feel unseen. With the stress we’re all now under, everyone needs more gratitude and more support. 

The agency that can make all this happen virtually? It’ll be that much stronger when we’re allowed to work together in person.

How is your agency adapting to virtual work? Let us know at support@atheneumcollective.com



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