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The Conversation: getting people back in the office, and the JWT fallout

Getting people back into work - in some form - is becoming a priority. Meanwhile the sex discrimination case against JWT has dominated the headlines

By creative salon

When US sports woman Simone Biles withdrew from the Tokyo Olympics’ all-round gymnastics final this week she did so to prioritise her mental health. It’s a decision that has won her almost universal support and applause for putting her wellbeing above her ‘job’.

The tremendous pressure felt by a global superstar performing in the world’s toughest competition is an extreme example, but Biles' decision is being echoed over Zoom calls across the ad industry as more and more staff convey their reluctance to return to old working patterns and their attendant pressures.

Agency cultures have been rooted in long hours and the adrenaline of pitching pressures, and for plenty of people that heightened state is a reason they love the business. But it’s clear that an awful lot of employees are now prioritising wellbeing and lifestyle choices above a return to office-based working, despite the flexible arrangements now in place at most agencies.

Most agencies are hoping for a normality (of sorts) to return in September, and some – such as Publicis Groupe UK – have put in place enhanced employment policies, that they hope will make the office a more welcoming and inclusive place. But after 18 months at home, anecdotal evidence suggests that plenty of people are reluctant to return. This is a real shame.

The serendipity of everyday and sometimes fleeting connections that are made within an agency environment can never be replicated online. Moreover, enforced isolation does nothing to enhance mental wellbeing or resilience or belonging. Indeed, research from Onward has shown that the pandemic has accelerated the decline in neighbourliness amongst younger people with a subsequent increase in loneliness.

But these people who are most in need of returning to work for their own mental wellbeing are also those who, anecdotally at least, seem most reluctant to do so.

While there seems to have been a real shift in power between employer and employee (and many would argue it was long overdue), how flexible agency leaders are prepared to be stretched in accommodating employees who are reluctant to return to the workplace is going to get tested over the coming weeks. There might not be a single right answer – agencies might need to come up with some bold and creative solutions, beyond the stick and carrot. We’ll be sharing some of the best practices as it’s likely that there will be at least as many failures as there will be successes.

J. Walter Thompson court case

Much of the national media coverage of the successful lawsuit filed against JWT by former white male employees has made for truly dismal reading. The story has obviously caused very real pain to the people caught up in it. And at a time when the ad industry is facing a severe talent crisis and is also (finally) trying to attract more diverse young people into the business, damaging consequences could be felt more widely; the ad industry urgently needs to address under-representation, but it can only do so if it is seen to be, and demonstrably is, an industry that welcomes, supports and empowers those from backgrounds currently woefully under-represented.

For an overview of the lawsuit, this piece by Adweek is a detailed analysis. The industry’s vocal condemnation of the appalling treatment of Jo Wallace in the tabloids, and the Daily Mail in particular, is covered here and Wallace’s own powerful and elegant response can be viewed here.

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