Last week’s agency leaders’ forum, which was also our first ‘nineteen’ members club meeting, featured a lively discussion about recovery, teams, recruitment and cashflow, with several agency heads describing the market as “twitchy”.
nineteen is a collaborative membership group for agency leaders to connect, develop and influence at an executive level. Agencies including Cheerful Twentyfirst, Smyle, DRPG, AMEX, OrangeDoor, Identity and Top Banana are among the initial members and took part in the first discussion.
Many agencies said they have seen a drop off in virtual enquiries, with the focus now firmly on hybrid and live. However there is still uncertainty with a lot dependent on the results of the government’s Events Research Programme, and announcements around international travel over the next couple of months.
“We are definitely seeing a return. It’s all a bit twitchy if I’m honest. The ambition is there, and we are getting that commitment is challenging,” said one agency MD. Another added: “We have seen a dip in virtual enquiries. Clients are parking virtual projects, but January-April 2022 is looking really exciting from a live perspective.”
While some agencies have already brought back their teams from furlough, others still have staff on furlough and flexi-furlough.
“The big focus for us is on getting teams back, and back in the right state of mind as some have not worked for 15 months. We have a full team meeting this afternoon to outline our plans for when we expect people back in the office. We are aiming to have everything back to normal, whatever normal is, by 1 September. It’s a lot of education and on boarding. Some people who have been here for years will have to be onboarded back into the business,” said one agency leader.
Another added: “We are starting to stress test our new formations and teams and structures. It’s a bit like a human jigsaw at moment. We have some team members working on reduced hours. Now it feels like we are constantly moving people and hours and playing with the pieces that we have got.”
Another big challenge is bringing back staff quick enough to meet client demand and enquiries. “We have HR processes in place to bring people back and that takes time. We are now starting to get clients call and say we want you to start working on something on Monday, and we don’t have the people to work on it,” said one agency head.
For agencies that have new recruits, the desire to get back to the office is particularly strong. “We have doubled our headcount over the past year. I have had 12 new joiners in the last three months alone, and onboarding and instilling culture virtually has been the challenge. We’re keen to get people back into the office for more face time,” said one agency CEO.
As recruitment picks up, there is concern that it will be difficult to find the right talent and skillsets. “We are concerned about good top-level talent. There is a real dearth of it. We have to leverage wider networks now, and if this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that the community of networks is essential now going forward more than ever. There is a significant number of people who have left the industry and don’t want to come back now,” said one agency leader.
Unsurprisingly, cashflow remains a huge challenge in the short term with several agency leaders discussing the need for more payments upfront.
“Cashflow is an issue for us at the moment. Reserves were depleted last year. So we’re trying to get clients to pay up front, especially the large third-party costs we have to pay, and renegotiate our terms and MSAs,” said one. Another added: “We have to make sure we get some funding up front, as that will allow us to bring people back to work on it,” explain one.