Can a virtual ad agency really work?

March 27, 2019

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For an industry that prides itself on creativity and innovation, advertising is unashamedly gruelling and inflexible when it comes to its workplace culture. For whatever reasons, the industry seems to be holding tight to its Mad Men style heritage – with employees expected to work long hours in a central office against continual deadlines.

As a result, as we’ve seen, it’s not uncommon for advertising professionals to simply burn out and leave the industry at a fairly young age. There is an insane amount of talent leaving the industry because they’ve had kids or want a better quality of life.

Xavier Rees, Chief executive of Havas London and Havas Helia, perfectly describes the unrealistic pressures of the traditional advertising world in this recent article.

“Work-life balance no longer exists. We are all blending, not balancing… the enemy is presenteeism. Bosses who judge you if you leave the office before 7pm. Agencies that measure commitment by the number of family moments you sacrifice. There should only be one metric in a modern agency: how much you care.”

The inherent inflexibility in the sector means that many older advertising professionals simply find they’re at odds with the agency culture, where everyone tends to work long hours and heads to the bar on a Friday night. 

The great irony of all of this is that our clients are crying out for experienced talent. Clients aren’t interested in whether or not an agency has a ping pong table, a bar, a vertical garden or a noise-proof meditation space.

They want innovative ideas, seamless execution and the results that are driven through experience.

So what's the solution?

At Splendid, we've fully embraced the notion of a modern workplace – creating a virtual agency that offers talented advertisers the flexibility and balance they need to work in the industry they love while not having to make significant sacrifices at home.

On a personal level, I started Splendid because my wife, who works in the medical profession, works all over Australia to fulfil various placements. I didn't want to have to pick mangoes for a living but traditional advertising seemed completely at odds with my work-life reality. Splendid's model was developed so I could stay married and still work in advertising at a senior level. 

So what does it take to make a virtual agency work?

1. Get the right people 

One of the most important factors is to hire self-starting people who are disciplined and principled. At Splendid, we hire predominantly senior people who can work very independently, and who are focused on doing a fantastic job because they find it personally rewarding and because they appreciate the balance it affords them. I don’t think there’s a more efficient worker than a parent that has to be at the school gate by 3pm. 

The virtual model obviously doesn’t work for everyone. Some people need to go into an office and have face-to-face interactions with people every day, so it’s important to choose people who are the right fit. It's very evident, very quickly, when someone doesn't fit our virtual working style and culture.  

2. Trust them implicitly

The beauty of a virtual agency is there’s no clock watching or micro management. Instead, you have to have implicit trust that your people will do the work required of them. 

At Splendid, we believe it makes more sense to measure outputs instead of hours: revenue generation, profitability, client satisfaction and quality of creative product. You can't look over someone's shoulder so you have to trust they're doing the right thing... and 99% of the time they invariably are.

3. Embrace collaboration tools

Technology is vital to Splendid’s success – especially as a company that specialises in comms for B2B tech companies. The vast majority of our meetings occur online, and we use a raft of information-sharing and collaboration tools. We also use online workflow management systems to manage the day-to-day. 

Being in the industry that we’re in, collaborating and communicating using technology platforms such as Microsoft Teams comes very naturally, so it’s a perfect fit. Many of our clients are also used to working with virtual staff or virtual teams already, and so have great systems in place.

4. Stoke the banter

A potential risk in a virtual agency is that everyone will work in a silo fashion – which is why it’s so important to replace the water cooler chat (or smack talk) with other communication and collaboration tools. We've found that more internal meetings than would ordinarily be the case are needed to ensure everyone is kept in the loop. Our Teams channels and IM are also key for banter and creating fun. This online dialogue helps to create a sense of connectedness but needs to be nurtured. No chat very likely means your people are feeling isolated.

5. Face to face is still critical

Maintaining face-to-face contact, particularly with our clients, is also vital. We always attend our clients’ offices to give big presentations, make time to be in their offices and have regular quarterly catch ups with our team.

For our clients, having a virtual agency means we can keep our rates reasonable and offer great talent. For our people, it means no wasted hours commuting, and the ability to fit work around all of the other things life throws at us. 

6. Put sound processes in place

Splendid has grown quickly, and the team now includes teams of strategists, suits, digital PMs and creatives.

To support this, we’ve put team structures and processes in place, and refined the technology we use to track time and manage workflows. There are things you need to put in place to circumvent the fact that your team isn’t in an office, and we’ve done it at scale.


Want to find out more?

Get in touch with Tim Sands, our Managing Director