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Peter Reid of MSQ Partners: why agencies need to engage their own to engage better with others

A new year always brings a renewed sense of vigour and purpose. People pledge to do more for themselves; more for others.

Maybe that means getting a campaign away for a good cause, or finally getting that side-hustle off the ground. To hone a talent, or perhaps learn a new skill.

And then client work gets in the way. A personal project is shut down. Enthusiasm wanes. People feel less inspired to be creative outside of their day-to-day work. Then they feel less inspired to be creative during work. Then they question whether the environment they’re in is right for them. Then they leave.

A vicious cycle

On the whole, agencies are better than most at encouraging people to use their creative and strategic talents for extracurricular purposes. But we should be. Creativity is the lifeblood of our industry. And our people are our most important asset. We hire them because they are interesting, because they are purposeful, and because they bring different viewpoints, experiences and hustles.

But agencies are under pressure. ‘Legacy’ networks are working desperately to become more resourceful, efficient and nimble, with increased scrutiny on their bottom line.

And that’s when it’s easy to ignore what’s really important to your teams. By failing to provide an environment that can genuinely enable people’s passions and indulge their creative thinking, you lose the energy and momentum that attracts and retains talent.

People are leaving our industry because their creative desires are no longer being sated. Big networks are focusing on efficiencies and processes that are killing culture. That’s something no beer trolley or ‘Summer Friday’ can combat.

Fuelling positive change

Now, a caveat. If you’re facilitating side-projects as ‘a release’ because your staff are desperate to escape the day-to-day, then you’re doing it wrong. But just as there’s that vicious cycle that we referred to earlier, there’s a positive cycle that encouraging passion projects can trigger too.

These projects can complement the work that takes longer to make, or never even sees the light of day. I spoke to a creative in a network agency recently who told me that throughout 2019, they had ‘a lot of PowerPoint presentations and nothing actually made’.

They can allow creatives to draw inspiration from places that don’t always feel appropriate for the traditional brands on your client list and push the boundaries they don’t always feel comfortable pushing (or don’t have permission to push).

This can often trigger new discoveries or skills that can be put back into day-to-day work. It can breed confidence that helps produce more interesting work for clients who may previously have been getting the same old ideas churned out in the same old ways.

For instance our PR agency, Smarts, have just spent the past year exploring the concept of ‘fear’. It helped provide them with a better understanding of how fear motivates people, it allowed the team to collaborate with some fascinating experts, and the resulting ‘Fear Book’ is a vibrant, creative publication that everyone is rightly proud of.

And yes, more provocative work is also more likely to win awards. But that’s a good thing too. Of course, awards should never be the primary focus for a project, particularly when the client involved is often a cash-strapped charity that needs to see real results. But award winners catch the eye of prospects, allowing you to engage with more interesting brands, which in turn enhances the lustre of that ‘day-to-day’ client portfolio.

Finally, and fundamentally, it’s quite simply the right thing to do. We’re lucky enough to work in an industry that allows us to be creative, so it’s our responsibility to harness those skills to engage with our local community and important causes for the greater good. And whilst agencies say that a lot, they rarely walk the walk. The best talent can see through the bullshit.

So my challenge to agencies in 2020 would be this. Take the energy and proactivity we all have at the start of the year, those side projects we all talk about in annual planning meetings, and keep the momentum going when the going gets tough. It’s important for you, your people and your community.

Walking the walk (and looking both ways)

That’s a rather high-and-mighty piece to write if we couldn’t back it up at MSQ. But all of those views above come from what we’ve learnt engaging in passion projects that we’re hugely proud of – and have seen great benefits from.

Over the past few years our agencies have produced award-winning passion campaigns such as ‘The flag we shouldn’t be proud of’, created by The Gate London, to dramatise the disproportionately high risk of LGBTQ youth taking their own lives.

Our customer acquisition agency Stack created #Stopitcominghome, a social campaign raising awareness that when England lose a football match, incidents of domestic violence increase by 38 per cent.

And recently, a creative team at The Gate London won a D&AD Impact Pencil for ‘A Colourful Life’, personalised colouring books for dementia patients that help reduce feelings of anxiety and depression.

These were all issues close to individuals within our agencies, and it’s our job to give them the platform to bring their passions to life.

But it’s not just about conventional ‘charity’ work. It’s about being part of the wider community too. Smarts, for example, have an initiative that encourages the agency’s staff to use their curiosities for the benefit of their local area. One of their creatives is currently using Augmented Reality to bring the stories of Belfast’s murals to life.

Then there’s the story of Tottenham Court Road. Last year, after more than half a century, TCR turned from being a one-way street into a two-way road. And those so used to the previous system were being caught out. Accidents started to happen.

Being based on the iconic street, we saw numerous accidents first-hand. And we believed that the low-level signage that Camden Council were providing wasn’t doing enough.

We offered to work with the council to change that. They refused. But this was an issue affecting our community, so we didn’t stop there. We engaged with business development service The Fitzrovia Partnership to produce ‘Look Both Ways’, a campaign featuring eye-catching images of people who work along Tottenham Court Road, simultaneously looking both ways across the street.

The campaign ran on outdoor sites and remains in shop windows today. And the number of accidents are decreasing.

When you have a campaign that allows your team to stretch their creative thinking, produce something meaningful and receive goodwill messages from survivors of previous accidents, then you know, as an agency, you’re doing a genuinely important job.

Peter Reid is the Chief Executive of MSQ Partners. MSQ Partners is a group of six creative agencies spanning advertising, public relations, direct and digital marketing, design and brand strategy and B2B.

Clients are offered the choice of working with individual agencies or with a multi-disciplinary team designed around their specific needs. Get more joined-up thinking at MSQ Partners or email Pete at [email protected].

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