Tim Delaney: what’s happened to our famous agency culture in a Covid world?

In amongst the heart-sinking numbers of people and families, society in general, affected by Covid-19, there are mini-subcultures that are struggling to survive – begging questions about whether the cultures actually are as responsible for output as we all might think. Take our industry.

Remember the ‘ghoster’? Can you recall trailing round Soho after finally putting a presentation together? What about waiting for Australia to wake up to take them through a 105 slide Power Point at 6.30am?

The stories of late nights and early hours in our industry are not apocryphal. For years, they somehow characterised the work hard, play hard nature of our business, even providing substantiation to the exotic edges of its personality. When our agency first started working on global accounts, it was almost a badge of honour to be at your desk in the morning having been up till 4am, gone home, showered, and thundered back to your desk, ashen-faced but somehow triumphant.

The industry has seen a great deal of change since then, facilitated in part by the rise of technology. But prior to Covid, that technology was always accompanied by a physically present agency team driving the business forward. So what now, after the lock down, for the energy that is so important to agencies?

Covid has not only locked us down, it has locked us out. The bedraggled account handler, the uber-clever but invariably late-delivering planner, the hugely talented but annoying-none-the-less creative team – they can no longer rub up against each other’s sensational talent to produce -Voila! – the Idea That Wins!

There is no spontaneous jousting. Few one-liners. Even less idle banter. No experience shared, made super important by the in-person presence of the Experienced Person who must be listened to at all times. With Zoom it is very difficult, almost near impossible, to carry on in the way agencies have done over the years; to behave in a manner that has always been the glue, the secret sauce, of each agency’s culture.

No chance to be seen to be the person who cracks the problem at the 11th hour. Certainly no glory in that Zoom call. Covid doesn’t let anyone in a pitch team swap war stories for longer than about 3 mins – there’s always another Zoom waiting.

Sound and Music

So has a Zoom culture developed with different yet positive effects? For sure, a unique punctuality is now part of the relaxed meritocratic agency life – no one turns up ten minutes late for a Zoom call! One-to-ones are somehow more intimate as though you are exchanging secrets not fit for the crowd. I also feel a different kind of camaraderie, maybe just the sight of other people’s homes (and of course bookshelves – now gone viral.)

It’s also true that we are probably all a little more forgiving, given that we are all in the same Covid boat. But whatever the surrogates, Zoom culture can’t quite match up to the real thing. Quite simply because it is almost impossible to act in a truly characterful way while your face is front and centre of a laptop.

It’s definitely hard to be a sycophant for instance – everyone is looking, focussing, on your obsequiousness. And what about the time-honoured : “We’re all going to the Dog & Whatsit, you coming?” This bastion of agency life, the genesis of so many risqué stories it would make your eyes bleed. Gone – straight out the window.

And yet this is where legends were built, aberrant behaviour marking you out as a firebrand Not-To-Be-Messed-With. Even the Christmas Party, the yearly letting down of hair for everyone from the CEO to the runner, is in severe danger. And what will that do to the psyche of the agency culture?

So what does this all mean about the creation of ideas? Should clients be worried that their particular hotbed of creativity has been tamped down? Is the link between a ‘relaxed’ environment and prodigious creativity really causal?

Maybe not. Some of the greatest names in the communications industry, were or are famously well-behaved. (Although one of the best copywriters in the world caught by his wife undressing to get into bed at 5am promptly started pulling up the trousers he was taking down, when she asked what he was up to. “Just have to be in early, you stay asleep, darling.” That is thinking on your feet.)

So maybe Covid will sort the doers from the tryers; the talented from the ordinary. Certainly, it is difficult to be on a Zoom call for 45 minutes and say NOTHING.

And after Covid, when we have all been vaccinated, will we go back to the ‘old’ normal? It would seem unlikely and perhaps that’s not entirely a bad thing either. But beware the loss of that agency energy that fires our ideas and behaviours. If the future is considered, conscientious but ultimately, vanilla creative work, give me racy any time.

I once said “If you don’t come in on Saturday, don’t bother coming in on Sunday.” While that was said in jest, it summed up a certain commitment to the fact that ideas aren’t conjured up to order from 9 till 5. Maybe that reality will be the old culture’s saviour.

Tim Delaney is the founder and chairman of Leagas Delaney. The agency recently announced it was to continue working from home for “the forseeable future.”

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