How Indie Agency Leaders Are Communicating With Staff as the Pandemic Drags On


How indie agency leaders are communicating with staff as the pandemic drags on

Bosses gathered during Worldwide Partners Conference to offer advice and insight.

As the Covid-19 pandemic enters its 32nd month and an economic crises looms, agency leaders have a lot to deal with away from the day-to-day operations. This includes how and when to communicate company goals to a disparate staff.

Adweek attended the Worldwide Partners conference in Amsterdam recently and gathered a group of independent agency leaders to share their experiences of the last three years and how they’re planning ahead.

Joining the conversation were Ann-Louise Rosen, co-CEO of Advance based in Copenhagen, Cairo Marsh, founder of Tokyo consultancy relativ, Fletcher Whitwell, chief media and publishing officer for R&R Partners in Las Vegas, and Annabel Mackie, managing director of fivebyfive in London.


Transparent communications

As they operate within the creative industry, the group believe that there is a difference in approach when it comes to staff communications, which need to be “more fluid” and “transparent” than in other industries. It’s an industry made up of people who desire respect and empathy to perform—but that can often be forgotten in times of struggle.

Advance has discussed the need to “prioritize spending time together,” Rosen said, adding that some staffers “felt quite alone” on video calls.

Marsh, who leads a fully remote team, admits “we don’t care that much” when it comes to office attendance. A weekly mandatory all hands meeting brings the team together, but there is no need to have the camera on. The Tokyo-based company recently held a voluntary off-site event.

“The nature of the relationship that we want our team to have with the company happens in microcosms not in macro. So, it’s about your boss, it’s about your team and having those ongoing conversations, without worrying about appearing a certain sort of way,” Marsh said.

Fivebyfive has two offices. One in London and the other in Southampton with a weekly meeting to discuss plans for the days ahead. There is also a monthly all-hands meeting to bring all teams together. Mackie is only months into running the business but reveals she is holding one-on-ones with each member of the team to get to know them all better.


Fast follow-ups

Marsh’s expectation is that team leaders follow up on important company announcements. That can mean taking them to the pub to underline the importance of a decision or holding a quick video chat to ensure everyone is on board. He says it’s “a joy” that smaller agencies can use “a bespoke approach” to problem solving. Rosen agrees on the need to schedule follow ups, highlighting tools within video platforms such as Teams which allow for direct communication with staff members during calls. Slack is also a go-to communication resource. “It’s up to the team to discuss how they want to communicate, so it’s really important to have that conversation rather than everyone doing their own thing,” said Rosen.

“I think it’s about communication preference,” Marsh added. “That’s the beauty of being in a smaller organization because I can say for certain people, if I send something over Slack they will see it on Teams. That’s how they roll but I know their preference and I know I need to message on Teams as well. It’s down to where you can engage people.”


Sharing bad news

When it comes to sharing bad news, however, it is best to do so in person, the group agrees. A transparent communications plan gives the company a strong sense of what is happening to “get ahead” and avoid surprise, suggests Whitwell.

Mackie says that when relaying bad news, senior leadership teams should first come together to “game this out” and decide how it will land and who needs to be considered most once it is revealed. Once made, fast follow-ups should be planned to listen to concerns and to be reflective sometime later.

“They’re going to want to come and have a really in-depth conversation with you and you’ve got to give your team time to do that,” she added.

Rosen says it’s important that management make themselves available for feedback and to “never underestimate the importance” of being visible and open to people sharing their thoughts, especially with newer employees given the amount of movement over the last 3 years.

The role of human resources departments has changed for some agencies such as R&R Partners, which rebranded the department to “people and culture” three years ago.

However, Marsh says he doesn’t like to lean on the HR team during difficult periods as he believes that “people expect accountability from leadership. There’s no way to hand that off to someone and still be accountable.”

The group also recommended that news come from the top but that managers are made aware in advance. The empowerment of managers is important, the group believes and their roles should be respected when it comes to communicating with their own teams before any executives get involved.

“I’ve always had an open-door policy because a lot of times people just want to be heard,” explained Whitwell. “And sometimes you find out that it might be just that—they’re struggling and they just want to be heard. That’s when I say ‘thank you for bringing that to my attention but you should speak to your manager’ and if it’s a bad situation then I figure out how to navigate it.”

Mackie adds that since joining fivebyfive this summer she is determined to be “visible” across the agency to be receptive to approaches from anyone, without undermining department heads.

To be supportive, R&R Partners has introduced employee resource groups for staff who identify as LGBTQ+, working moms, African American and Hispanic/Latinx, which Whitwell says “gave everyone the opportunity to come together and talk” about their issues in the workplace. Department heads would then take those issues and work through providing solutions.

“Culture is important. People want to feel like they’re a part of something versus working for someone,” Whitwell explained.