Should agencies insist on a 9 am start time for creatives?

If inspiration and ideas don’t follow the clock, and the ad industry is itself built on all-nighters and takeaway dinners, should creatives be measured against output or by a 9am presence in the office?

Nov 21, 2022 10:16:00 AM | Article | Nikita Mishra

Working in a routine, creative or otherwise, is largely considered positive for productivity. It goes without saying that structural points peppered in the workday help meet the day’s objectives.

 

But ad agencies work on a different model. It’s no secret that gruelling long hours at an agency can rival those of trading or investment banking culture. Add to that the creative process, which is infamously exhausting, cross-team collaboration whilst dealing with changing client briefs and impossible deadlines, and the environment can eaily become a pressure cooker situation.

 

Creativity does not come with a switch which can be turned on at 9am. Often the best ideas are not the first ones. Sometimes inspiration strikes when you’re done with a 12-hour workday and vegetating in front of Netflix. No can put a time stamp on a great idea So if creatives don’t have a regular job, should they be measured against output or a 9am presence in office?

 

Recently, Andy Greenway, former ECD at Dentsu International and currently the CCO and founder of Singapore-based creative agency Rumble asked the posed question on LinkedIn. His post went viral and started a heated discussion: Is the 9am start an outdated concept; does it foster or kill creativity? And if one department within the agency is given complete flexibility, does it create a class system where others who work in tandem with the creatives feel marginalised or undervalued?

 

Campaign opened the debate to the creative community and got some passionate responses.

Andy Greenway
CCO and founder, Rumble

(author of the viral LinkedIn post which inspired this debate)
 

I was surprised to see this post go viral. It was a bit innocuous, in my mind. 9am start times doesn’t seem to be a particularly controversial issue. But it resonated with a lot of people. Perhaps that’s because networks are now being run by bean counters. I have certainly seen less tolerance to the quirky traits of creative people as the years have passed. Left brained managers, with cynicism towards the value of creative thinking, are more focused on costs, efficiency, and margins than the big idea.
 

9 am, dare I say, is symbolic of their control.
 

As such, the 9 am start time has slowly crept into the agency psyche and is now a normal regimen of work. The left brained managers not only count the money, but time, too.
 

But… there is no off-clock in our business. Creative people don’t stop thinking once they leave the office. They continue into the night and during weekends. It’s involuntary. Once the brain gets an itch, it will keep going until it gets rid of it. As such, creative people can endure restless nights. Sometimes they need to go for a drink to relieve the stress that builds up. And sometimes, they just need to spend time away from the office to think. Whatever their pattern, 9am can become a rigid barrier to the flow of ideas.
 

A very small percentage of people on LinkedIn pushed back fiercely against the piece. Everyone is entitled to their opinion. But one thing is for sure. The creative community has spoken.

 

Amit Wadhwa
CEO, Dentsu Creative India

9 am is a bit harsh, I think 9:30 am sounds more realistic [laughs].
 

Honestly, I am a firm believer that respecting time and timelines is a key aspect as at the end of the day we are in the creative business, where business is an integral and important part of it.
 

Brand creative is a key component of the business delivery and hence it needs to work as a part of the entire ecosystem and not in isolation. Having said that I do realise that realities around in our business—work will sometimes stretch into all the wee hours of the morning—those factors are beyond our control. But once you fall into this trap it becomes a vicious cycle.
 

The only possible solution that I have arrived on this is that whenever this happens and with whoever this happens you need to take a human aspect and make sure the relaxations are given to them. But what is key is that we need to prevent it from becoming the norm and try and re-set the hours and timings as soon as possible.
 

The important aspect of enjoying flexibility is doing it as a team. The team needs to divide the work where it is stretched in terms of hours and the other team members need to ensure there is some representation in office at the right hours. This way you can balance the relaxation as well as work delivery and have some sort of a discipline. Easier said than done, but at least that is the endeavour.

 

Evelyn Lee
Integrated marketer for a biotech company

When I read Andy's post, I was triggered by a host of past experiences. I get how one can't be constrained to a 9 am start time. Creativity and ideas come to me at all odd hours, more often when I'm in the shower! So, I get what Andy is saying. I also understand that its stifling and constraining to be fixated with a 9 am start.
 

But please, if Andy seems to think that only "creative people have stressful jobs" and only they deserve the flexibility freedom, he has no idea how stressful it is for PR practitioners. We do it all.
 

Andy's post is male-centric.
 

A few years back, I had to accompany a group of journalists to a media junket. We were to fly out the next day after the award ceremony, which was a Sunday. My client, who is married, asked if I could stay and take a later flight back to Singapore, which meant that I would only arrive at around midnight following an eight-hour flight and I had to be ready to be back in the office on Monday morning. He wanted me to do a post-mortem with his CEO on Sunday morning. I asked if we could do the meeting on Monday instead as there would be an after-party for the celebrities, and most likely, his CEO would be at the party. He wouldn't be up and ready to meet me at 10 am. He insisted, and I pushed back hard. Finally, he relented. He had no idea about my personal life, did not ask and just assumed that just because they paid for my services, I would be at their beck and call. When he arrives home around midnight, his wife or helper would most likely have his laundry done and ready for the upcoming week. His wife or helper would have taken care of his meals and all his needs; he does not need to grocery shop. This is not the case when you are single and live alone without help and need to report to work at 9am.
 

I have made similar observations with my male friends who are in C-suites. They need two women in their lives to function—one at work, their personal assistant to organise their work life, and their wives at home to organise their personal lives and household. This is not the same for women—not every woman can be as lucky as Sheryl Sandberg.
 

So, when the head of a creative in an ad agency publishes says such a thing [refers to Andy’s viral post], what message is he sending exactly? How many women would read his post and practice self-selection?
 

The agency world is brutal. You walk into an agency; you see a sea of women, but how many women are there in leadership positions?

 

Malcolm Poynton
Global CCO, Cheil Worldwide

Insisting creatives are at the office by 9 am likely makes less difference to an individual creative’s output but will almost certainly make more difference to the agency culture than one might expect. Since some creatives like to start early and look to escape earlier while others prefer to work late and start a little later, it’s crazy to generalise with a one-size-fits-all approach.
 

However, what is the same for all creatives today is the ever-increasingly short windows of time to deliver. The consequence is, more often than not, creatives are working crazy late hours to meet these ever-increasing expectations.
 

So, when an agency runs on a super-high cadence of short deadlines, then it’s only natural that creatives are going to need some leeway to start a little later. They are after-all, human.
 

On the flip side, what’s likely to divide an agency culture quicker than anything is giving creatives unique freedom to start ‘whenever’.
 

Across the Cheil network ‘start’ times varying according to the local culture as well as the individual agency culture. What is consistent, is the overall buy-in for creatives starting a little later in offices where they’re frequently working late. Without this, it’s impossible to build an agency culture fuelled by a collective spirit to succeed.

Grace Francis
Global chief creative and design officer, Wongdoody

If you crave mandatory hours, be a banker—financial markets always open and close at the same time.
 

Any structure at work is either a scaffolding or a cage—while different creative agencies flourish under radically different scaffolding, rigid start times will only ever be a cage. You could argue this is about fair value exchange—our industry is built on late nights and takeaway dinners; it can’t also demand a start time of a primary school. This is about autonomy and trust.
 

At the start of the pandemic I saw a lot of leaders terrified that the creative may never set pen to paper again without being hauled into an office space—yet the last few years at Cannes have never looked bolder and more culturally significant. All you need to do is trust your people.
 

This extends to different job roles; the same organization might ask a creative to rehearse til midnight, keep the suits until four am and the artworker still churning when the pitch team come back dressed and rested. Everyone has their own role and everyone in the room is there to do incredible work. They certainly don’t need a foreman watching over them.

 

Rania Robinson
CEO and partner of Quiet Storm and WACL President

 

Creative people often do their best thinking at unconventional times of day and night whether they are musicians, artists or advertising creatives. Inspiration doesn’t follow a strict timetable and can come from anywhere at any time. It’s vital that creatives work at times which are most fruitful for them whether that is at 5am, through the night, or during the normal working day. Agencies should allow creatives the space and time they need to come up with inspiration. This blends well with the need for flexible working.
 

That said, creatives need to be sensitive to the timetables of their colleagues, creative partners and clients and make sure they can work within the limits of a collective creative process. As long as there’s enough time built into creative development processes, this shouldn’t be a problem.
 

At Quiet Storm, the work schedule tends to be fluid and flexible for our teams to give them the freedom to produce their best ideas. But we have some fixed times that help manage practical activities such as managing workload and resource allocation. At the end of the day, we are open to whatever is needed to get to the best ideas, so we try not to be too restrictive.

 

Christian Finucane

Co-founder and creative partner, The Core Agency

 

Every creative works differently. Some have a tried and tested structure, for example I always write ideas down during the briefing and then leave the brief alone and let my subconscious to it. I know plenty of creatives religiously knock out ideas first thing, or alternatively like to start the day with more menial tasks to clear their minds. But the one thing everyone can agree on is not the start time, but the deadline, and as an outcome based business that will always drive a creative. Working flexibly, no matter what the role at an agency, shouldn’t be an issue anymore. If the pandemic and lockdowns have taught us anything, working from anywhere and at times that suit the individual while ensuring they work effectively with not only colleagues but clients, is the new normal. Our own business has seen improved productivity, happier staff and better work produced as a result. So the days of arbitrary start and finish times are gone, not just for creatives but across agency roles. 

Amy Williams
Founder and CEO, Good-Loop

 

This debate really highlights the inevitable death of presenteeism—and COVID was the nail in that coffin. We hire people to achieve certain objectives and the optimum environment within which they can do that is best decided by them. The pandemic forced us to trust our people like never before—you literally weren't able to breathe down their necks or ensure they turned up at 9am, all you were able to do was judge people based on the quality of their output. So, let's not waste this opportunity Covid has presented to us—let's continue to foster a more respectful, honest, and trusting work culture. With a recession looming, retaining top talent and creating a high-performance culture should be the number one priority and not when or where people work, and at Good Loop, all of my energy goes into improving the how.

Oliver Woods
Marketing strategist, founder & CEO, Beer Asia

 

Fixed start times belong in accounting, not advertising. Arbitrary restrictions on the hours creative people start work are not only bad for morale and out-of-step with the industry: they’re bad for business.
 

You will likely be familiar with the discipline of marketing effectiveness and its long-time prophets Les Binet & Peter Field. There’s a direct connection between Binet & Field's research on the power of creativity to drive short- and long-term business results and sleep. Deep (REM) sleep improves creativity. Copywriters and art directors will craft effective, award-winning work if they work (and sleep!) the hours that suit them. A good night's sleep doesn’t just help creatives: science says well-rested planners and account managers will be calmer and less likely to react to a grumpy creative or clingy client. Besides creativity and calm, greater flexibility will help arrest advertising's painful decline.



Amidst falling revenues, frequent pitches, fewer job applications and fickle clients, will Martin Sorrel and his fellow captains of industry recruit the next generation of advertising talent - creative oddballs, beat poets, and hacker dropouts - if we force them to show up at 9 AM and crush their souls with timesheets?

 

Melissa van Dam
Senior director, People Team APAC, Media.Monks

 

We always put our people at heart when we make policies. If you expect flexibility from people, you have to do the same for them. We are grateful for the talent we have in house and want to treat them with great respect and empathy. At the same time, we need to balance between the individual, company’s, the different teams’, and the client’s needs.
 

Instead of looking at when our team starts their day, we are rather output focused and leading toward that output with empathy. We offer our team flexible working hours yet at the same time we believe that real interaction happens when people come together. To make sure people do come together, we need to consider the needs of all our individuals, not just creatives but even the producers, strategists, account managers and more, hence some direction on work hours will always be needed.

 

(This article first appeared on CampaignAsia.com)