News & Views

Opinion / Goodbye Weekend & Kennedy?

by James Swift

One of my favourite advertising stories to write concerned Wieden & Kennedy London introducing rules to limit work hours. Mostly I enjoyed it for the opportunity to trot out the nicknames that overworked staff give to agencies – Weekend & Kennedy, GBH (BBH), 72&Sunday – but I also liked the idea.

It felt plucky for an agency with demanding corporate clients to discourage meetings before 10am and after 4pm, ensure people took days off in lieu when they worked weekends and ban emails after 7pm.

Could an agency maintain its level of service and quality of product while encouraging staff to work 40 hour weeks? Some six months after beginning the trial, W&K thinks so.

Helen Andrews, W&K London’s deputy managing director, says client feedback has so far been positive or neutral – one client even asked for help implementing the same policies at their company. And the clients that weren’t told about changes (as a control measure) said they hadn’t noticed a drop in attentiveness.

Andrews says the work hasnt suffered, either, and points out that W&K London won perhaps the biggest UK creative pitch of the year, Sainsbury’s, with the new rules in place. No one is suggesting the team didn’t clock serious hours preparing for the pitch, of course; there’s just more emphasis on claiming that time back.

When the agency surveyed its staff, 91% said they now had a better work/life balance while 84% said they had worked less overtime. The vast majority (86%) also said they felt a perception change in how the agency worked.

Naturally, there are still kinks that need to be ironed out. W&K is still working on how to keep meetings between the hours of 10am and 4pm, as people resist the change ‘out of habit or muscle memory’, according to Andrews.

Discouraging emails after 7pm has been the biggest success. ‘For the first couple of nights I’d be sitting at home, choosing to do some work, and I’d be hitting the refresh button and nothing was coming, and I’d think “what’s wrong?”’ says Iain Tait, joint ECD at W&K London. ‘But after a couple of days, I realised no emails would come and that meant I could entirely focus on the thing I was doing. It just transformed my ability to focus.’

Indeed, that was the hypothesis behind the experiment: ensure people have enough downtime and you’ll receive better work. It sounds axiomatic but many of the best creative agencies are not run that way.

‘When you look at what technology does to people, being connected to their phones in the evenings, it’s like their work day bleeds into their whole lives,’ says Tait. ‘People were saying why aren’t creatives going to galleries or doing more cultural things?, and it’s because they’re working all the time. No one has time to mentally recuperate.’

One response from people within the industry, says Tait, was to dismiss the trial as a PR stunt to lure away talent from sweatshops. I can tell you that’s not true. The story wasn’t planted by W&Ks marketing team and I don’t think the agency was particularly enthusiastic when I told them I was writing about it in March. The other response from advertising peers has been to assume that W&K was going to experiment with slacking off and just hope for the best. That’s not true, either, says Tait.

‘There’s an assumption that hard work leads to great work and I don’t think that’s not true,’ he says. ‘This is still a place that values hard work but it’s a place that also values mental downtime. Great creative people have always been people who are widely read and culturally interesting. I think we have just made space for that.’

‘[When we started the trial] there was a lot of talk in the industry at the time about the concept and notion of well-being,’ says Andrews. ‘We think it’s great to have a NutriBullet and do yoga classes but we thought we could maybe do something more fundamental to the way we work.’

The most cynical spin you could put on it is that more creatives are joining tech companies, which can pay more and offer exciting prospects, and W&K realised it was going to have to offer something else to compete for talent.

But even if that was the case, you could argue it is more realistic than cynical. Besides, it misses the point: scrutinising the motive is less edifying than watching an agency experiment with substantive change.