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Why virtual agencies can work better for staff and clients

“It’s the era of the slashies...people expect to be able to follow their passions and make a living from it”. And why not. Love what you do and you’ll undoubtedly be better at it. Andrew Burton, head of comms for Native Instruments, is not alone in his thinking.

People don’t want to be restricted in their personal or professional lives. And corporates are now listening. There’s a shift in power and stopping just short of quoting Billy Bragg, it’s definitely returning to the worker.

Workers playtime - increased flexibility and balance

Working patterns are being tested to revise previous notions of what is optimal for staff. Some business owners have implemented five hour work days. While in Melbourne, one agency has found that offering Wednesdays off to staff “has brought sickness down to almost nil”. Kath Blackham, founder and CEO at Versa, implemented a four day week explaining “a decade ago I started an agency and one of the missions was to show you could be successful and give people a work-life balance”.

Blackham reasons that once you have happy people, “your effectiveness and productivity, with the time of billable hours, goes up as there is no extra time to waste”. She says it’s contributed to the agency trebling its profits in the last 12 months. “The feedback from clients has been amazing,” as her staff churn is the lowest it’s ever been, meaning clients have a consistent account team, which helps.

Broader talent pool

We’re seeing freedom in work hours as a key battleground for companies to differentiate themselves from the competition. But also diversify the type of employee they have access to.

Atlassian recently surveyed its staff and found 95 per cent preferred to spend more time working from home, so it’s introduced remote working measures to help achieve that. “This is an approach for us to expand the talent pool right the way across Australia,” said the head of talent Bek Chee.

The Australian software giant recognises that the best talent doesn’t want to be restricted by geographical location. Murray Galbraith, Creative Director at Half Decent agrees: “Most of us would gladly give up part of our paycheck to live and work somewhere amazing. The best talent can and should come from anywhere, so I’ve optimised our team for a diversity of input, background, experience and even location. Its effect on creativity has been enormous.”

Working remote or remotely working

IWG found that 70% of workers already work one day a week remotely.

One of the oldest media organisations, The Financial Times (FT), allows staff to choose the hours which will suit them, whether that’s compressing shifts to drop one day a fortnight, earlier/later starts for parents, or four day weeks.

Studies indicate it can benefit staff but also the businesses that roll it out. Research from Chinese travel company, Ctrip found a 13% improvement from a sample that worked remotely. Without the distractions of the office environment and transport delays etc, the level of morale improved resulting in 50% higher retention rates.

For businesses, remote working reduces rent and the impact on the environment. In virtual agencies, these savings in overheads can be passed on to the client.

Agency evolution

The idea of freelance talent to help on projects is not new. Agencies have always bolstered teams with outside support. But now we’re seeing whole agencies being staffed remotely. For Trevor Young, founder of Digital Citizen, that flexibility is paramount: “Critically it allows me to scale up for some jobs by bringing in highly experienced specialists to play a specific role, but also stay lean and cost-effective at other times”.

Berlin-based Burton exemplifies the new breed. Having worked in agencies for a decade, he moved in-house with Native Instruments, a global technology leader for music creation and DJing. But keen to keep engaged with his breadth of media knowledge and contacts, he started virtual agency The Circuit Board, with his employer’s blessing.

It’s the sophistication of collaborative tools and proliferation of the cloud, which has made this possible.

Now working with a core global team of specialists he can cherry pick the most interesting clients to work on in his spare time.

“Previously you’d have preferred to work offline. But now video tools drop less and team management tools have created a landscape made for virtual agencies,” Burton added.

Win-win

For freelance talent, it’s the benefit of choosing your own hours, choosing what projects excite you but also working from anywhere. I spoke to Nick Hollins on Telegram as he spent time with his family at Jaiyen Eco Resort in Thailand.

As the founder of Voyager Network, host of Voyager Podcast, and strategic consultant for agencies including MaZee and Hello Again, it’s that freedom that excites him. “In the media consultancy game, you can choose to focus in on a certain industry and which companies you want to consult for. It becomes more selective.”

The attraction for clients is an engaged team, with specialists working on the accounts they elected to work on and all at reduced rates as the traditional overheads of full-time staff, super contributions, and physical bricks and mortar locations disappear. It becomes a decentralised agency.

Unplugging from the 9 to 5

Offline collaboration is on the rise too, as increasingly freelancers are choosing co-working spaces to operate from. An estimated 2.3m people globally are members of a co-working space with this figure expected to rise to 5.1m by 2022. The largest country for spaces will be China, closely followed by India. APAC is at the heart of this trend. “The wider the pool, the more creative the idea. That’s been my experience. We’re seeing a sharing of skills in these places and a broader cross-pollination of talent,” says Galbraith. The growth in the trend is also why WeWork is valued at $42 billion despite almost $2 billion in losses this year.

A more transparent model

“It’s more efficient to have specialists than to have an office full of staff that you’re trying to fit to briefs which come through,” Burton continued.

Hollins agrees, explaining that for clients they’re paying less without the middlemen padding the account. “Running a business in a transparent way is better. Get shit done and move on. There’s no space for those who don’t get the work done in time or it falls down. The incentives are better aligned with this new model.”

For Trevor Young, it’s about the lifestyle fit and the ability for him to harness his network: “This system works for my business because I have spent years building up a small collective of seasoned professionals who are not only highly capable but whom I trust implicitly; these are people I'd employ in a heartbeat if I was running a physical agency because the cultural fit is there, which is vital.”

Technology has enabled brands’ staff to work remotely, so it should come as no surprise that marketing managers are more comfortable with an agency that’s taken the same approach.

As with traditional client-agency relationships, the quality of output, price, relationship building and ability to deliver against briefs will dictate those winning accounts.

Liam Fitzptrick is head of communications for Commswork and host of Cut the Cliches podcast. Disclaimer: he also recently joined The Circuit Board as a consultant.

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