I’m only a few months away from a birthday cake that’ll need a small hurricane to extinguish so I should probably be more thankful for gainful employment with smart people on interesting client briefs. But get this… I woke up last night thinking about smallholding. The other week it was the unfinished novel and in early May I dwelt, for a moment or two, on the contemplative bliss afforded by a new career spoon carving on a lesser Hebridean Island.

My partner is rightly quick to remind me that I am still busking it doing what I do, so I should get my head down and stop making her nervous. Fair enough. But it strikes me that many of our clients (and their clients…) might actually be doing change not just idly speculating. Because, suddenly, it seems a great many of them are not where they’re supposed to be, namely, in our meetings and planning sessions or on the other end of our calls and emails.

I’ll get to the point. Where is everyone going and what does it mean?

Eighteen months back we were all clinging to the safe harbour of our nine-to-fives like our lives depended on it. Now everywhere I look people are off (I’ll tell you where a good percentage of the money I’ve saved from the commute has gone; leaving presents!). This summer the number of available vacancies in the UK market was at its highest since records began. And those people deciding to leave are suddenly holding all the cards. The choicest positions are being filled in hours or days, not weeks or months. This ‘great resignation’, as I’ve heard it coined, is making me nervous but, more to the point, it’s forcing me and our teams to consider what we should be doing to help our clients and how we can show up in new ways to bridge vacancies, fill gaps and maintain momentum on work that seems never-more-essential to fuelling a positive bounce-back, economically, culturally and creatively.

And of course, we’re doing that as we consider our own talent, how to keep people happy and secure in a positive, more flexible agency model. Gone are the days when free coffee and a ping-pong table made the office a place people wanted to spend time. Those agencies who truly invested in a positive and meaningful workplace culture are reaping the benefits while other, less enlightened employers, are mournfully considering the vacant bean bags and lonely foosball tables in empty ‘creative breakout spaces’.

Here at H+K, we have just held our first ‘Refreshers Week’, an initiative full of inspiration and fun that sought to help our people truly reconnect with the agency and with each other as we welcomed the many new starters who have been wfh since joining and we continued to plan what hybrid working (really) looks like. The success of those few days only cemented my gratitude that we had done a lot of good things pre-Covid to ensure our agency culture could survive 3 lockdowns.

As service providers and consultants it is incumbent on us to not only consider our own flexible working patterns – how we ensure our agency is a place that people genuinely feel drawn to as opposed to a place they are obliged to attend each day – we must also ensure we can best deliver for clients with depleted teams trying to manage new opportunity as markets rally.

It’s a looming certainty that, after 18 months of necessarily internal focus, 2022 will be a year of reset and recalibration.  We must turn our gaze outwards again, to the shifting structures and morphing cultures client-side, to find new, more nuanced ways to build and nurture relationships – to drive what we call client obsession – without the assumption that everybody will be where they’ve traditionally been, namely, in their offices or ours, collaborating in person.

Things will settle, as they inevitably must. As an old teacher (channelling Aristotle) used to yell at me ‘nature abhors a vacuum!’ so, gaps will be filled, and teams rebuilt. We will continue to apply our belief in the power of earning brand reputation and trust with creativity fuelled by data and insight. Many of our people are spending time in our client’s businesses and, of course, the sudden omnipresence of Zoom or Teams means that the old agency appeal for ‘true partnership’ is suddenly a more frictionless concept. My guys can (quality Wi-Fi permitting) feel as part of your team as your guys given we are all so much more virtual.

As agency leaders we are all too aware that we own no real estate, we have no valuable plant, machinery or other capital assets to prop up value in our business. The equity we hold and any success we enjoy is entirely down to the relationships we have, with our clients and with each other. And, while many around us are fulfilling new callings as craft gin distillers or pilates gurus, those of us left must forge those bonds anew each day, with colleagues and with every client-side redundancy, team reshuffle, or new appointment (and they are in evidence everywhere). We must be alive to changes in working culture as they impact the full ecosystem of interdependent relationships, indeed the interwoven fortunes, that we are inextricably bound to.

It has never been more important to be flexible, thoughtful and proactive partners to our clients, happy to re-draw the traditional boundaries and re-imagine the touchpoints and interactions that will help their businesses to thrive and so our own.