Any agency, however flat they insist the structure is when you join, is at least a little hierarchical. Who’s popular, older, more experienced, knows the boss better, is the best writer, has the best contacts, has the biggest accounts? For a ‘flat structure’, it sure can be bumpy…and if you’re not careful, a poor team dynamic can easily bleed into the client work.
Left unchecked, agencies remind me a little of the stories you used to hear about old boarding schools. The hazing from otherwise nice older boys and girls to the new, homesick little ones came with the attitude ‘it happened to us, so it’s something they need to go through as well’. One particularly fun, inherited ritual I heard about involved pouring buckets of cold water over the smaller pupils. Really funny eh?
The PR/comms agency ‘hazing’ equivalent is a little less degrading, but I hear there are still
inherited, outdated ways of not helping junior members so they can ‘learn the hard way’. An
obvious case might be if a last minute news release needs going out from a less-than organised client (it happens!), and telling the Account Exec they need to compile a huge media list of fresh contacts at 6.30pm, before they can leave. Cut to a stressed out AE still in the office at 10pm, having cancelled a date, not sure whether they need to add regional trades on a separate tab before it goes to the client, and not feeling like they can ask…
“If it happened to us, they need to go through it as well”
Turnover amongst junior staff at some agencies can be pretty rapid, and this mentality may be partly to blame. The solution isn’t wrapping team members in cotton wool either. PR is a
stressful job, often with very short deadlines and very high pressure scenarios. Angry
journalists, irate clients, resolving misunderstandings, explaining complex developments - all these things require an element of people having gone through the mill themselves to be able to fix, especially while staying calm and collected. There is an element of coal needing to become PR diamonds under pressure.
But great managers will find a way to empower junior staff through these experiences, not leave them feeling abandoned and resentful. Instead of telling that AE at 6.30pm they need to do the huge media list ASAP, why not ask them what they think is needed and when it needs doing by? The AE may offer to stay late and get it done, and with a few pointers they can get it done by themselves but feeling supported and empowered.
It’s a single, simple example, but adopting that attitude across teams and even whole agencies can yield the same lessons learnt but with a team hungry to succeed and coach clients to avoid such last minute scrambles in the future.
Give room for junior team members to take ownership over their own share of the workload.
Instead of reminding them they need to do the client call agenda, see what they think should be in it this week. Ask, don’t tell. And ultimately treat them with respect so they’re not always feeling they’re clawing their lives back at the end of a working day.
That said, it works both ways. I’ve had clients come to me soon after joining a job looking for a swift exit. Despite being a person who’s had the water thrown over me too in the past
(professionally AND literally!) there nonetheless has to come a point when you say to the older girls ‘stop doing that’ and to your senior team ‘I need more help with this task’ or a promotion or pay rise if you feel your value isn’t on par with your salary. Setting clear boundaries and then managing upwards is a skill worth its weight in gold too.
Ultimately, the best managers create frameworks and space for others to grow into. And the
best employees will do just that, and keep growing. And let’s save the water fights for the Office Summer Party perhaps?