The distributed creative agency: how 2020 freed us from the office and presented new opportunities


Though commercial landlords will disagree, one good thing to come out of 2020 was that we got over the idea that everyone has to be in the same room to do good work.

With teams operating from home, amazing advertising campaigns still got launched, beautiful websites got designed and groundbreaking games got made.

A lot of managers learned that their staff could be productive without constant close supervision, too – one of the fears that held so many back from embracing home-working.

I loved this recent story from the BBC about how the constraints we’ve been under this year finally forced the TV and film production industry to solve the problem of directing online:

“In a production studio in Kiev, Ukraine, a film director sits in front of a computer screen and yells, “Action!”… Some 7,500 km (4,660 miles) away in Shanghai, China, his assistant relays the message to the crew filming a TV advertisement for Mercedes-Benz…. Meanwhile, in Germany, executives from the carmaker are watching on in real time.”

This isn’t only a safe, practical solution to the immediate challenge – it’s also more efficient.

Can you imagine going back to a time when a crew of 50 flies around the world to film a 30-second ad when, instead, you can send a skeleton crew and then manage everything from London or Manchester?

All of which makes you wonder what the world will look like even when we can go back to the office – and which other functions could be managed further afield.

Offices as creative spaces

The agency leaders I talk to are saying similar things: the office won’t be disappearing, but it will certainly be different.

People still need to get together to share ideas and make the kind of connections that creativity requires.

At the same time, one thing writers, designers and other specialists will tell you is that they need time and space to focus. For some, working from home has increased productivity, with fewer distractions and interruptions.

I know of at least one agency whose plan from next spring is to allow more people to work from home more often. They’ll then reduce the number of desks in their city centre office and replace some of them with dedicated space for podcasting and video production.

Or no permanent office at all

For startups, there’s an incredible opportunity to build a new business without having to bear the cost of office space in the initial phase.

You can lead the agency or studio from home, keep connected with your team via video and work together over the cloud.

It might not be ideal but could well be a compromise worth making to retain flexibility in your cashflow in those rocky early days.

If you do need to meet clients, as many firms slim down their central offices or close them altogether, there’s likely to be a surge in availability of shared working space. There may also be some interesting sublets available in the coming year or two.

And if you’re not tied to one office or even one town or city, your talent pool suddenly gets a lot deeper. Why settle for the best person willing to move to you when you could hire the best person, full stop?

With sensible management, you could have a better, more productive team, that just happens to be spread all over the country. Most people will be happy to come to the office one or two days a week if they can spend the rest of it working from home.

Outsourcing near to home

For many in the creative industry, the subject of outsourcing is a controversial one.

Twenty or so years ago, lots of firms decided they could outsource website production, logo design, content production and other functions overseas.

Sometimes it worked, but sometimes it didn’t – and when it didn’t, it really went wrong. It led to disgruntled clients, frustrated UK workforces and sometimes, unfortunately, irreparable damage to brands.

It didn’t help that, in the minds of many, it got tied up with unhelpful helplines which seemed designed to frustrate you rather than solve the problem with your phone or bank account.

In accountancy, though, outsourcing doesn’t necessarily mean sending work overseas. For example, although I’m based in Preston, I look after payroll and bookkeeping for creative businesses all over the UK – including as far away as Brighton.

At the end of the day, I’m in their time zone, I understand the context they work in and, if need be, I can actually meet them in person without too much trouble.

That’s always worked pretty well but I have to say, it’s been even better this year as everyone has got more comfortable with video calls and collaborating on digital documents.

What to outsource

It’s always been the case that what works best when outsourced is either routine work or anything you don’t have the skills to deliver in-house.

In general, it’s a good principle to keep your permanent staff costs as low as possible. Remember, employing someone is about more than salary – you’re also on the hook for pensions contributions and national insurance. You’ll also find yourself less able to respond to the ebb and flow of project work.

For marketing, design and production businesses, it makes sense to keep as much creative work as possible in-house – and certainly anything relating to creative direction.

But anything repetitious or repeatable can be farmed out. For example, in animation, it’s pretty common to have storyboards and keyframes produced in one country and then have animators in East Asia fill in the other 23 frames per second.

For creative agencies, it makes complete sense to consider outsourcing all non-creative functions, from IT support to financial management.

Talk to us about support for your payroll and bookkeeping functions.

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