Managing Workload in a Lean Ad Agency

Managing Workload in a Lean Ad Agency

Over the past 20 years, but accelerating through the last decade, ad agencies and marketing firms have embraced the idea of small + smart. A small + smart agency operates with a core staff, focuses on one or two core competencies, and operates with the lowest possible overhead. It is the “do more with less” philosophy at its best… or worst, if you are an employee of such an agency. Small + smart eventually creates heavy workloads for full-time, salaried employees, demanding attention from managers and principles to ensure that core staff don’t get so stressed out and fed up, they leave your agency.

Downsizing for profit

“Do more with less” is practically a mantra for modern business. Back in the 1980s, financial mavens shifted the focus of business from building great products, or serving customers to the top of their bent. Instead, a company’s primary goal was deemed to be Profit. To that end, corporations began to aggressively reengineer, with downsizing their workforces a big part of budget constrictions. Not only did companies boot millions of workers, but the remaining workforce was asked to assume greater responsibility to make up for their lost co-workers… while the C-suite siphoned off big bonuses for meeting profit goals. Employees in the trenches were rewarded with escalating demands for more hours, stagnating wages and ever-growing demands for them to “be more productive”… i.e., work even harder for no better salary or advancement opportunities.

Today, that corporate attitude toward employees has bled into nearly every industry in the USA, including the ad business. Smaller agencies are not immune, although being lean and more agile, it is easier for small agencies to change direction when things begin to go awry.

Workload management

One thing agency leaders should prioritize is workload management. Asking your few core employees to carry a growing, excessive workload can result in several unfortunate outcomes:

Loss of your highest producing employees - They can get jobs anywhere, so why stay where they’re being asked to do the impossible every day?

Slumping morale among employees – No one enjoys running at full steam ahead all the time. A steady diet of stress and pressure from a too heavy workload can give anyone a bad attitude about their job. From there, it is a short journey to lower quality work, less engagement and poor customer service.

Burnout – Burnout will show up in all corners of agency operations, from client relationship issues, to creative decline, to increased employee conflict, to HR issues like absenteeism.

Keeping tabs on workload and helping to manage it by bringing in freelance support or reassigning work is critical in a small + smart agency. It is the job of agency principals to ensure not only that the work is getting done, but that employees have the time and capacity to do it without having to work insane amounts of overtime, or sacrifice quality thinking time to mundane process.

Know the warning signs

Watch for signals that all is not well with workload:

  • Errors – When your usually reliable employees begin letting errors slip through, look first at scheduling and workload distribution.
  • Missed deadlines – Even if you’re delivering on the big deadlines, watch for how many interim deadlines are being missed. They may be early warning signs.
  • Temper tantrums – Employees may seem touchier and more prone to anger with colleagues or about work decisions. Adjusting workload can ease tension and help employees regain equanimity.
  • Distraction – Some employees may suffer reduced productivity because they are having difficulty managing too many projects at one time. This leads to overlapping deadlines and inefficiencies.
  • Miscommunication – When communication between employees starts to break down, workload should be your first checkpoint.
  • Absenteeism – If reliable employees begin taking more sick days, the problem may be a desire to take a break from a workload that is more of a burden than an exciting challenge. This can also put heavier burdens on other employees who must pick up the slack.

Employees can generally “tough it out” dealing with a heavy workload for a short period; but if that heavy load continues with no end in sight, it can have a nasty impact on your culture, values and overall employee retention. At least quarterly, review workload with your key managers, and make sure they know they should ask for extra manpower if they see workload becoming an issue. Make sure your production manager maintains good relations with a stable of valuable freelancers you can call on as backups.

Also, be alert yourself to the signals that all is not well. Take off the blinders and see clearly what your employees handle every day. Make sure the workload isn’t dragging down your culture or the creative work. Your employees will thank you.


You may also care to read “How Small + Smart Can You Be and Still Call Yourself an Ad Agency?” in our Fall 2017 Second Wind Magazine.

More about employee workload management:

Staff Inspection

Advertising Agency Stress Test

Does Mindfulness Matter?

Super-Recharge: Why Downtime Is Critical

Time to Think: The Argument for Not Planning Every Minute of the Work Day

Winning Workflow: Scheduling Tactics to Spread the Workload

Five Tips for a Strong Agency Culture


1 comment
7 months ago

Great article, Deb! Far too many times, I've seen this come to fruition -- "They can get jobs anywhere, so why stay where they’re being asked to do the impossible every day?"

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