How much is too much client-agency communication and at what point does it affect wellbeing in the workplace?
As we approach WHO World Mental Health Day on 10 October, it’s important and timely to talk about the intricate relationship between client and agency.
Specifically, the ‘always-on’ mentality. The frequency of communication between client and agency, whether it’s effective and how it impacts the workplace wellbeing of teams. This is particularly important given how much things have changed in recent years.
The evolution of workplace wellbeing
I was thrust into a managing director role of a major agency with a staff of 180, at the tender age of 27. On reflection, I was totally ill-equipped for the challenge. I suffered months of bewildering ‘hell’ at a time when there was very little awareness of or sympathy for the effect of stress on mental health. I had no idea what was going on in my head and no support system to confide in or to guide me through those turbulent times. Such were the 1980s.
A decade or so later, in my own startup company in Japan, I stood by and watched work pressure almost destroy a young employee. Regrettably, despite my personal experiences with stress, I lacked the empathy and leadership skills to provide the support she needed during that challenging period. Ineptitude I regret to this day. Thankfully, the employee managed to recover after leaving our toxic work environment.
I have learned from these lessons in managing stress. Society as a whole is also now much more aware of mental health and workplace wellbeing.
Wellbeing in the workplace
The World Wellbeing Movement identifies four key drivers for wellbeing in the workplace:
- Job satisfaction
- Stress management
- Sense of purpose.
I think we’d all agree that all four are critical, but the one for which the marketing and communications world is perhaps most infamous, is stress.
Measuring stress in the workplace is not easy. But Aprais believe the frequency of contact between teams, particularly daily contact, is an indicator of the always-on culture and a trigger for stress.
In 2021, we conducted a comprehensive study to explore how the changes brought about by Covid-19 affected the frequency of contact between marketers and their agencies, as well as its impact on their professional relationships, as monitored through our evaluation platform.
Now that we’re (hopefully) past the worst of the Covid disruption, we can reflect on client-agency behaviours and compare them with what happened before and after.
We determine the ‘frequency of contact’ as declared by each participant in the relationship (marketer or agency), at the start of our evaluation surveys.
When it comes to stress, our main focus is the incidence of contact ‘Every day’.
The benefits and perils of daily contact
Of course, there are benefits to higher-frequency (daily) contact between business teams. These might include improved communication, faster resolution of problems, stronger collaboration and, arguably, greater agility in our fast-changing world.
But there are also significant downsides to high-frequency contact and we need to be mindful of them. From a purely motivational point of view, daily contact might be symptomatic of micromanagement. This limits the autonomy and creativity of team members who feel they are constantly being watched. With respect to mental health, Aprais believe daily contact can be detrimental unless it is managed carefully. The more obvious threats include:
- Time-consuming: Daily interactions eat up time, potentially taking team members away from their core tasks and reducing overall productivity.
- Burnout: Constant communication can lead to burnout if it is not managed properly, because it can be mentally exhausting for team members to be always available and engaged.
- Overwhelm: Excessive communication can lead to information overload, making it challenging for team members to sift through the noise and prioritise their tasks effectively.
Does more frequent communication lead to better relationships?
The big question is whether increased frequency of contact has a positive impact on team (client-agency) relationships. Is all the extra effort, stress and impact on workplace wellbeing worthwhile?
To gain clarity on this issue, we compared the changes in daily contact frequency reported by one party of the relationship (e.g. agency contacts client) against the evaluation score by their counter-party. (e.g. client score of agency performance).
For example, this chart shows that at the global level, in the second half of 2018, 34% of agency contacts with clients were on a daily basis. In the same period, the average evaluation score given by the client of the agency was 75.4.
Skip forward to the onset of Covid in 2020 (H2), the daily contact rose to 51% and scores also rose (77.7). Post-Covid, while the daily contact has reduced almost to pre-Covid levels (39%), evaluation scores seem to have stabilised.
The second chart shows daily client interaction with agencies also jumped at the onset of Covid in 2020, where 21% of marketer clients reported daily interactions with their agency while the agency score of their clients averaged 78.7.
We can see a continuous improvement in agency scores of their clients to 80.6 mid-Covid then to 81.9 in the second half of 2022.
The good news is that both for agencies and clients, relationships are improving. However, the pertinent insight is that there seems to be no direct link between evaluation scores (performance) and high-frequency (daily) contact.
Devil in the regional detail
Our business relationship evaluations over time have given us extraordinary insight to how different regions and countries exhibit distinct behaviours in their client-agency interactions – and the way they evaluate each other’s performance.
The charts below show the change in relationship scores and percentage of daily contact between the pre and post-Covid period, by the main global regions. Once again, comparing the contact frequency of one party, with the evaluation score awarded by the other party, we can see quite dramatic differences between the regions and in the behaviour of agencies and their clients.
But did the changes in daily contact affect the evaluation of their performance?
These charts indicate that agencies in Africa benefited from their increased daily interaction with clients (9%) with a large jump in scores (14.1) as evaluated by their clients. (Though it must be said, from a low pre-Covid base). Other more developed regions such as Europe and North America, did not seem to respond to increased contact frequency with correspondingly higher scores.
The client chart below shows a different story.
In Africa, while marketers reported lower daily contact with agencies (-2%), their agencies scored them higher (+8.8 points).
However, despite significant increases in daily contacts with their agencies in Latin America (13%), Middle East (16%) and North America (11%) the agency scores of client performance have not increased significantly.
What all this suggests is that increased (daily) contact frequency levels between clients and agencies does not necessarily result in perceptions of better performance. The rise in daily contact for both agencies and clients compared with the pre-Covid period seems to have plateaued at a new normal, and feeds the ‘always-on’ expectations of clients and agencies.
Increases in contact frequency may inadvertently lead to more stress, potentially taking away from productive work hours.
The real costs of wellbeing in the workplace
In the first half of 2022, the McKinsey Health Institute conducted a survey spanning 15,000 employees and 1,000 HR decision-makers across 15 countries in the Asia-Pacific region. The global findings revealed widespread and persistent symptoms of distress, depression and anxiety, with approximately one in four respondents displaying signs of burnout.
The survey also revealed a massive cost to businesses due to mental health-related absenteeism. In Australia, that cost is roughly $13.6 billion per year. In Japan, claims for mental health issues hit record highs in 2021.
So, taking care of mental health at work is not just a nice-to-have – it’s a must.
How to keep it together
Having identified the surge in daily contact and concern about the ‘always-on’ mentality, we have some recommendations for marketers and agencies to reduce stress caused by more frequent contact.
- Talk smart
Agencies and clients should gather their teams and streamline their agendas to handle multiple issues in a single chat, reducing the need for constant back-and-forth.
- Stay in the loop
Clients can keep agencies in check by sharing regular, consolidated status updates. This way, there’s less need for a bunch of phone calls with the agency.
- Quality beats quantity
Good communication is about sharing the right info, not just talking a lot. Focus on quality discussions instead of bombarding each other with messages.
- Schedule wisely
Both clients and agencies should agree on a suitable contact schedule for specific projects. More meetings for big-picture stuff and just enough for the day-to-day grind.
As I have learned from past experiences to be more understanding and empathetic to the issues of mental health in our workplaces, the marketing communications industry needs to strike a healthier balance between client-agency communication frequency and wellbeing. By implementing these strategies and fostering a supportive work environment, we can pave the way for healthier, more productive and happier individuals and teams.
Happy World Mental Health Day!