“The ad industry is a relentless daily life”: why agencies should unionize

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“Once the first agency gets unionized, it becomes easier for everyone,” a strategist wrote on the industry bulletin board app Fishbowl two weeks ago.

The comment was made as part of a Q&A on unionization and Fishbowl-created agencies, as the question of why agencies generally haven’t unionized is a puzzling one. A number of agency employees in a myriad of agency roles – strategist, creative director, project manager, art director, digital media planner, producer and more – participated, along with Splinter’s senior writer Hamilton Nolan, who organized a union at Gawker four years ago, answering the questions.

The questions and concerns were varied. What would that do to creation? At locations? Could agency unionization lead to more internment? Wouldn’t agencies fire employees for forming a union? What has become clear is that interest in organizing may be emerging in the agencies. An art director of the app put it succinctly, “I hear a lot about it.”

The interest makes sense because the agency culture is rife with issues — long hours, unpaid overtime, burnout, diversity and inclusion on parental leave, and more. According to a recent Digiday survey of agency employees, 32% worry about their mental health; 33% say they have been harassed; 39% say they have experienced discrimination, with women more likely to experience discrimination than men; 21% say they have been discriminated against because of their race and 54% have experienced ageism.

The issue of unionization might arise as it has become popular among staff at digital media companies in recent years, the latest being publishers like Vox and Buzzfeed. But it’s not just digital media that have unionized. Other creative industries affecting agencies, such as entertainment, have long been unionized. Yet agencies have, for the most part, not. While two agencies said they hadn’t heard of unionization, it’s unclear whether the discourse on unionizing interests has shifted from co-worker chit-chat to HR or agency C-Suite. The reasons vary: Executives interviewed by Digiday said there was too much collective apathy and competition to make unionization possible.

Representatives for IPG, Publicis Groupe and Omnicom did not respond to a request for comment. A number of individual agencies, including Droga5, Wieden + Kennedy and VaynerMedia, declined to comment for this story.

Asked for comment, WPP referred to its annual report, which says the holding company said it “supports[s] the right of our people to join unions and bargain collectively, although union membership is relatively low in our sector.

In 2018, approximately 7% of WPP employees were either union members or covered by a collective agreement. In 2017, this number was 8%.

As for the other holding companies, the only other holding company to mention the trade unions in its annual report is Publicis Groupe, which details how thanks to its “three-year profit-sharing agreement signed with the trade unions, all the Group’s employees in France have benefited from a bonus in 2018.

“From the outside, it might seem like the ad industry is a relentless daily grind,” Scott Goodson, CEO of Strawberry Frog, wrote in an email. “Where employees are pulled together to meet deadlines and budget, where unpaid overtime is the norm, maternity leave does not exist and taking vacations is frowned upon or even prohibited altogether.”

Agencies are not alone in facing their challenges
The challenges faced by agencies will vary, but overall they are similar to those in other creative industries where unions are more common.

The argument is that collective bargaining could help solve – or, at least, be a resource as they work to solve – the problems of agency employees. By negotiating a collective agreement with employers, agency employees could create the kind of work environment they want.

“Advertising is an industry that hasn’t traditionally been unionized, unlike journalism, so that might be one reason why it took so long,” Nolan said. “You look at the structure of an agency and it’s not that different from the structure of a media company. There are creatives, there are writers, there are graphic designers, there are people business, there are technicians. It’s very comparable. There’s really absolutely no reason why it can’t be done, except that no one has done it yet.

The reasons vary. A creative director for an agency at a leading design store said there was too much movement, too many egos and arrogance for collective bargaining. Others pointed to the nature of competition within agencies, as agencies often push creatives to compete.

A former copywriter thinks that existing professional organizations, like the 4As, are good enough for some employees.

A former agency CEO who also worked in publishing said agency employees were complacent. “It seems inevitable,” the agency’s former CEO said of the possibility of unionization at the agency. “There are a lot of people working very long hours with little job security. It makes some sense. »

“There are a lot of well-paid professionals who are smart enough to understand that a union is in their best interest,” Nolan told Digiday. “A union only does what you want it to do because a union is made up of you, the employees, right? The employees are the union. There won’t be any rules in your union contract that you haven’t all decided to ask for.

There could be benefits for agency employees and agencies in general. “Union workers are much more likely to have pensions, stronger pensions and better health care, more secure pay because it’s all built into the contract,” said Nicholas Devyatkin, labor lawyer at Tully Rinkey, who said that while employers probably won’t want workers to unionize because they don’t want to have to deal with outside voices when making decisions, but there can be benefits for workers employers, such as a more loyal workforce, less turnover and savings in turnover costs.

Unionization is spreading in digital media
Unionization is no longer as popular as it was 60 years ago in the United States, but interest in digital media has increased. In 2018, the unionization rate in the United States was 10.5% of employees, down 0.2% from 2017, according to the Bureau of Labor Statics. As Digiday previously reported last December, unionization of arts, design, entertainment and media workers fell from 6.0% in 2016 to 6.8% in 2018.

The comparison with the media is not perfect. While print media has been unionized for about 80 years, digital media interest in unions has only recently increased in recent years. For advertisers, there was nothing.

Business model could make it harder to unionize
A CEO of a consulting firm argued that the agency’s business model may make it harder to organize agency employees. “I’m surprised that didn’t happen,” the consultancy’s CEO said. “But it was difficult for them to figure out how to do it.”

Legally, under anti-trust laws, agencies could not have a collective union but instead would have to be unionized by each agency, the consultancy’s CEO explained. That’s why, while the industry isn’t happy with the state of payment windows, which recently returned with General Mills RFP, agencies are unable to collectively agree to say no to these terms.

Since agencies use freelancers for a number of tasks, that could be a problem, Devyatkin said, because freelancers aren’t protected by state labor relations law. “So there’s both a legal effect in the sense that they’re not protected by national labor relations law and then there’s the practical effect of having a slightly larger workforce fluctuating and transient,” he said.

There is also the question of how unionization would affect relationships with clients and agencies. “I’m rather doubtful this would benefit any client relationship,” wrote Lisa Colantuono, president of research consultancy, AAR Partners. “Unionized workers often feel less of a sense of partnership and trust with their supervisors and that alone is detrimental to agencies and their clients.

It’s unclear where the agencies would fit in
The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, or AFL-CIO, directed Digiday to SAG-AFTRA, the actor’s union, when contacted for comment. The actors’ union represents entertainment artists, including commercial actors, but one representative was unsure where the advertising agency employees fit in and referred Digiday to the Writer’s Guild of America. The Writer’s Guide of America declined to comment for this story. Communications Workers of America did not respond to a request for comment before press time.

“There is no union dedicated to exactly this type of worker,” Devyatkin said.

This confusion may be part of the reason unionization hasn’t hit the agencies. Either way, the industry is changing rapidly and this will impact employee culture.

“The industry is turning into two camps,” Goodson wrote. “Commodity product, where creative is delivered at a lower cost and high-end consultant-level product. The former is the forerunner of machine-made advertising. This may in the future create a new climate for unionized workers or may Perhaps it’s more likely to be a massive backlash against companies that are spreading AI-created advertising to the world and, in the process, eliminating human jobs.

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