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How ad agencies can prevent quiet quitting

To help ensure quiet quitting doesn’t make its way into your ad agency culture, Basis Technologies’ Noor Naseer offers five pieces of advice.

7 min read

MarketingMarketing Strategy

How ad agencies can prevent quiet quitting

Elisa Ventur / Unsplash

Discussions on quiet quitting have been circulating around the internet for the past several months. The origins being sourced from TikTok over the summer, the popularized term refers to the philosophy of not quitting a job but instead committing to the minimum workload required. 

Now business leaders including those in the advertising world are left to reflect on how much the trend is permeating their individual workforces.

If the great resignation of the past year was any indication, it can be expected that the answer is, possibly a lot.

For anyone who hasn’t been following the trending conversation, “quiet quitting” is largely characterized by only doing assigned tasks and not going above or beyond. Instead, employees guard themselves against a potentially snowballing workload that delivers no paralleling gains – a common occurrence in advertising. 

 “Work hard, play hard” is wearing thin

It’s a trend that stands in defiance of a longstanding industry expectation: Agency employees must be ready to work on whatever clients throw their way, in whatever time frame a client expects. But that old “work hard, play hard” mentality has worn thin. Today, employees are openly questioning why they aren’t taking more proactive steps to separate themselves from the eventual arrival of burnout.

Agencies are obligated to take note and look after employees’ mental health. However, it’s a situation that stands in opposition to how many advertising agencies have long operated. Client retention has been the dominant priority for decades. Now leaders must juggle keeping clients happy while also managing employee satisfaction and retention. 

The unique attributes of quiet quitting vary by individual and the organization they work for. But an underlying sentiment remains – an employee experiences a mindset shift stimulated by burnout in a work environment that’s demanding too much for an unequal payoff. 

With the trending term leading more professionals in the ad business to reflect on their work-life balance, advertising employees are likely doing the math on what they actively must do to fulfill their work requirements and where they may be able to do less. 

The tabulation is far from black and white. Not all workplace responsibility can be measured in binary terms where X amount of work will guarantee Y amount of yield. Workplace responsibilities, projects and opportunities form a constellation of values where professionals need to measure the greater good they gain in the short- and long-term from their employer.

Points of consideration include how much they like their role and work, training and learning opportunities, a desired path of growth, access and exposure to quality managers and leadership, compensation, benefits, perks, workplace culture, environment and more. 

Even if a big-picture calculation suggests that an employee does more, additional work shouldn’t mean an endless stream of unexpected projects extending far beyond normal working hours. Advertising colleagues over the years may use the words, “that’s above my paygrade” to convey the sentiment of “I see there’s a problem, but I’m not compensated to solve it.”

While some versions of quiet quitting simply sound like employees setting boundaries, a mindset shift stemming from burnout doesn’t bode well for professionals who may inadvertently block themselves from growth opportunities.

Quiet quitting also could result in employers losing out on quality observations or project ideas from contributors who may hesitate to share thoughts for fear of taking on an otherwise avoidable new workload. 

Additionally, employers could lose the matured skill sets an employee gains when they’re not playing defense against tasks that could mutually benefit both employee and employer.

Leaders also could lose out on the maturing skill sets and work capacity that employees gain over time when they’re not playing defense against additive but valuable work.

Steps to prevent quiet quitting

So, what can employers do to guard against seeing the unhealthy side of quiet quitting? Here’s some advice for agency leaders and managers: 

  • Don’t leave extra work assignments in a nebulous space where employees don’t see the value the task has on their growth – if a job clearly goes beyond the scope of what an employee was hired to do, a manager should actively engage that employee in understanding how that project will be valued in their development.
  • If the brunt of extraneous assignments is too often dumped onto select employees, it could be a sign of inadequate staffing or inequitable labor distribution. Communicating an action plan to hire or redistribute assignments more equitably should be prioritized.
  • If too many tasks are menial and time-consuming, it’s a recipe for burnout. Most employees looking for growth are not wanting to do low-value labor for long, especially for processes that can be automated. Enhance your marketing tech stack with software and tools that automate processes and ensure tasks can be completed efficiently.
  • Expect managers to have an ongoing dialogue with direct reports about the worth of their work and how additional projects contribute to their growth trajectory. Make sure when employees are brought into projects, they know how the extra commitment aligns with where they’re professionally headed. For example, joining a pitch team or developing proficiency with data storytelling or new insights tools could serve them in the future.
  • Train employees on setting reasonable and agreed-upon boundaries in advance of fire drills and emergency project work. Clarify reasonable terms for said work. If fire drills come too often with unknown and lengthy time commitments, other employees with reasonable bandwidth should have a process to step in to ensure that a few aren’t left drowning.

Another point of conversation has been that many employees are turning off their laptops at 5 p.m. by not volunteering for additional assignments or side projects. Given the sporadic nature with which new requests and expectations can be established by advertising clients, many agency professionals aren’t battling additional work; instead, they’re battling a never-ending workload that can all be justified as falling under their core job description.

Client service leaders need to set expectations around how and when those requests will be met. Otherwise, setting boundaries between work and personal life never occurs – often leaving employees to search for new work, praying that the grass will be greener elsewhere.

Ultimately, both employers and employees lose out when the negative effects of quiet quitting and burnout become a looming cloud in the workplace. Agency leaders must acknowledge that now is the time to commit to an action plan to remedy these issues.

The days of suggesting that extra work is a lifestyle to aspire to are increasingly unaccepted by the ad industry’s workforce. Every employee is doing some mental math around if the workload, professional opportunities, access to training, learning, growth and people are worth the compensation and benefits they gain in exchange.

Noor Naseer is vice president of Media Innovations and Technology at Basis Technologies. She leads client thought leadership and innovative media strategy development, and guides clients on how to evolve media strategy to accommodate fast-changing consumer behavior and media trends.  Noor has written for and been cited in industry outlets including Adweek, MediaPost and Multichannel News. She has spoken at events for the 4A’s and the American Marketing Association. Noor also is a leader of Basis Technologies Diversity & Inclusion programming.

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