Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Blurred lines: the future of work should be hybrid work, not hybrid roles

By Nancy Elgadi, an Editor at SJR, a content agency part of WPP

Client services is a department traditionally dedicated to handling and resolving client queries. But in the words of a former Head of Client Services at a large ad agency, “everything we offer should be in service to the client so everything is client services.” But if this is true, does this leave room for much else?

Throughout my years working at various marketing and advertising agencies, I came to understand this manager’s statement all too well. I noticed a trend emerging towards the creation of hybrid roles. It was no longer a ‘social media manager’ position on offer, but a ‘social account manager’, meaning the employee would effectively be responsible for performing two jobs combined into one. I was previously employed in such a role and countless others with ambiguous titles, including ‘digital account director’, ‘managing editor and client services partner’, ‘head of content and social media’, and my personal favourite, ‘consultant’.

Companies tried to downplay this multifacetedness by describing the positions as ‘a role in which you will wear several hats’ or a ‘fast-paced environment where no two days are the same. Eventually, some did away with vague and confusing job titles altogether. But the hybridity continued and with it came burnout and mental health concerns across the industry, an issue that intensified during the pandemic in the form of Zoom fatigue and a lack of work-life balance for many.[i]

This shift towards a blurring of roles may not have been a symptom of the pandemic, but it has arguably been exacerbated over the last 18 months. In a time in which many employees were furloughed or even made redundant, agencies may have been loath to replace departed team members due to budgetary constraints. The result? Creatives acting as client services and vice versa.

During this period, virtual sessions replaced in-person meetings. With fewer opportunities to ‘schmooze’ clients, agencies may have felt the need to show their dedication in other ways. Some created multiple points of contact for the client with several people acting as account managers. Others opted for increased levels of communication with multiple weekly meetings and large numbers of emails. However, diverting all efforts towards client communications and account coordination can compromise deliverables. Without a specific individual responsible for addressing client queries, agencies risk confusion and inefficiency (not to mention inundated inboxes).

Although an advocate for flatter structures within agencies, I’m also a believer in the ‘too many cooks’ ideology. If an agency asks a project manager, an art director, and a content strategist to act as an account manager, time will most likely be wasted in trying to determine who does what and when. This lack of clarity could impact the output and quality of work, and subsequently the overall relationship with the client. It may be true that agencies should provide services to meet the needs of clients, but prioritising client management could come at the cost of those services.

Differentiation between teams and the specificity of jobs also enables specialism. Clients will most likely have selected their chosen agency based on its promised expertise. However, if it is a company made up of hybrid roles in which everyone is expected to be a jack of all trades, can the agency truly deliver on its promise of thought leadership levels of service?

In addition to differentiated roles, agencies may also want to consider niche offerings. We no longer simply have PR agencies, but also those that are sector-specific. Moreover, along with general communications consultancies there are also those focused on crisis and reputation management for C-level executives and high-net-worth individuals. Agencies should be seeking not only to distinguish their people, but also who they cater to. In doing so, and by refraining from blurring the lines between roles, they can offer greater value.

While the future of work may include hybrid working, the reasons listed above highlight why it shouldn’t include hybrid roles. Instead we should call for a return to client services teams composed of experienced account managers with clearly defined roles and responsibilities. This will help reassure both clients and team members that the agency has the resources, skills and proficiency to provide the services it has advertised.

Agencies that showcase the expertise within their teams, and by extension their services, are those that will stand out in an oversaturated marketing and advertising space. This means rebalancing the scales to place equal importance across all departmental teams.

It’s time to put the services back in client services.