Confessions of a copywriter on creativity, returning to the office and ‘butts in seats mentality’

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This article is part of our Confessions series, in which we trade anonymity for candor to get an unvarnished look at the people, processes and problems inside the industry. More from the series →

The return to working in offices has gone through many waves throughout the pandemic. Companies have tried to balance offering flexibility while encouraging a return. Early next year, many agencies, platforms and corporations are enlisting some kind of mandatory return to office, whether that’s a hybrid return with a few days in the office and a few days at home, or a full return to the office.

In the latest edition of our Confessions series, in which we exchange anonymity for candor, we hear from a copywriter about why he’s bullish on the return to the office despite the individual benefits of working from home.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Will you be returning to an office next year?

Return to the office for my agency will be in early January. We have to be in the office three times a week, it’s mandatory for us to show up those three days. Remote work has been good for mental and emotional wellbeing but you can’t help but see the negative impact on the output within agencies generally. 

How so? 

In a typical season, we have five, six, seven pieces [that are standouts]. Maybe Wieden + Kennedy made something, maybe TBWA, maybe Droga, maybe one of the smaller shops or Goodby Silverstein & Partners made something. Someone is always making cool shit but we’re so starved for work that is cutting edge. The industry has taken a swing down. With a recession coming, my guess is that everyone will try to save their jobs by proving that advertising still gets it. For the work, I think it’s good to return to the office but I have a child so I’m not thrilled to leave the house. But that’s what a job is… it was never supposed to be roses.

We’re in a difficult economy now. Do you think that’ll have an impact on the return to office, maybe more people willing to do so? 

I think it depends. The natural reaction would be that people are wary of the situation they’re in so they’ll grudgingly start to go back to the office. At the same time, I know people who are looking for new jobs because their agencies want them back in the office. The best agencies, the agencies we all want to work for, whether you like them or not, they all want butts in seats. If you choose to walk away from the situation, it’s because your focus is different. Not everyone is in advertising to make level-setting work. If you choose to go work at some quiet agency that allows you to work remotely because that’s the stage you’re at, I completely understand that. And being a parent, I completely understand the decisions people make.

People didn’t stop working while working at home. Why do you think agencies want people back in the office?

We can look at the award shows before the pandemic and during the pandemic. Agencies are having a very obvious dip in output. A lot of agencies that every three months or six months would be like, ‘hey look at what we’ve done’, aren’t doing that now. People can try to say that it’s budgets but money was thrown back into the market three months into the pandemic. I was on a shoot early on in the pandemic. A different type of client arose, a client that was benefiting from [people’s changed behavior] because of the pandemic like the pharma clients, household goods, etc. but the output wasn’t as good.

Why’s that?

As an industry, we’re very privileged. Almost every other industry is back in the office. There are just a few industries where everyone is working from home. Is it really working for your company? I get to make breakfast, lunch and dinner, do my laundry, hang out with my partner but am I at the top of my game? I haven’t worked on anything notable recently. I have no drive to work on side projects. If we were in the office, I’d find something to work on because the environment [would make me]. Getting up in the morning, having a routine, commuting, getting on a train, going into your office, seeing people, that’s all stimulus. Seeing people have experiences can feed our work. It’s that time you spend not being active and thinking about your work that you come up with your best ideas. Time will tell [if the return is what we need]. Let’s check back on the work in six months.

The environment prior to the pandemic in offices was difficult for many. It’s easy to see why people would want to continue working remotely.

The environment in the U.S. in advertising has been really toxic. People felt like they had to stay in their offices and it has been a lot of pressure on people. We cannot deny the negativity that comes with being back in the office and butts in seats mentality. But you being at home, the other extreme doesn’t make it better either. We are just making work. We’re not making the best possible work we could make because people are able to sign off. They’re just submitting the 10 ideas they have to submit. 

But in an office, maybe you’re going to lunch with your partner and you see something that impacts the 11th idea. It’s about finding that 11th idea. That’s not to say work more but that the best ideas are when you [aren’t expecting it]. If you stay within one environment you are not leaving that environment, you’re not stimulating your brain to wander beyond that environment. 

Is being remote impacting team work?

It’s undeniable that team spirit is down in agencies. People are used to being around each other. The agencies have gone remote and there’s less of a bond. It changes how you brainstorm. Relationships with coworkers are different when — it doesn’t even have to be an office but when you see each other physically. There is a different emotional bond that’s created. This is a very egotistical industry. Until we’re able to strip away those walls, I don’t think we’re getting the best from each other. 

Do you think having a hybrid environment will actually get back to some of that better work? 

Yes, 100%. That’s looking at it from a work perspective. As an individual, working from home is best. I think that’s why agencies are offering a hybrid with a few days in the office and a few days at home. 

What do you hope happens with the return to office? 

I think people should embrace the uncomfortable more often. And corporations should continue being flexible because when the individuals that work for them have better mental health, the work goes easier for everyone.

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