We recently spoke with Jake Welsh, Executive Creative Director at Dept, to find out how he has been navigating the past few months. Here’s what he had to say on the challenges of remote working for agencies, the so-called ‘need for offices’, and what strategy at Dept looks like now.

Jake Welsh

Please describe your job: What do you do?

I am an executive creative director at Dept in the UK, overseeing the agency’s creative output relating to our brand, and platform creation for our clients here in the UK and overseas. I am incredibly close to the visions and expectations we set for our clients at the start of our engagement, and continue to collaborate behind the scenes with our visual and experience design teams to ensure we go above them.

Working closely with wider global creative teams in Dept, I help to shape the creative future of Dept through evolving our brand and outward brand strategies.

How has your typical day been impacted in the short term by the pandemic?

In the agency world, many roles and responsibilities were already reliant on technology and cloud-based software which made it fairly easy for developers and project managers to maintain a status-quo way of working remotely. This didn’t fully translate to the creatives in our space as myself and colleagues have been hugely impacted.

There is a real importance in building and retaining an inventive culture to cultivate a product concept, through to designing the touch, look and feel of it. It requires a tangible approach to align the vision with a team dynamic. We need to see, prod, poke, challenge and continuously conceptualise our vision through rounds of iterations and playbacks. Part of the process is seeing people’s facial expressions across the room, hearing sighs and celebrating hallelujah moments as a team. I need to pat my design team on the back after weeks of effort to assure them ‘we’re getting there’, we feed off of each other’s energy. Not being able to do that is like having a football coach managing their team from the stands. Even though it is possible because you can speak to them through a microphone, it just doesn’t feel right not to be able to have that face time. It has opened up my eyes to new ways of bringing teams together in a non-contact environment but it has been challenging and has made the biggest impact on my daily routine.

What are your favourite tools and techniques to help you get your work done at the moment?

Our creative teams were already very proficient with working together remotely through design software such as Sketch and XD. However, one of my main focuses over the last few months was around how we can leverage tools that allow us to share our brains, not just our work. I wanted to find a way to share our ‘mind’ from a distance and tap into what we’re thinking, not just producing.

I have come across a nice free tool called Milanote, which I’ve been using the past few months. It provides nice product boards to not only pin your ongoing art direction, inspiration, notes, comments and ideas, yet forms somewhat of a ‘living wall’ for your team. The fact that it works on your computer or as an app for phone and tablet, it fits into your lifestyle and is accessible for whenever you need it whether that’s when you’re out running or commuting home.

What changes are you making to help your company connect with how people are feeling and experiencing the pandemic?

At Dept we’ve made every effort to ensure the agency culture is kept intact during these challenging times. We wanted to create opportunities for people to engage in casual conversations outside of their daily workings as they’ve come accustomed to when working in the agency. Lunchtime drop-ins were created twice a week to facilitate interactions between teams. A virtual ‘lock-in’ bar was also established for staff to cheers at the end of the week. We held virtual performance reviews and 1-2-1s so employees and managers can discuss how they’re coping and how they’re able to support each other.

What trends have you seen in the last few weeks in your sector?

A large trend that I am reading a lot on at the moment is the ‘need for offices’, which in my opinion is a really sad subject line. Over the past six months, businesses have pivoted at pace around working from home, ensuring that all teams and staff are safe and set up to work within their households. More so, once businesses get up running at optimum efficiency, many have begun to realise they’re working more efficiently from home. They are starting to enjoy this new way of working, no commuting, spending more time with families and people can commit more to themselves rather than just their work.

It works well for the company to reduce the overhead and it works for employees but in my opinion, it doesn’t promote creativity. There needs to be a full balance. What we do in our sector is a craft, it’s a production. To make the world’s best products you need a team and a culture. You need to have the ‘buzz of the newsroom’ so to speak. That’s the backbone of what we do. Great culture makes inspired products. I truly don’t think that Zoom meetings and conference calls are the future of the digital sector. I think cities need people. Cities need businesses and companies need offices, especially in our sector.

What advice would you give a marketer right now?

One of the most humbling outcomes of the COVID-19 pandemic is that the world of business has never felt so raw, open and human. I would suggest to any strategist or marketeer to continue that narrative and be nothing other than transparent with their approach to communications.

Never has the world of business felt so connected in their need for change, shared in their challenges and issues, yet importantly, for once, no matter whether you are an FTSE100 company, SME or start-up, we are all in this together. At this moment in our lifetimes, people are not looking for transactional-based relationships with your company or product. Many people are looking for trust, integrity and complete transparency when they connect with your brand. Connect through empathy, connect through being human and connect through conversation.

What do long term planning and strategy look like now at your company?

Long term planning has, in many ways, become short term planning within our agency. What Covid has taught our business is that you can aim to plan for every eventuality, yet in reality, there will always be unforeseen circumstances that arise. Whether you lose one of your biggest clients, lose good people in your team, or, in this scenario become affected by a climate or economic factor. Our strategy is now shaped by what tomorrow looks like, in that many businesses have now become abruptly aware of their digital capabilities, digital weaknesses and their almost immediate need to resolve those gaps. Many companies had digital roadmaps that covered the next 48-60 months, yet now, those roadmaps need to be accelerated twice that speed to allow their organisations to keep up with consumer and business demand, and how companies want to do business.

Our strategy is that we are there for those companies. Not only to deliver against those road maps with pace and resourceful teams, but also speak to companies who don’t even know where to begin when it comes to digital transformation and building a digital business of tomorrow.