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Now that's creative freedom

Advertising staff are being given ways to fulfil themselves within the firms that fostered them, says Roger Trapp
Until the arrival of hi-tech companies, there can have been few better examples of the hard-driving work culture than the advertising industry. Inspired by the excitement of working in a business that is highly creative yet subject to extreme commercial pressures, agency staff often put in long and generally well-rewarded hours. But then they strike out on their own to get more balance into their lives.

The result, says Marco Rimini, director of strategy and development in the London office of the J Walter Thompson advertising agency, is that organisations can lose talented personnel on whom they have spent a great deal of money recruiting and training. It is a problem that more and more senior executives claim has the potential to rival the internet and globalisation in terms of the challenges facing them.

To address this issue, JWT has come up with an initiative designed to enable its staff to have the security that most desire at the same time as the flexibility that is becoming increasingly necessary.

Mr Rimini says the move is not an attempt to cut the business's costs by putting some people on short-term contracts or a freelance basis. Instead, the agency is presenting it as "the ideal solution" to a dilemma facing many advertising agency planners.

The dilemma is how to keep up the creativity, teamwork and fun parts of working in an agency, yet at the same time make room for work on interesting personal projects which have the potential to generate personal income.

JWT, one of the best-known advertising agencies with clients that include Kellogg's, Unilever and Shell, is not the only business to be looking at this sort of approach. Several years ago, for example, the financial information provider Reuters created a "virtual organisation", drawing on experts in various fields to produce screens better suited to customers' needs.

More recently, Lloyds TSB launched a programme designed to give nearly all its employees the opportunity to work flexibly, provided they could make a sound business case for it. The bank already had many people - largely women - working flexibly under ad hoc schemes, but it wanted to move flexible working away from being just an issue for women with children.

Business considerations are also driving Mr Rimini's thinking. Those becoming part of "atJWT" - as the attempt to - enlarge the agency's "pool of talent" is known - will be carefully screened to ensure that they are offering services the organisation can genuinely use and that they are capable of working alone without direct supervision. They will also be given financial targets to meet.

"It's not driven by a short-term profit motive," says Mr Rimini, while stressing that "the hard-nosed business side of it" is that the agency is seeking to derive income from the venture.

But, beyond providing a space within the firm's Berkeley Square offices for the people to work in if required, he insists he is not worried about how they go about their projects. It is likely that those involved will spend some time in the offices meeting each other and clients, and the rest working from home.

In the interests of maintaining quality levels, and making it possible to manage, he sees the initiative involving only about 10 people initially, though he accepts that if the idea is taken up internationally it could mushroom.

The first recruit is JWT's planning director, Meny Baskin, who will spend part of her week in that role and the rest with atJWT.

JWT prides itself on an enlightened employment policy that it believes contributes to a low staff turnover rate. But Ms Baskin says: "This just has to be a better way of working."

As Mr Rimini explains: "You have to have the best people. And to get the best people, you have to organise yourself in a way that they are motivated rather than being asked to work in a particular sort of way."