The Digital Nomad: How Flexibility Works in Advertising Agencies
The pandemic has opened some doors, and we can no longer shut them back. Minio Studio is an integrated communication agency that shares greatness through agility and empathy.
“See you on Thursday!”, said Marius in his e-mail when we agreed on the time and place of the interview with Minio Studio.
A meeting that starts with “See you on Thursday!” promises a relaxed conversation, the kind we used to have in the old days in Vama Veche, with a couple of open-minded and generous people who are willing to honestly share all the challenges they had to face during the two years of the pandemic and the first months of the war. Indeed, Cristiana Pană, Head of Strategy & Growth Minio, and Marius Marin, Reputation Manager are the conversation partners that I’ve been dreaming of in my quest to discover how the advertising community has adapted to all the changes that occurred during the last two years, how they tackle the creation process remotely and how do brands see the future of communication.
Minio Studio – an integrated communication agency was launched in January 2016 and started its journey with the dream of improving the advertising world with each campaign that it delivered. Within three years and with a team of over 20 people, the agency reached 28th place on the Forbes Ad Agencies List. In 2020, they won Effie awards in their pajamas and watched the awards ceremony online, from the laptop of the company’s CEO, Ioana Mucenic. In 2022 they walked on stage to pick up a new Effie award, this time live, feeling twice as many emotions as the first time. Awards aside, Minio is all about innovation, learning, empathy, and well-being. And because advertising means imagination, we decided to split this interview into four acts, strip it of drama and leave only the scenes with real introspection and reflection on this fascinating field called communication.
Characters: the Minio team, represented by Cristiana and Marius
Setting: a scorching summer’s day, but we chose to chill and talk about work in advertising at NOD Makerspace – available for booking in the Pluria app.
ACT 1: GOODBYE, OFFICE!
Pre-pandemic, at Mini Studio, did you have the concept of flexibility of the work style?
Cristiana: We did, but it was something that we planned for, and it was due to a specific situation or circumstance. And in order to do that, one would have to take work materials home, we did not have a fluid system that would allow such flexibility. And this is why, even for a couple of days of work from home, we had to do a lot of planning.
Marius: In 2019, we trialed work-from-home for a couple of days throughout the year. At a certain point, I worked from home for one day, and it felt very strange because my own perception was different: I was at home, comfortable in my own environment and I thought I would even manage to finish my tasks earlier. That day was like a teaser, like a test, because in fact, things didn’t work at all the way I thought they would: the moment I accessed my email account it was as if Pandora’s box was opened and all the tasks of the day came flooding in.
The transition toward working from home was interesting, I don’t think any of us were prepared for that. All hell broke loose and the pandemic hit us in the face. On that day, the 12th of March 2020 we got together, had a meeting in the morning, evaluated what was going on in our society at that particular moment and everything that the authorities were announcing, and we decided that we will work from home, mainly for our own safety. And later, we would see what happens next. We all took our stuff from the desks without knowing that nothing would ever be the same again.
Cristiana: It was a relatively temporary decision. Just like the authorities, we thought that we will stay home for a couple of months, we will follow the rules, and we will all go through this period relatively quickly. And then we realized it was going to be permanent. In 2020, at least, we did not go back to the office at all, we just kept it empty.
And because we were working from home, our minds were set that we were not working enough. At first, when we started working from home, we were overworked. My feeling is that in 2020 I/we worked more than ever. For us, working from home was far from synonymous with working less or working not that hard. Emails kept coming, the phone kept ringing – and because there was no physical contact with our colleagues we had no idea about when or if the person was available. And besides, since we were at home and there wasn’t much else to do, my colleagues would volunteer for more tasks and would end up working until late at night.
In 2021, because we did a kind of hybrid, both from the head office and from anywhere, we realized that in fact, the head office was actually a hindrance, because it made us go to a location that for some was an advantage and for others not that much. And being at the office is not necessarily relevant to what we do.
How would you sum up the Minio work style now?
Cristiana: Work-from-home with a couple of days of working together in a month. The difference is that we no longer have a head office. That is, instead of going to the head office, the team meets at different locations that we choose together and then book through the Pluria app. But work-from-home can also be work-from-anywhere, this is a novelty for us. And if it’s true that there are a lot of companies out there that make their employees work from home for security reasons, we do not have this problem because our data is secured at the server level. Consequently, our people have the freedom to work from a café, from a hostel, from a resort at the seaside, or from a lodge in the mountains. And this flexibility becomes a benefit that is very much appreciated during the summer. It’s good to be able to mix business with pleasure.
Last year, we did a work-from-anywhere stint together, meaning that we all went to a mountain resort and worked from there. We took our laptops, made sure the hotel had a reliable internet connection and all the systems we needed, and recreated our office in a different place, and it all worked out just fine/well: during the day – we worked, and during the evening – we did team building or relaxed.
I no longer believe in the concept of a fixed office. I’ve been with the Minio team since the beginning of its story. In 2016, I joined the founding team, the core, as we call it, the team that created the agency. We had an emotional connection to our head office because we chose the location, and we glued the wallpaper with our own hands. So the moment we decided to let go of the head office was very emotional, but we still believe it was the best decision.
ACT II: WELCOME, HYBRID!
How do you keep the team spirit and cohesion of the agency team with the new work model?
Cristiana: The nature of the advertising industry is demanding that we form groups in creative ways, that we find all sorts of work synergies. And one has to generate these synergies, this, I think, is the greatest challenge of the work-from-anywhere system. What 2020 has taught us is that it is strange to have brainstorming sessions over Zoom, it’s strange to generate a feeling of belonging through Zoom. And it’s true that even though we adopted the hybrid work system, we kept some of our rituals even if we gave up our physical head office. For example, we decided that we will still meet in big groups, at least twice a month to bring us all to date with the latest news of the agency, with different training that we want to do, including anniversaries. We used to have this monthly ritual before: for birthdays we would all get together at the head office, buy a cake and other stuff, and we would just get together to joke, have a laugh, and generally socialize beyond work.
We now bring everything together for two or three days every month when we all meet physically: thus we preserve the rituals of our company culture, from trainings to anniversaries. Apart from that, we also have work meetings with other studios/agencies because we work a lot with mini-studios and also need to have these kinds of meetings. The third category of meetings is the project meetings: the project briefing, the project setting, and the project brainstorming session – in its physical format with the project team.
We ourselves are going through a testing phase. In May, we started this new work system with the help of the Pluria app and so far we’ve adjusted just fine. We had estimated approximately 50-60 bookings a month from our colleagues, and we met this goal, so for the moment, we are on the right path.
Marius: Pluria offers us co-working spaces. Indeed, there are a lot of options available through Pluria; they are a growing company and are rather open to integrating different options to keep us happy. For example, if someone from the team decides to make a group reservation, they can send a notification to all their colleagues through their accounts in the app. Pluria develops their app so that it’s easier for the clients.
Cristiana: What is important is that you find that partner that allows you to do your activity as well as possible. People will still want to look each other in the eye without a screen, but not necessarily in the ways and following the rules that were valid before. Therefore, we have all the reasons to believe that the work style of Minio studio will stay hybrid, taking into account all the needs of our people, but at the same time, the needs of the teams that make the business go forward. We will stay hybrid thanks to the creative nature of our work. It’s the best way to offer freedom and at the same time preserve cohesion.
Marius: When we do meet, we dedicate the entire program of the day to the event: meetings become workshops, training sessions, and opportunities to learn.
Cristiana: People need to go back to their professional roots, as we say. They need to remind themselves which is their tribe and why they want to belong to or stick with that particular tribe.
ACT III: REMOTE STRATEGIES
How do you see the future of work in communication?
Cristiana: I don’t think the world will ever go back to either a 100% work-from-home or work-from-office model. And we noticed the same trend at our clients, who find all sorts of ways to get their teams together at their head offices; they kept their head offices space, but they reduced the scope of their rent contracts and at the same time keep working from home quite a lot. Some of them have implemented a clearly defined system, for example, they work two to three days from the office and the rest from home, but I believe that people simply won’t go back to the old work system because the new system indeed offers them more freedom. What I mean is that they don’t necessarily work less, on the contrary, from home they work even more, but the new system brings with it the benefit of being able to solve some personal problems during work hours, for example, you can present that document to that institution that finishes working with the public at three in the afternoon. You can now do this because you will make up for it anyway.
Also, the mentality has changed, the idea that you need to come to the office from 9:00 to 18:00 because otherwise the boss will give you a bad look is simply no longer valid. What is important is that you finish your work by the end of the day: the tasks assigned to you and the way you yourself evaluated your work. Also, people are more responsible when it comes to work because they no longer want to go back to the old system, and they are ready to offer some of their personal time in order to stop that from happening. So it’s a win-win situation for both employees and employers.
Will there be a clash between those who have to come to the office and those who can work from home?
Marius: We see that process happening in many companies: bringing back people to work from the office, including in the advertising industry. And the desire to convince people to come back to work from the office might be motivated by the realization that their emotional well-being is precarious. And I’m glad because thus, finally, a very important issue is brought to the fore in the advertising industry, employee wellbeing: the emotional state of an employee, how you are, and how you feel beyond the tasks that you need to complete. There are people for whom working from home has meant isolation, and they got comfortable being isolated.
Cristiana: It’s very personal. For some people, it was an opportunity to reconnect with their families, and they decided they want to invest more of their time in their families. There are young families, with kids, and for them, this new work system is a win-win situation that they are not willing to trade for the social connection they would get from coming to work from the office. But there are also people desperate to go back to working from the office, not necessarily from a fully populated one, but they yearn for the social part of working from the office because the isolation they suffered during the pandemic was simply unbearable.
Moreover, employees are a bit more open to social interaction compared with pre-pandemic times, precisely because they realized what it means to be really isolated. They are more understanding and more tolerant of their colleagues’ quirks. But one thing remains clear: people do work when working from home. And if they don’t, it becomes pretty clear after one year of working from home. Flexibility means that you actually get to set your own work rhythm and timetable so that you are able to deliver in time what you need to deliver. Once the employees got the taste of deciding if they spend the next hour working or doing something else, they are no longer willing to go back to working 100% from the office. In advertising, there is this precise barometer of the quality of ideas and strategies delivered. I myself can concentrate better in one hour at home than in an open space shared with 50 colleagues.
Cristiana: That is so true! When you have to generate ideas by yourself, do research, create a presentation or make a budget, you can clearly concentrate better on the task from the intimacy of a place you get to choose. On the other hand, synergies are lost: work synergies, what I learn beyond the task itself. What is lost is all those things that one learns with all the interruptions. The feedback process – on the concepts, strategies, and ideas – is very important in advertising, how do you manage it online? How do you tell your colleagues on Zoom, to make the logo bigger, and move it a bit to the right?
We moved everything on Google and Discord, we have different work groups and project teams, and we see the proposals in real time. For example, if an art director submits their proposal the strategist can send instant feedback, the account manager can send the client requests and everything happens live. The final process is documented through email so that we can also have official archives.
The idea is to stay agile, and people have done a great job adapting. So yes, you can do creation work remotely, what’s important is the person and the work system you have developed with your team before that. Our mentality at the studio is to do our best and deliver on time. When we all know that this is our goal, things tend to align so that the goal is met. As long as you had clear and fluid work systems even before the pandemic, the hybrid work system is no longer such a big challenge.
How do you pitch your ideas to clients?
Cristiana: With the pandemic, the industry has changed a lot; later, with the war in Ukraine, we had to start from scratch. There is a depression in the brands that tend to secure their investments. The first budgets that get cut are the marketing budgets, it’s always been like this. On the other hand, we saw growth in the segment of entrepreneurs who did not know what to do with their businesses, especially in HoReCa. They were pretty desperate to find solutions, so we were able to compensate for the loss of business from other industries.
The war in Ukraine meant that a lot of businesses have placed production processes on hold, and postponed campaigns, but somehow, after what we’ve learned during the pandemic we are no longer that easily scared from the point of view of our business. We are scared on a personal level, but this is an altogether different discussion. The first shock was indeed the pandemic, but slowly we realized that this work system is an advantage regardless of what happens in the economy because it doesn’t stop you from having a great idea no matter where you are.
I think that pitches are a new way of working in the advertising industry. I think you can no longer access a project without pitching it to your client. And I’m saying this because brands have become rather global when it comes to collaborating with advertising agencies. It means that if they come to Romania, they will only work with agency X which is their line agency and this agency will externalize small or special projects by organizing pitching sessions.
We, the agencies, have fought very hard to bring pitching sessions back to life. Because, if there is something that we learned during this period, is that a pitch sent through email is a lost pitch. If you send your pitch to a client, and you don’t go through the presentation together, it’s clearly work thrown to the gutter. We need live pitching sessions because it’s how chemistry is created. Human chemistry will always come first, no matter how good your idea is, no matter how brilliant your Zoom presentation is. It’s very difficult to keep your public engaged through e-mail. Some of our clients have understood why it’s useful to have live pitching sessions, others have not, but we are working on convincing them.
It took me three months to understand why I felt so exhausted after Zoom meetings, and then I realized that our brain was simply used to getting information, live feedback from non-verbal body language, from the tiniest of details. In Zoom meetings, with the cameras turned off, I felt exhausted because I could no longer get essential info in live form.
What were the biggest challenges brought about by the change in the work paradigm?
Cristiana: People leaving the team. Over time, the cohesion of a team is also maintained by the fact that we constantly see each other. The probability of leaving a company is smaller when you are in constant contact with your colleagues and the team, that didn’t happen in 2020. I think all managers had to deal with this: everything became much more transactional because you no longer had the currency of social interaction. The organizational culture was lost.
Marius: People joining the team. Online, it’s a lot more difficult to integrate a newcomer into the team.
Cristiana: I remember that we hired a manager towards the end of December 2020: he was not able to create cohesion in his team until he came to the office. As a manager, taking charge of a team from your laptop is extremely difficult.
Do you think that the pandemic has also triggered the manifestation of the darker side of the managers, that they didn’t always know how to manage the emotions and the vulnerabilities of their employees? That they failed the Empathy exam?
Cristiana: I guess it happens, I can’t speak for others, but we did not have this problem. When you are taken out of your setting as a manager, you can get anxious, especially if you are the control freak type.
We, as a nation, are rather traditionalists from the point of view of the management style, that is, we are not yet on the vibe that is valid outside our borders, that management style that recognizes results. We are a rather competitive nation, let’s remember how we were raised: Mirela got a 10 in Mathematics, how come you didn’t get one? Managers in our country use this exact same strategy. And they find it difficult not to use the same things, but our generation brings a management style that is different from the one used in the past. The main reason why people leave, besides the salary, is their direct manager.
Do you believe in the model of digital nomads?
Cristiana: I believe that as long as you have the desire to work and to do your job properly, you can actually work from anywhere you have a reliable Internet connection and the rest of the things you need for your line of work. But it’s very personal, not everyone is made to be a digital nomad. I believe that the people who were inclined to do this will be able to keep doing it, especially now that they also have the required infrastructure. Some companies understand this, people stop fighting with their boss or with their colleagues in order to justify their choices. But my opinion is that people will always tend to be social because there are a lot of us who look for group cohesion. The decision to become a digital nomad is indeed a very personal choice, which in turn depends a lot on the type of work you are doing and the industry in which you are active. We are at a juncture where every one of us is allowed to have different values when it comes to the workforce market and now society allows us as employees to make personal decisions when it comes to the way we want to work.
ACT IV: EMOTIONAL WELLBEING AND ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE
What do advertisers want?
Cristiana: The freedom to come back to the office, somewhere, because one way or another, half of this industry is made out of discussions and ideas. People will tend to get together with other creative people, who talk about the same things, in order to exchange ideas. Those who are not able to do it, complain about it. The fact that there are people who work from their phones and don’t even need a laptop in order to work in this industry is a benefit of the industry itself.
Mental health and advertising: a trend or a serious topic of discussion?
Cristiana: This topic has turned into a trend in our society, and it’s only normal that our industry picks it up before others. But yes, the trend is to talk rather a lot about mental health and to take this excuse in order to pretend to be all of a sudden very much preoccupied with the mental health of employees that we used to overwork to exhaustion not long ago. I believe that what is changing is simply the values of our society, and the industries consequently change the conditions they offer to their employees. Basically, we adapt to trends.
There were, even before the pandemic, agencies that used the four-day-week system before, and they were regarded as weird. The people would ask themselves: How do these people manage to work only four days a week when I need nine?
The pandemic has opened up some doors, and we can no longer shut them back. People no longer want to go back to how things were in the past, nor do they want to go back to bosses who kept you at the office for the sake of just being there because in advertising you work until nine. I think that employees consider themselves lucky because the pandemic has opened these doors which were being kept shut forcibly by locks that turned out to be absolutely useless.
Is advertising growing a conscience, just like the market does? There is talk about capitalism with a conscience, about businesses that aim, besides turning a profit, to create value and communities, to be socially responsible?
Cristiana: People in Romania have undergone a huge change of mentality because they have access to what happens abroad, they know from their friends who work abroad about the benefits they enjoy. And consequently, our values as a nation have changed. We are more open to talking about all sorts of things, we are more generous and inclined to tackle certain subjects, such as for example, donation campaigns. Now, there are lots of people who boast about the number of kilometers they run at a marathon in order to raise money for a campaign. Also, I believe the agencies themselves have changed the way they approach a subject, they feel more comfortable bringing trends and brands because, in the end, they align themselves to a global tendency.
Your slogan is “Building Greatness Together”. What does “greatness” mean for the Minio team?
Cristiana: We are a local, independent agency. We fight with the heavyweights of the industry, that’s where our greatness comes from: from the effort that we put in, which is maybe a lot more than a line agency does. Being a small agency is different – you can afford to test things, and an altogether different story is to have this mammoth company backing you, which has tens or even hundreds of years of experience working in a certain way. So in our case, greatness means that we are committed and agile so that we can build together.
What are Minio’s plans for the long term?
Cristiana: Our plans in the long term have to do with launching new services. We want to bring some elements that will allow us to be competitive with regard to other agencies that have won multiple prizes. For example, we want to bring collateral services. We intend to launch our biometric analysis service, which allows you to analyze a lot of things on a segment that is a lot smaller than the traditional focus groups, regardless of what the group leader thinks. We want to integrate services that are collateral to our industry and that will give us a competitive advantage and that will help us deliver in a smarter way. You might ask yourself: ”What does a creative agency have to do with biometric analysis? That is the job of a research agency” We don’t see it that way, we develop services for that greatness so that we move better and faster than the rest.
The portrait of the advertiser of the future. Firstly, will it be a human or a robot?
Marius: We hope that it will still be a human. But repetitive jobs such as DTP will be taken over by AI. There are a lot of integration tasks that will no doubt benefit from artificial intelligence, but the database will still be provided by humans.
Cristiana: Still, I believe that AI will steal a lot of jobs because, in essence, the goal of man is not to work but to simply generate added value. As long as we still have the possibility to generate added value, we’ll still have jobs, that’s the idea. Society dictates what are the needs and people have to stay flexible in their minds and in their skills. I believe that’s all we need to do because critical thinking can never be replaced by a robot devoid of emotion. Especially in an industry like ours, where you go by flair. AI will choose the logical solution, the easiest one, but will never have a feeling towards a client, and that feeling is very important in advertising.
As team leaders, what are your tips and tricks for a harmonious relationship between the management and the advertising people?
Marius: I am a strong believer in communication, and it has to do both with the format you choose when working online and the one used when meeting physically, and the way you integrate with the team. Also, the organization and the discipline with which you deliver a project are essential. The future will depend on how well everyone does their job, regardless of where they are or the system in which they are working, be it hybrid or not.
What are the great gains and the great losses of this period?
Cristiana: I think each generation has its own challenges, from wars to economic crises to communism or getting out of communism.
We have to deal with these different crises which change our societies and our values. The „benefit” of this period of uncertainty is that it has given us all more courage. We learned that there is no such thing as a problem without a solution: maybe you didn’t try hard enough, or you didn’t have enough courage. We discovered the courage to try differently. And beyond flexibility, now we know that life goes on even when things are extremely weird and complicated. The number one lesson is to look at the next step. You have to see beyond the reality of today and calculate your next steps.
Marius: Our generations didn’t have to deal with anything as challenging as a war or a pandemic. We have only read about them or heard about them, but we do have the capacity to overcome them and to find the resources necessary to take us forward. The important thing is that we stay united, that we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, but that we also trust the other to support us. The pandemic was about health, but also about caring for each other, about the support we offered, about asking “How are you?” and “How are you feeling?” and “How did you make it through?”
Do you think there is more cohesion among the different generations?
Marius: The differences that set us apart are of our own making, and they are designed to keep us separated from the rest. It’s true that, because of the times we are living in, because of society and the changes, we tend to see the world and others in a different light. The pandemic and the war have taught us the need to be compassionate. Maybe we see things differently, but in the end, we all shared the same situation. We can learn from one another, and we can find beautiful examples in the behavior of other people. What has grown is actually the amount of empathy. We’ve learned to empathize more with others. And this means hope, which is something we all need.
Cristiana: When we felt equally vulnerable, impotent and without a vaccine, with the fear of not knowing what comes next, that we cannot help loved ones from the distance, that we cannot control anything, we became a bit humbler when dealing with other people but also with ourselves, a bit more understanding with ourselves and with other people’s mistakes. There were so many personal values being on display that people realized that it was a question of life or death and that you have to respect the other regardless of the generation to which they belonged.
Faced with the unknown, we all became equal, and we made better or worse decisions, but I want to believe that we learned that no one is the owner of the absolute truth.