Series #Fmbewords: The Furlough Low Down (part 1)

Zero hours contracts may not be universally acclaimed but the flexibility that they offer allows much of the brand experience sector to operate and offers some employees in the UK a lifestyle that allows them to balance work with other commitments.

In FMBE circles that contract usually does what it should; the agency facilitates work as it comes in and brand ambassadors from the agency’s books are allocated the work  – sometimes topped up by calls put out to a broader workforce via Facebook groups or other online media.

That process is typically the case for agencies that provide staff to facilitate pop up events, sponsorship activations and experiential stunts – an industry that is currently closed for business in the UK and which will be carefully controlled by government advice, law and protocols including social distancing for many months ahead.

Whilst government support for cocooned businesses and furloughed PAYE staff is welcome and, on paper, extensive, lawyers and accountants are still in rapid need of clarity from the HMRC and other bodies responsible for the delivery of Government funds.

Here’s the big question for any agency head right now regarding their promotional field staff. Do I furlough everyone, furlough my core brand ambassadors or furlough no one? All 3 approaches currently carry a blend of 2 perceived risks for agencies namely:

  1. Will the government agree that the people I have furloughed qualify so that they reimburse me? (or can I first get the funds and then pay the staff?)
  2. Will the brand ambassadors survive this hiatus, drop out of the industry, or come to resent the agencies that are perceived to not be doing enough?

How furloughing has been received differs from industry to industry.  In other industries there have been plenty of examples of dithering and u-turning over furloughing staff. For Wetherspoons the right thing to do turned out not to be to tell staff to go jobseek at Tesco, and a backtrack in favour of furloughing ensued. For the cash slackened Premier League clubs, furloughing has been frowned upon by fans and media so clubs including Liverpool and Tottenham have now agreed pay their staff rather than accept Government support.

In the event+staffing world furloughing was at first regarded as a risky luxury and whilst a notable few immediately embraced it, several agencies had baulked at even considering it. Then Stephen Spanias who created, a job posting platform where staff source event work, took it upon himself to act as facilitator and conduit. In so doing he became the closest thing that the staff have to a union boss on one hand, whilst on another offering agencies access to advice from legal and accountancy experts to help them to help field staff wherever possible.

Since Spanias’ intelligently balanced intervention and tireless communications ethic kicked in many more agencies have declared their intentions about furloughing. Certainly, most agencies now have a much shorter tick list of risks to consider.

Equally Spanias has proved to be a good communicator back to staff with his calm interpretation of the challenges agencies are facing, and provided regular progress updates.

For every agency the challenge is different. Cashflow, and trust in the advice available is key. For the agencies whose lifeblood is the summer event season keeping the agency afloat in 2020 is the priority. A frightening survey from the Events Industry Forum and Business Visits Event Partnership says that 60 per cent of event suppliers fear collapse within 3 months. Equally, many event staff suppliers that are set to survive have built their reputation by consistently deploying high quality brand ambassadors – and will need them performing at their very best when called. Trained, experienced and articulate brand ambassadors will be needed more than ever to make sure that events operate within health-related guidelines and social restrictions.

The good news is that each passing day offers more clarity together with a greater sense of industry unity – a spirit that will see more agencies survive and more staff sheltered.

This is, very obviously, an ongoing story. A lot more will be understood when the Government claims portal goes live next week.


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