We Can Always Do More: Tom Elliston, LOLA MullenLowe Madrid

by Dasha Ovsyannikova

LOLA MullenLowe
Full Service
Madrid, Spain
See Profile


Since employees have transitioned to working from home, how has the agency been helping them to adapt?

I won’t lie – at first, it wasn’t easy, which I imagine was the same for everyone. But since then, I have to say that we have adapted really well as a business, and we have become more efficient and agile. Many of us, including myself, previously spent a lot of time traveling, so we can focus more on doing the work with that taken away. On an individual level, it affects people in different ways. We have the benefit of being a small agency with just over 30 people, working with an open architecture. However, it is still important to regularly check in because often people will say they are OK, when in fact, they are not. It has to be a priority because, with the insane amount of work that we have going on, it’s easy to forget or avoid. I’ve found that sending someone a thoughtful gift or calling them after a stressful meeting to take some pressure off is helpful. Even showing up at someone’s house unexpectedly can also go a long way, unless, of course, it just pisses them off. But overall, I couldn’t be prouder of our extraordinary team who have pulled together in this challenging time and helped each other adapt.


How are the attitudes of employees evolving as the crisis continues?

We do all that we can to be as open and transparent as possible so that the team are informed of everything, whether good or bad. Everyone is very much aware of the delicate financial situation that the industry and the world economy is in. Back in March, when we entered a lockdown, many clients slashed their budgets. It was a really dark time, but our team went all in. The awareness of the situation had the massive benefit of making people more commercially minded and conscientious – no matter what department they are in. It’s magical seeing people thinking creatively, knowing that what they are doing impacts the financial health of our business. People are hungry in a good way. People are becoming more entrepreneurial and more business-focused without ever losing their obsession with creativity. Obviously, people are worried, and that’s natural, but a slew of successful new business wins for the agency during this time of COVID has been refreshing and motivating. It demonstrates that if we stick to doing what we do best and take care of one another, we will pull through with flying colors. 


What has been the most challenging part of working from home for team members?

Everyone is different, with different circumstances. Some people had to juggle doing their job while homeschooling their kids. Others flatshare and at times are confined to having to work on the edge of their bed. One guy moved over from Argentina with his girlfriend a week before it all kicked off, killing all the romance of a new European adventure (they are no longer together). Another guy moved over from Brazil three days before lockdown with the plan that his wife would join him a couple of weeks later, but she only managed to arrive in late October. One of our team lived in a tiny flat with no windows. He invited me over once, and I lasted six minutes before I got depressed and made a run for it (we helped him find a new flat with more light and space). Some people on the other hand love working from home. Being able to spend more time with their kids and pets and the comforts of avoiding a long commute. Everyone is different. I guess the worry is that now we are all so used to it, suddenly it becomes a real effort to get together. Only the other day, we arranged for a few of us to meet near the agency, but the excuses started flying in; ‘it’s raining, I’m tired, it’s a hassle.’


Have there been any changes made within your agency to ease the process?

We are doing the same that I imagine most others are doing, like having weekly all staff meetings and then regular one to one catch-ups. The truth is that it’s been an incredibly challenging year. The work level and pressure that comes with it have just not stopped, and we’ve had to rely on the tools and technology available to help the process. This, however, has blurred a line between always on and disconnecting. There is a basic discipline with an office that you leave and normally are done for the day. At home, it’s completely different. I don’t think we’ve ever worked as hard. Without a doubt, we’ve become more disciplined, but it’s vital to keep a solid eye on people and find out how they really are and if they are taking care of themselves.


Has anything been done to try and preserve the office culture? How has the reception been internally?

This is what worries me the most. We have a great culture and are very much about work hard and play hard. Just three days before lockdown, we had our agency Christmas party (we have it in March – don’t ask!), and it was wild and free, little did we know. I think that was the last time we have all been physically together, and it now seems like light years ago. We’ve made attempts to have gatherings and summer parties, but then new restrictions came in place. There is a strong identity that defines us, and we need to do all we can to maintain it as it is what makes LOLA, LOLA. 

We share a lot of non-work-related content and fun stuff. We make sure to celebrate the accomplishments of all sizes. We show up for each other’s talks and side projects. We make an effort to get together in smaller groups, but we can always do more. Being a Brit, the thing that always surprised me when I came here is the big strong hugs and fearless showing of affection (not like the lame hipster shit hugs that we do in the UK) that we have for one another. It really does make a difference. We need to hug each other more. Fuck, I need a hug right now!


Are you planning to return to the office? Is there a plan to make some of the initiatives started during the pandemic?

We have an amazing and beautiful office right in the heart of the city. But we’ve actually learned that we can function without it. We do need our LOLA space, though. A place where we can come together with each other and our clients. A place for meetings. A place to work. A place to chat. A place to think. A place to hug. I don’t think that we need to impose office hours or that people have to be there all the time. But we need our place. We’ve started dreaming about what this place is. Naturally, we all said that we want a shit hot house with a pool and BBQ, but our very astute CFO choked on his tortilla when we suggested it. Let’s see where we get to and what works for our business. But it’s an exciting adventure that we can all feel part of.


What are some common mistakes you’ve seen from agencies transitioning to working from home? Do you have any tips?

Everyone is different, and many agencies will have a different culture from ours. This does go slightly against what I said, but I think people got sick and tired of this full-on attempt to get together for webinars, virtual drinks, or quizzes, or ‘wine time’. People have had more than enough of their work colleagues and screen time. Recently it was a client’s birthday, and it was arranged for the entire team (including us) to get on a zoom with him and have a chat. Singing happy birthday and then signing off would have been cool. But it turned into an awkward 30-minute chat with loads of people, and you could tell even he didn’t want to be there. I think it’s a good bet to keep communication lines open with people, be available to them but not give them more reasons to be in front of a screen.