When I joined adland many aeons back, the atmosphere of the agency life was electric. Seriously creative, often chaotic, very cool and no one who was in the business would have had it any other way. Yes, there were also clear role definitions, career growth plans, structured training, fairly low salaries, along with fabled beer lunches with clients who became friends, insane deadlines and the unexplainable sense of pride of the coveted awards.
I did a quick check before writing this piece with some of the exes – ex-colleagues, clients, juniors, bosses. The idea was to match the then and now. My chats proved that the mismatch was complete. Except for the fairly low salaries (taking into account a two-decade gap), there seems to be an entirely new way of working for adland.
One can counter that by saying the entire business and its need has changed. The business of advertising moved from being that of ideas, where the margins helped profitability and investment in people and creativity (awards).
The narrative moved to cost cutting and commoditising the ideas business to a mere cost. Overnight, from partners, agencies became vendors. Math took over from creativity. Cost cutting and ‘the cheaper the better’ became the norm. Thus began the exodus of people who loved being in advertising, from advertising. Talent and the lack of it became the new normal. But the truth is you still need people. Even with the much-punched margins.
So where are all the people? This seems to be the question in the minds of most management folks in the agency world. Why are they struggling? There are some usual obvious ones. More avenues, rise and rise of the entertainment sector, tech, startups, on the client side. Yes, everyone is plucking and poaching the bright ones. As Mark Read said in an interview, “The good – and the bad – news is that our people are very talented, which means they are always in demand outside (the company)”. Point noted. But what exactly is being done about retaining the good ones? Data and reports across show salary related expenses on the rise, surge in hiring post pandemic to meet client demand, overall hit in bottom-line due to stiff competition for talent. If that is the case, why are agency heads bemoaning the lack or steady disappearance of the talent? Seems contrarian, right? That the cost of recruitment rises and who are these people filling up the chairs?
Methinks a lot of this is the doing of the industry itself. A process that started when one of the only industries whose main assets are its people, stopped focusing on people. Sometime back in one of my articles I had written that ageism is a real issue in adland. Newer, shinier and often not so capable ones have replaced the more solid and experienced folks. Have heard many an agency leader, especially the newly minted corner office ones, say that the agency they have taken over is full of old furniture! ‘Place needs a fresh perspective’ and the usual blah. Of course. The agency earlier ran on love and fresh air, and this messiah will swoosh the magic wand and viola, it will be all bells and whistles! No. Let’s leave the magic to the little children’s books, shall we? What instead has happened is that industry leaders have systematically for their weak spines, let go or forced out a bunch of strong talent. And ironically the new shiny people they added, continue to skip to the next new shiny spot. A splendid mess.
Adding serious levels of stress to the revolving door syndrome is the lack of culture, career planning, vision, evaluation, and appreciation of people while they are in the jobs. Majority of the agency ecosystems are certainly grappling with this. Strong agency brands in the hands of wrongly chosen leaders seem the worst hit. Wonder how such global powerhouses allow such incompetent – or if one is to believe the whispers, sometimes unethical – leaders erode their brand power?
Is it all downward then? Maybe not. We certainly hope not. Looks like there is almost a new drive amongst a passionate few to bring ‘sexy ‘back!
It is easy to spot those one or two agency groups or independent boutiques, who are still invested in building something for their people. Who plan. For their people and their futures. Talent is making a beeline to be a part of that team. Where meritocracy, equality and sheer ability is the criteria. Experience is valued and fresh thinking encouraged. The focus here seems to be to retain and revive the joy of advertising.
Importantly, these agencies are pushing back and saying no. To irrational costs, the ideas trade fair, to being treated shabbily. And many wonderful client partners are equally happy supporting them as partners.
This trend if genuinely embraced by the biggies of the agency world could give the much-needed uplift it hopes for. Bring back the backbone, bring back the passion but above all bring back the zing and fun. And all those most wanted good women and men will be back!
“Where people aren’t having fun, they seldom produce good work” – David Ogilvy.
(First published on Free Press Journal BrandSutra. The author is an independent brand curator, coach and consultant.)