Here’s Why Talented Creatives Are Leaving Your Agency

Murat Mutlu is a product designer based in London and the co-founder of the free prototyping startup @marvelapp. He has worked on the creative teams of many startups and agencies including Nokia Interactive, MIG and Isobar in both freelance and full-time roles. Follow him on Twitter @mutlu82. The original version of this post was previously published on his personal blog.

The exodus of talent we’ve been hearing so much about at the executive level is now filtering down to smart young digital and mobile creatives, planners and account managers. And can you blame them?

Startups are offering equal or better salaries than agencies with more perks and chances to get equity. Brands are taking design and development in-house after realizing they’ve been spending a tons of money on substandard work. Pure play product and design studios are quickly emerging with young and talented leaders. And, of course, technology is lowering the barrier to starting your own business. Agencies, on the other hand, are clinging on to the same ideas, tools and ways of working. It’s the perfect storm of increasing entrepreneurialism, decreasing  loyalty and an industry reveling in mediocrity.

The talent and desire in young creatives is there, but agencies need to try to stop the bleeding and create places where talented people want to use their skills to build great things for clients and users — otherwise the exodus of talent will continue. But before agencies can do that, they need to truly understand why it is that they are losing their young creatives.

Here’s a small but potent list — a view from the ground for the agency execs and CEOs — made up of my own thoughts and those I’ve heard from designers and creatives in agencies around London, about why talented creatives are leaving agencies:

1. You won’t stop taking on shit work.
We get it: you’re an agency, you need to keep the lights on and pay people. But at the same time, we expect you to have ambitions just like we do. In the beginning, it was cool to take the low-hanging fruit of animated GIF mobile banners and cookie-cutter augmented reality apps, just like we thought making nightclub flyers at university was cool when we first got into design, but after a while, that stuff has to stop and you need to start aiming higher.

It’s your job to get the best brands and companies doing interesting projects that push our boundaries. If you’re not winning these projects, then that’s something you need to address. We’re happy to polish a turd or two — it goes with the job; sometimes it can even be a welcome break from intense projects. But months and months of the same old, soul-destroying, pointless stuff for brands and clients who have no desire to do good work is toxic — not just for creatives (and our portfolios) but your entire staff.

2. You don’t innovate, even though you say you do.
In the time it takes to finish one or two mediocre projects, the industry will have taken another leap forward with new software, frameworks, services, devices, APIs, design patterns and interactions — and agencies fall behind.

Clients are often reactive and risk-adverse; they want something after everyone else has done it to death. By the time they give you a brief, it’s old news. If, on some rare occasion, they do want something new, it’ll come with so many caveats that it’s no longer useful or interesting — “Oh, the legal team said take out that awesome thing that makes the whole project worthwhile.”

It’s understandable that clients have this approach. Brands may not be comfortable with putting experiments and prototypes into the wild, but there’s no reason why agencies can’t explore this stuff without them. If you sell “innovation” as one of your agency’s capabilities (who doesn’t these days?), then you should be making experiments and prototypes with technology, plain and simple.

There seems to be this misconception that to do anything interesting with technology takes too much time and money if a client isn’t paying for it. This is total and utter bollocks. In the last few months, I’ve attended two different hackdays where individuals and small teams made stuff in hours, not weeks or months. Pure, undiluted autonomy can produce amazing things for your business if you provide the right environment for it to happen and just get out of the way for a bit.

3. You keep hiring dead weight (and do nothing about it).
Passion and engagement are contagious. But so are negativity and mediocrity. There’s nothing more brutal than watching C players bring down A players. And when your A players leave, who’s going to attract your future talent?

Agencies are fast-paced places to work, and it’s common for teams to scale up in the blink of an eye. It’s inevitable mistakes in hiring are going to be made while under pressure, but the problem is that you don’t have the guts to correct them until it’s too late. Bad hires are like a cancer, they bring down morale, work and confidence in the business.

4. You don’t stop taking on projects that can’t be delivered unless we work 12-hour days.
Working until 9 p.m. several days a week is just the agency way of life, right? Wrong. It’s bad management. Tell your account managers (or yourself) to stop selling things that can’t be completed unless we work ourselves to death. I’ve seen people strain their health, relationships and family lives, and for what? So a deodorant can get more brand awareness? So that we can meet the unrealistic deadline you promised while trying to win a pitch? Or so a client can get dozens of mockups before they go on holiday?

This is advertising we’re talking about, not some higher calling. It’s up to agencies to set responsible, realistic deadlines for clients so that people can do their best work and feel good about it. When fear becomes the driving force — the fear of missing a deadline, disappointing a client or wasting time trying to find inspiration — creatives begin churning out work and lose passion.

5. You don’t give staff any credit.
Instead of putting yet another generic CEO/Creative Director quote into a PR piece, why not grab a line from some of the people who actually worked on the project and busted their arse meeting its deadline? The Junior Creative who stayed late for two weeks getting the project out of the door, the account manager who endured weekend calls from the client asking to make a logo bigger, these guys are the agency heroes. “Thank you’” emails are great, but they don’t come up in Google and you can’t link to them on blog or CV. Do the right thing.

Another way to give staff exposure is to start a blog and let everyone contribute. The blogs of Made By Many, Teehan+Lax and ustwo are great examples of how it should be done. There’s a wide range of contributors — from designers, planners, project managers and developers. Each post makes it easy to find out about the author and their role in the agency. The authors are clearly passionate about the stuff they write about, sharing work processes, personal interests, tips and ideas. The agency provides the platform and benefits from the content, the contributors build their reputation and presence in the industry — everyone wins.

6. You don’t buy us decent equipment.
This is a no brainer. Get your designers some big screens. Have you ever had to toggle between designing in Photoshop, a PDF containing wireframes, an email from a client with amendments, Facebook and Twitter all on one poxy 15-inch TFT Dell monitor that the last finance director left behind?

Quite simply, we produce better work with better equipment and software. If it takes 10 seconds to move a Retina graphic across my canvas in Photoshop on my crusty machine, you can be damn sure pixel-perfection won’t be my priority when deadline approaches. Pressed for cash? Apple does finance plans and HotUKDeals daily emails. Oh and eBay.

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