Agencies Face Talent Crunch

Digiday is making its first foray to the Cannes International Festival of Creativity, aka the Cannes Lions. We’ll interview agency and brand executives, and report on the substance and flavor of the ad world’s largest international gathering. Our coverage is made possible through the sponsorship of Turn, the cloud marketing platform. All posts in the series can be found here

Anyone visiting an ad agency will invariably be given a tour. The reason behind this odd pride in office layout is the understandable obsession agencies have with their cultures. More than most industries, agencies have little in the way of assets outside of their people. And yet agencies typically lose nearly a third of their workers in a year. It’s why several sessions at this year’s Cannes ad festival are dedicated to the issue of keeping and attracting talent.

It could be even worse. The turnover is often pinned on the old boogeyman of agency life: compensation. The idea being that clients don’t pay agencies correctly, which then trickles down to the staff level. And yet the reasons are deeper than that. A Deutsch LA survey of 1,500 agency professionals found the top reason people want to leave is “growth and ownership.”

“People will always want to get paid more,” said Kim Getty, director of account management at Deutsch. “But that’s not what’s driving it.”

The problem appears particularly acute and deeper in digital fields. Bouncing from agency job to agency job is one thing, but in digital there’s a more alarming issue: the talent is leaving the industry altogether. Getty points out that a company like Google is “both competitor and rival.” Deutsch’s research shows that many at agencies envy the innovation found at companies like Apple and Google, which boast large research budgets, while not seeing agencies as particularly innovative organizations. After all, what agencies aren’t exactly the places that are pushing technology forward. Even in the bedrock of advertising — creativity — agencies come up short: 65 percent of those Deutsch polled said the most creative people they knew didn’t work in advertising. Two thirds said doing great creative is harder than it used to be.

The research is backed up in the recent experience of Marci Ikeler, who until last week was the director of digital strategy at Grey for three years. She decided to leave Grey — and advertising over all — after becoming disillusioned with agency life. Ikeler blogged about her decision, noting agencies are often driven by fear and have cultures that don’t actually foster collaboration, office tours boasting innovative seating plans aside.

It is impossible to do any work that’s not push messaging in the capital-C creative culture of agencies today. There is a lot of expertise in creative departments, but the art director/copywriter model just isn’t suited to think through four-dimensional ideas. Everyone does lip service to the idea of collaboration, but ultimately creative wins on anything remotely related to ideas. Advertising is the only industry that has a role called “Creative” – in the digital world, everyone is expected to be creative, just as they’re expected to be strategic. Naturally, different areas of expertise emerge, but in my experiment a department called “creative” shuts down collaboration at the start.

It’s a troubling picture for agencies as they confront the challenge of adjusting to the digital era. If key talent like Ikeler don’t see a place in agencies of any kind, it’s fair to wonder whether agencies stand a chance to claw back prominent roles with clients.

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