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Will Your Advertising Agency Become a Revolving Door?


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Agency talent churn is coming. The Great Recession has bred hordes of restless agency staffers. These valuable people are getting ready to seek better jobs.

Here are some thoughts on addressing this problem.

Published in: Business, Education
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Will Your Advertising Agency Become a Revolving Door?

  1. 1. Will Your Agency Become a Revolving Door? by Mike CarltonStarbuck’s BaristasIt was a revelation. A Starbuck’s barista gets more initial training than the typicaladvertising agency employee receives in a year. And about a third of agencyemployees plan to quit their current job during the next twelve months.This sobering information is from a study that was presented at a recentAmerican Association of Advertising Agencies meeting. Nancy Hill, president ofthe 4As is reported to have said, “I knew it was bad. But I didn’t know it was thisbad.”Martin Sorrell, CEO of WPP Group, which has over 145,000 agency employees,was even harsher. He called it “criminal neglect.”More Scary NumbersThe study of 3,000 agency employees also discovered that 70% of them wouldreturn a recruiter’s call. And almost all of them (96%) felt they could easily getanother job as the economy improves.Also reported was that the average training time for each agency employee isabout 16 hours a year. And historically agencies have only spent about $1,000on this. Ten years ago about half of all agencies provided some form ofemployee mentoring. But the Great Recession killed much of that activity.In a separate study, MetLife found that employees across the board have grownmore dissatisfied and disloyal. Confirming the 4As information, MetLife’sresearch shows that thirty some percent of employees hope to be workingsomewhere else within the coming year.A Big DisconnectThe past few years have taken a big toll. According to the AmericanPsychological Association employee moral fell and stress levels skyrocketed asemployers, bent on cutting costs, stopped raises, eliminated bonuses and askedtheir people to pick up the slack left by laid-off colleagues.Yet many employers don’t recognize the magnitude of the festering problem.And assume that good employees continue to be loyal. So it is no wonderthey’re shocked and surprised when folks quit. Usually on short notice. 1
  2. 2. And the problems have just begun. Many agencies will see their talent churninglike a revolving door. This lack of staffing stability will surely cost agencies dearlyas the job market improves.Personal HurtIn this environment it is very easy for agency leaders to feel somehow betrayedwhen valuable employees leave. And that is understandable. The agency haskept them employed during the hard times. And now, when things are juststarting to look up, those very folks choose to bail out. Leaving the agency withdisruption and replacement expense. Not to mention the angst clients feel whentheir agency talent changes.Yet agency management harboring ill feelings is not constructive.The Other Point of ViewClearly, what agency employees see, and what they have experienced, is a quitedifferent picture.On a macro scale, the advertising agency industry has recovered to about theplace it was in 2008. Revenue is climbing again and profits are improving. Yetthis is being accomplished with something like 20% fewer employees.Employees realize that productivity is up significantly. And that is at leastpartially due to their extra efforts. Yet their paychecks don’t show much increase.And more importantly, they don’t feel appreciated for the contribution they havebeen making. So they feel betrayed, too. And they know that as the economyimproves the demand for their talents will surely increase.Perfect conditions for those seeking greener pastures.The Best Agency PeopleAt their core, good agencies are idea driven. They attract people who are alsoidea driven. And frequently very bright. And often quite talented. Theintellectual challenge and sheer fun of conceiving and developing powerful,market-shaping new ideas is the primary force that draws them to agencies.Historically, junior and mid-range agency people have accepted less pay thanthey could command elsewhere just to have the opportunity to actively participatein an idea-charged environment.They will accept challenging trench work in the early years in exchange for theopportunity to grow. 2
  3. 3. They recognize that they must do some routine stuff in order to pay their dues.But when they are left to fend for themselves and learn on their own they feelfrustrated and unappreciated. Particularly if they are caught up in turning outrepetitive stuff on a continuing basis with diminished opportunity for using theirfull intellectual power.The best ones quickly become bored.In fact there’s a saying that you can easily spot a good agency person by theirlow threshold of boredom.DiscontentDuring the recent bad years many good agency people picked up the pace andcranked out lots of billable stuff. Now, with the economy in a nascent recovery,the good ones want to shift their work balance to issues that are moreintellectually challenging. And accelerate their professional growth. As well asfeeling appreciated for their contribution to the agency’s success.If their agency doesn’t accommodate that, discontent builds.As the job market opens up, and a talent shortage naturally builds, theirdiscontent can lead to a staffing churn that no agency can afford. Becoming arevolving door is extraordinarily expensive.Addressing the IssueThere is no question that today, attraction, retention and growth of junior andmid-level agency talent has become a top priority.Here are some thoughts that may help in proactively addressing the issue:1. LeadershipGood people value good leadership. They like to win. And good leadership isdifferent from good management. It has been said that leadership is about doingthe right things and management is about doing things right. Big difference.The best agency talent is looking to agency leaders to bring greater balance intotheir work lives. Most good people recognize the economic need to produce ahigh volume of stuff. And, they’re happy to do it if the work balance is right.But if they feel that management is preoccupied with the financial numbers andjust views them as some interchangeable production tool, then they are probablyalready packing their bags to leave. 3
  4. 4. Protecting and enhancing the agency’s investment in them requires leaders thatovertly value their intellectual contribution. Then clearly and consistentlyarticulate that position.And make sure that leadership deeds are in sync with leadership words.2. GrowthThe unspoken compact between a talented person and her employer is simple;“I’ll help you become more successful if you help me become more successful.”And, success to ambitious young individuals primarily translates to professionalgrowth.Good people understand that they must continually grow their skills to achievethe financial and psychic rewards they desire. They will usually put up with short-term frustrations if they feel they are moving forward. And that their employer, inturn, expects them to move forward.They fear getting stuck in a dead-end job. And are turned-off when they perceivethat their leaders are letting that happen to them.Leaders that continually provide growth opportunities for their people, anddemand that their people do in fact grow, create a very positive bond.3. ChallengeA separate dimension of growth is challenge. No one ever knows what his truecapabilities are. All we know is that each of us is capable of much more than wehave ever accomplished.We also know that reaching outside our comfort zone can, and often does, leadto failure. But once in a while it can lead to stunning success. This risk/rewarddilemma is played out every day for each of us.Good agency people expect to work in an environment that celebrates challenge.And encourages people to experiment with notions that exceed conventionalthinking. An environment that doesn’t punish failure while seeking a new way,but rather recognizes that failure is part of the price of success. While they maynot articulate it directly, good agency people want to be continually nudged out oftheir comfort zone. Agency leaders that dont do this underestimate the ultimatecapabilities of their people and permit a mentality of mediocrity to flourish.4. MentoringWhile there is currently a lot of talk about mentoring, it is still vastlymisunderstood. Most of today’s better agency leaders had excellent mentorswhen they were younger. There were no formal mentoring programs then. Theselfless mentors just intuitively nurtured their young charges. Yet today it seems 4
  5. 5. as if little time is dedicated to passing the gifts today’s leaders received on to thenext generation.At its core, mentoring is an act of unconditional love. It is driven by many of thesame instincts as parenting. And as such, it is very intimate, personal and long-term. It stems from the desire to see the junior develop his maximum skillpotential. And, that result alone is the reward for the mentor.So, if you can be a good parent, you can probably be a good mentor. But, only ifyou want to be. And are willing to contribute the time and attention necessary.Young agency people want and appreciate good mentoring. And will go wherethey can get it, even if that means a short-term financial sacrifice.5. CoachingMentoring and coaching are different. Coaching is less personal, morestructured and more task driven. And it is frequently team oriented.Coaching is skewed toward accomplishing specific and immediate tactical workrelated objectives. Its measurements of success are usually apparent quitequickly.A group of individuals, each with strong and complementary skill sets, do notautomatically coalesce into a strong team. It takes skilled coaching to weld theindividual capabilities into cohesive synchronized team performance.Leaders who expect teamwork to happen automatically are usually disillusionedby the results. Coaching doesn’t work on autopilot.And good people expect leaders to provide the coaching necessary for their teamto succeed.6. TrainingAll good professionals need the intellectual stimulation of focused craft skilltraining. Most of the more traditional professions like, medicine, law, accounting,architecture, etc., have industry standards for continuing education.This training can take many forms. Off site seminars. On line programs. Inhouse classes. Regular participation in these kinds of programs assures thatpractitioner skills are continuously maintained at high professional levels.Unfortunately, rigorous training processes are not structurally embedded in theadvertising agency industry. Yet advertising practitioners have every bit as muchneed for continuing education as their professional brethren. 5
  6. 6. During the past few years, one of the first expense items to be cut in manyagencies was the staff training budget. But the reduction or elimination of theseprograms has in no way diminished the training needs of good people, or theirexpectation of it.Or the value it brings to them and their agency.7. NetworkingAssociation with peers is important for good agency people. Feelings about theirindividual skills and capabilities are largely shaped by colleague opinions. Notonly within their agency, but more importantly, in the general advertisingcommunity.Good agency people like to network. And recognize the benefits from it.Now, from agency management’s standpoint, networking can be a two edgedsword. Staffers can learn a great deal about the craft and the business fromothers within the advertising community that will benefit their agency. But,networking can also increase their marketability and chance of becoming knownby someone who may offer them a better job.Because of the cost and the risk of losing good people, many agencies have cutback on paying for, or even allowing time for, staff networking activities.Yet on balance, encouraging and supporting networking is probably in a goodagency’s best interest. Particularly if their people are happy and proud of theirshop they can spontaneously become great evangelists for their organization.And in the process make the attraction of additional talent easier.8. VarietyRepetitive tasks are boring. They put the intellect to sleep. Good agency peopleget bored quickly. And the smart ones won’t tolerate it.If bored, they frequently invent mental activities to overcome that boredom.Sometimes those self-invented activities are beneficial to the agency.Sometimes not.It is not easy for agency leadership to provide continuing variety in the work ofbright agency talent. It takes a lot of proactive attention to keep from sliding intoa gray dullness. Planned rotation of responsibilities in a way that maximizestalent need for variety while minimizing the discomfort of continuing change takesreal leadership thought and care.Routine tasks and activities are less disruptive. More efficient. And less messy.But allowing routine to create boredom in skilled talent carries with it a very highprice. 6
  7. 7. When asked why they changed jobs, most agency people cite an increase invariety (change of work responsibilities) as a principal reason.9. RespectWhen work production is valued over intellectual contribution respect for theindividual diminishes. This is a simple fact. The person turning out stuff isviewed differently from the person creating important ideas.There is a machine-like quality to an economically driven stuff producer. Theyknow it. And management knows it. And good agency people do not like beingthought of in that context. It feels kind of like being an interchangeable cog in abig, impersonal mechanism. Not fun. Not enjoyable.Good agency people want to be respected for their intellectual contributions andthe market results those ideas deliver. These are not always easily measured inimmediate units of output or dollars billed.But they understand that producing things is key to the economic welfare of theiragency. So when they are in a period of grinding out stuff their leaders mustcontinue to celebrate their intellectual contribution.10. MoneyYou’ll note that this is last on the list. Not that it is unimportant. Compensation isvery important. But, it is not the first priority of good agency people.What they are paid is an outward sign of the value of the contribution they aremaking to the agency and its clients. They expect that pay to be a fair reflectionof that value.Their compensation is kind of a personal score card of how well the marketvalues them, and thus has great emotional meaning.But they fully understand that without the intangible psychic benefits of their job,money alone would be insufficient.It is not unusual for compensation consultants from more mundane industries tobe perplexed at how good agency people view the psychic vs. monetary benefitsof their jobs. And the overall importance placed on something as simple as fun.Money is always important. But never underestimate psychic rewards.The Revolving DoorTalent is what drives advertising agencies. Talented, committed staffers arestrategically more important than clients or immediate profits. 7
  8. 8. This is important so let me say it again. Talented, committed staffers are strategically more important than clients or immediate profits.Staff talent is what differentiates each agency in the marketplace. And whatdrives business success.And strategically, there is little that can be more damaging to an agency thanbecoming a revolving door for talented people. Yet it appears that manyagencies are heading that direction. Not a pretty picture.If Not Now, When?Recently an agency leader was talking with me about a number of their brightyoung account executives. And how energetic and productive they are. Yet hewent on to acknowledge that they desperately need training and mentoring.I suggested that he immediately enroll them in a training program. His responsewas an eye-opener. He said, “That’s a good idea, but right now they are so busythat the agency cannot do without them for the few days initial training wouldtake. But we’d like to train them later.”All I could silently wonder was, “Would they even be around later?” Copyright 2011 Carlton Associates Incorporated 8