Phil Rowley
Aug 15, 2022

Adland’s Great Resignation doesn’t have to end in Great Regret

There is mounting anecdotal evidence that adland is seeing a rise in ‘boomerangs’ as talent realises the grass is not always greener. Adland must improve the industry’s workplace culture, fulfilment and wellbeing to capitalise.

Adland’s Great Resignation doesn’t have to end in Great Regret

The average person will spend one-third of their life at work, so little wonder it forms such a core part of who we are, and is inextricably linked to our wellbeing.

It is a deeply curious time to examine what this means for our industry, assessing both our business culture and the work we carry out as communicators and experts in people and societal trends.

For example, the pandemic and its switch to home working, and to hybrid working post-lockdown, has upended the way we think about our work lives. Notably, we’re more acutely aware of the impact they have on our mental and physical health, as well as our psychological needs.

Indeed, this societal reassessment contributed towards the Great Resignation, which has impacted many sectors, but hit adland particularly hard. And that’s not surprising; many businesses were forced to make redundancies at the start of the pandemic, which put a squeeze on those who remained. The sector has since been grappling with the consequences of burnout as many have quit in search of better mental health.

The net results have been a recruitment crisis and a wholesale change in working practices, a subject documented in depth by Campaign.

Now, following the launch of a report, The Future of Wellbeing, a deeper narrative has formed: the dawning realisation that with rising prices and financial instability a regular and healthy income is also necessary for wellbeing.

So, too, are the softer benefits adland was always so good at providing; the social events, plush offices, private healthcare – stuff many people viewed as a necessary counterbalance to the unique challenges of the agency world. We also can’t forget that many of our creatives thrive on the opportunity to develop award-winning, culture-making work.

It’s a unique world to leave behind.

The grass isn’t always greener either. In adland and beyond, people now find themselves in new roles that really aren’t dissimilar to their old ones.

Indeed, a recent study by HR company Muse revealed that almost three-quarters of the 2,500 workers it surveyed expressed either “surprise or regret” that their new position was “very different” from what was promised in the ad. Nearly half of these workers would attempt to get their old job back, what Muse called “shift shock”.

The Great Resignation could quite easily become the Great Regret, and that is fuelling a wave of "boomerang" hires – former employees returning to the agencies they had given up, often to find their working policies changed for the better post-pandemic.

In 2021, LinkedIn reported that 4.5 per cent of new recruits were boomerangs compared with 3.9 per cent in 2019, and although there is no hard evidence yet on how this is represented in adland, there is growing anecdotal evidence it’s on the rise.

Those boomerangs bring benefits; they return experience, knowledge and relationships to the business – but they also come back feeling reset, recharged and with fresh perspectives. Agencies should welcome that. Resignation doesn’t have to be regretful.

However, we all still need to look harder at wellbeing if we’re to keep talent happy and protect our industry from future churn. The problem is the working cultures of the West as a whole need attention.

In 2021, a study from Gallup showed that only 11% of Western European employees felt involved or fulfilled by their vocation, the second lowest in the world. Worse, more than one in three experienced daily worry, and one in five workplace sadness.

For adland, we’ve also heard a rising chorus of unhappy voices, with the industry’s wellbeing charity Nabs recording a huge rise in calls throughout the pandemic.

That is why we must continue the positive work, keep wellbeing centre stage, ensure flexibility is hardwired into our culture, and that job perks are emotionally meaningful and lasting.

In The Future of Wellbeing, I argue that a deeply purposeful and fulfilling work life is often the final piece of the happiness puzzle for people in the most developed societies – so it’s especially disappointing if it proves elusive. Although it is also worth bearing in mind that the lowest rung in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, physiological needs like food and shelter, could come to the fore for those starting their careers as inflation bites.

This has clear implications for adland; we need to look after each other even better – a process accelerated by recent events that should be viewed as a perpetual work in progress.

Finally, we need to begin thinking about the impact the UK’s diversifying working practices will have on our day jobs. It may require us to develop a larger toolkit for targeting audiences, and even develop new models and frameworks. So now is also the time to use our introspection to bolster both our workplaces and our craft; a rare opportunity to make work better, and make better work.

Phil Rowley is head of futures at Omnicom Media Group UK and author of The Future of Wellbeing.

Campaign UK

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