Get ready for talent wars as agencies grow again

The battle for brains will be a big issue as agency life starts to return to normal. Marketers need to secure the best people before the over-servicing stops.


Marketers have benefited enormously from lockdown when it comes to their agency partners.

Agencies have been under the cosh and prepared to over-service their accounts to keep revenue coming in. Agency talent has been stuck at home, with work-life boundaries blurred to the extreme and ready to answer a call at a moment's notice at any time of day.

But that will all change as the new normal, or whatever it is we are calling the end of the pandemic, arrives. When agencies start returning to the office—and most will return for multiple reasons, young staff who like the social buzz and have smaller living space at home, for example—there will be a talent crunch that advertisers need to prepare for.

The crunch will be accelerated by the fact that many holding companies slashed headcount to deal with the financial impact of the pandemic.

In the past year, we’ve seen Omnicom, WPP and Dentsu each cut about 6,000 positions and Interpublic about 4,000.

In short, there are fewer people to service the same number of brands. We are already seeing the impact of this with the same individuals frequently nominated on multiple RFPs across all disciplines.

These are people who we know are also supposed to be managing significant pieces of existing business for their agency. Really good talent is being pulled in multiple directions.

This talent tightening will be particularly critical in the increasingly high demand areas such as D2C and e-commerce, where the step change in the way we shop has meant more brands need to engage more directly with the people who actually buy their products.

That will create additional demand for agencies that can develop innovative loyalty and subscription propositions and there is a limited set of people and agencies who can deliver this kind of work on a truly global basis.

Additionally, production talent will also be in strong demand as big global brands seek to reduce costs on content by boosting in-house operations, while the need for people who can innovate around product development and routes to market is also high.

The challenge for marketers is to adopt a new approach that recognises that they can no longer simply expect talent to be at their beck and call.

Firstly, they need to give agencies more time to assemble teams and ideas. Call today for something you needed yesterday won’t work any more, unless you are prepared to compromise on the talent. Agencies will need more realistic and generous timelines.

Secondly, they need to accept that the unsustainable pace of working life in the lockdown cannot continue. Hours will become shorter and travel will become more regular so demands need to be managed much more carefully, with a greater respect for the mental health and work-life balance of agency colleagues.

Thirdly, project-based contracts may no longer be as effective. The pre-pandemic trend for more project work, where talent is switched on and off as required, may prove to be a false economy.

Mindful of recent job losses, the best talent may decide that they don't want to be part of an unstable relationship. Consistent, retained engagement with the best talent may be the only way to ensure they focus on your business.

As we all adapt to new ways of working and potentially a new hybrid system where some people are in the office and others are still at home for a few days a week, for example, there will be bumps along the road. Just as there were when we all adapted to home working.

One thing we know, however, is that things can’t continue as they have been, and that the year ahead will be hugely challenging for many businesses that rely on agency advice.

There is already evidence that the jobs market is hotting up as most of the big agency groups expect to see double-digit percentage increases in revenue in Q2 2021.

Smart marketers will want to ensure that they have the best agency talent on board to assist.

The smartest will be locking in the people they truly value right now.

Lucinda Peniston-Baines is co-founder and managing partner of The Observatory International.

Campaign UK

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