Ben Bold
Aug 11, 2022

Is internal competition at agency groups stoking staff burnout?

Industry figures give their views on whether a root cause of adland's worsening talent drain is 'the mental health hazard' of teams within holding companies 'fighting over the client budget'.

Is internal competition at agency groups stoking staff burnout?

Earlier this summer, IPA president Julian Douglas warned that agency leaders must do more to tackle burnout or risk a "talent exodus". His point was that much-trumpeted wellbeing initiatives and flexible working policies were inadequate; in other words, the industry is attempting to ease the symptoms while not seeking a cure.

Douglas urged bosses to engage in "healthy practices themselves", to create "trusting" relationships with staff and clients and establish "clear" work boundaries.

It hardly takes an expert to see the obvious: that to prevent burnout there must be systemic change rather than reaction.

Douglas focused on a single root cause – the pitch process – and his comments clearly resonated with Amir Guy, co-founder of Togetherr. Writing in Campaign last week, Guy argued that there are multiple causes of the talent drain, "which must all be tackled simultaneously, alongside those ugly pitches".

His list included creatives growing increasingly frustrated with "getting buried under layers of processes"; that not enough is being done around flexible working practices; that there are extraneous strata of management; and that fun and strong ideas have been sidelined.

But – perhaps most interestingly – he points a finger at the so-called integrated agency model: groups and networks made up of multiple sister agencies with discrete P&Ls, that compete internally, each vying for a bigger slice of pie from a single client.

"Even when you brand separate agencies as 'integrated' they are still different disciplines, forced into one team, fighting for the client budget, which is leading to internal battles," he wrote. "That's a mental health hazard. Instead, lean into single P&L models, eliminating internal competition."

Some groups have done just that – striving to unify under a single P&L, a la Publicis Groupe's "Power of One" and MediaMonks' own single P&L mode spanning 57 talent hubs in 33 countries.

Internal rivalry is obviously not the sole culprit for burnout, and many would argue that competition between agency teams is healthy, encouraging peers to up their game. So Campaign posed the question: is internal competition at agencies stoking staff burnout?

Miranda Hipwell
Group managing director, Adam & Eve/DDB

It's no secret that burnout is on the rise across all industries - it's triggered by a multitude of factors and definitely cause for concern. But I'm not convinced that internal competition is the main culprit. Healthy team dynamics and a desire to create brilliant work for excellent clients create the right environment for people to thrive. I love seeing our teams back together in person, debating a tricky challenge over a coffee or coming up with new ideas over a drink.

We can't underestimate how these things make work something you want to do, and a place you want to be – supported by a team and agency that has your best interests at heart. All that said, it's a challenging time on so many fronts but with kindness, shared goals and ambition we can channel internal competition towards the right kind of progress.

Dino Myers-Lamptey
Founder, The Barber Shop

Yes, but that’s not to say competition is necessarily a bad thing. Competition can work well if the incentives are clear and fair, and there are both individual and team rewards. The account people and accountants that run agencies unfortunately have detached the direct benefit and rewards gained by being in a ‘creative’ competition, and made advertising more of a trophy career, where Creatives seek accolades over pay and promotion.

Real creativity has always been a flow-attaining mission, often bringing both ups and downs in the creation of great work, and Creatives enter this sometimes exhausting contract willingly, despite the reward equation for living comfortably in this state not adding up. It is no surprise that talented Creatives like Mr Bingo and Munya Chawawa have rejected the hierarchical paths and built their own platforms for true creative expression and fulfilment in their work.

Leanne Esposito
Director of operations UK and Ireland, MediaMonks

We hear a lot of horror stories of agencies pitching against one another within the same networks – or even internal teams competing across different offices. That's one of the many reasons we set out to build a truly integrated structure and unitary brand. We'll leave internal competition to the field and support our London employees with in-house mental health-aiders and a wide range of ongoing activities, ranging from events addressing neurodiversity and empathy to hosting puppy cuddling sessions.

Ed Palmer
Managing director, St Luke's London

Internal competition is a good thing if it’s healthy, but never at the expense of the client agenda and the team effort. Healthy means celebrating team successes in order to inspire others to achieve the same, not making competition a zero sum game.

Making collective ambition central to agency culture is critical, and not tolerating a ‘rockstar’ culture. Having a collective rather than individual bonus system is an important tangible reinforcement of this, something we’ve had in place at St Luke’s for nearly a decade.

We need to be especially on the lookout for the toilers – those who will slog away quietly, put themselves under huge pressure and never complain. Unless we watch for the signs and proactively intervene, they will only raise their hand when it’s too late. More generally, it’s important the agency has a comprehensive series of wellbeing initiatives, from having mental health first-aiders, to having a fund to help people with their physical health.

And finally we should never forget about those moments of collective release within the agency. No matter how busy things get, we should never let slip those regular get togethers, drinks, celebrations of the work. Never underestimate the power of the occasional afternoon of sack races and one-armed Pimms-making competitions, to reboot ourselves and reinforce our collective spirit.

Xavier Rees
UK group chief executive, Havas Creative

In many agency networks, people are often more passionate about beating their sister agencies than the actual competition. That’s not surprising if you exist in a holding company where those agencies do the same thing as you; think rival siblings all trying to be mum’s favourite. The problem is this fosters an inherently competitive, wary culture – even when it comes to partnering with agencies of a different discipline.

Too often, this leaves brilliantly talented people trying to collaborate with others they’ve been conditioned not to trust. At best, it’s a psychologically complex situation to navigate.

At Havas, we deliberately keep one agency per discipline within our Villages – creating a structure of complementary, not competing, specialisms where we know we’re stronger together than apart. As a result, a naturally collaborative culture can thrive without threat of someone stealing your lunch – leaving us all a little freer to deal with the many other mental pressures we all face right now.

Campaign UK

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