It’s no mystery why most network agencies have been wheeled into the operating room by their clients and shareholders: margins and budgets are getting squeezed, clients are demanding that agencies develop new competencies, and agency consolidations are creating a sea of redundancies. Nearly all of us have friends who have lost their jobs over the last few months.
Few would ever admit it openly, but nearly everyone gets laid off or pushed out of their jobs at some point in their career. I’ll wager that the person you report to and the person whom your boss reports to (regardless of level) has been pushed out of their chair.
While getting laid off is an intensely personal affair, the reasons for losing your job may not be, even if that’s not apparent at the time. Despite tiresome management-speak about “rightsizing”, network agencies generally cut staff with a cudgel rather than a scalpel.
Agency bloodletting will stop in a couple of years. The survivors—people and agencies alike—will be lean and competitive. This is the topic of another discussion though.
For industry veterans, whether we’d have it or not, the days of the professional manager have ended. If the axe falls in your direction, inclusive of executives who sit in a glass office on a floor where others suffer in a “collaborative” open plan, the hard truth is that we, practitioners in advertising and media, are only as valuable as our core craft skills.
Get your fingernails dirty
If you are still employed and are dreading the invite from HR or your boss asking you for a “quick catch up,” it’s time to dig into your current position.
If you are the head of planning, it’s time to stop posting/commenting on other people’s work on social media and get out into the field. It’s also an open secret that the days of being the person who can “interpret data analysis for creatives” but has no ability to perform data analysis themselves, or worse, is innumerate, are ending.
If you are the ECD/copy chief, you should be writing copy as actively and fluidly as anyone on your team. No assignment is too small for your attention.
Start seriously considering how to better incorporate quantitative consumer insights into your work. No matter how you feel about it, unless your name is John Hegarty, you’ll likely be expected to collaborate closely with people who wear fanny packs without irony. Soon enough, they will be your boss (and everyone else’s) too. So play nice.
You get the idea.
The good news is there are a range of online courses available from tier one universities which are both affordable and credible. Maybe you need to know more about digital strategy, social media marketing, data analysis… whatever it may be. As a practical suggestion, check out Coursera.
The overall advantages of taking real classes (which require reading, homework, class discussions, etc) to freshen up your skills shouldn’t need explanation. If it does, well then, god bless. It’s not just about keeping up though: It’s a straight out question of professional survival.
When looking for your new thing, you’ll almost certainly need to demonstrate competency in some areas where your knowledge and skills could use some tightening up. Imagine the eyes of your interviewer rolling when you tell them that you’re “doing some consulting.”
If you have been laid off, or fear it, engage with your classmates from other disciplines. New ideas will not only help you demonstrate your willingness to learn/adapt. Perhaps more importantly, it will also help ward off depression and professional stagnation.
If you are thinking “like duh” to all this, you’d be shocked (not rhetorically shocked, I mean real deal surprised) about how many managers, from the CEO down, who are out there looking for their next job without even basic skills in the disciplines they lead. Or how many people who are terrified about losing their job yet somehow never consider brushing up or learning new skills to strengthen their competitiveness.
Ask your friendly neighborhood headhunter. They’ll confirm these observations.
You’ll need more meat than condiments to make a stable long-term move. Guess again if you believe that your ability to inspire and manage teams, shape ideas and identify white spaces will be compelling to a new employer without having the ability (and willingness) to do hands-on work.
There is no doubt that agencies should take their fair share of blame for boozing out on sunloungers while technology companies sauntered on by. But fair is fair. It’s not your agency’s fault if you haven’t made a serious effort to upgrade your skills to stay competitive.
At the risk of sounding painfully obvious: Your best strategy to abate the fear/sting of unemployment is to engage fully and make a effort to get better at your current job.
Even if you are in the position to seamlessly jump to another position, a quick move may beg larger and more uncomfortable questions about your long-term survival strategy. You’ll need to address your fundamental vulnerabilities sooner or later.
At the same time, if you are bright, talented, intellectually agile (not just someone who says “Agile” a lot), you will enjoy unprecedented opportunities to do fulfilling work as well as advance quickly.
The people who actually care about you will be supportive as you swallow some pride. They are the only ones who matter when the stakes are so personal.
Whether you are unable to sleep due to job anxiety or are a rising star chomping at the bit, now, more than ever, there is no time to waste.
Barry Lustig is managing partner of Cormorant Group, a Tokyo-based business and executive search strategy consultancy.