Loss of junior talent is a known problem in the agency world. But there is a growing realisation among agency leaders that the phenomenon is spreading to the upper ranks.
It’s common for less experienced staff to be looking for new opportunities as they climb the career ladder – and the talent crunch among juniors has meant they are in demand and posts are filled.
But for agency staff at a more senior level, there is an increasing sense that their level of expertise is too costly to be replaced, leading to a steady seepage of hard-won experience and expertise across the industry.
Emma Love, founding partner at recruiters The Great and the Good, has been sourcing adland talent for the past 20 years. “Unusually, there’s heaps of senior talent on the market and many others looking around, wanting to move but finding nowhere to feasibly go. Roles are harder to fill as salaries are being squeezed,” she says.
Senior staff are expensive
As agencies are looking to balance their finances, staff on higher salaries can be targeted for review, while bans on recruitment can make problems worse, Love says.
“Senior people, often at managing partner-type level, suddenly aren't billable against specific clients and find themselves very exposed. When agencies look to make cost savings, they are often the first to go,” she adds.
External hiring freezes are already in place at many of the networks, she says, pointing to the ongoing “slow, painful economic crash”.
For Simon Davis, founder and chief executive of Walk-In Media, which is owned by MSQ, the economic problems are compounding an issue that has been ongoing at the biggest holding companies for the past decade.
“The relentless prioritisation of profit and margin at the big holding companies is being delivered by the centralisation and consolidation of senior talent, which has reduced the number of senior positions required across their organisations,” he says.
Meanwhile, when agencies are able to hire, Love says many senior roles – including those at business director level – are being offered only as fixed-term contracts rather than permanent positions.
That is often unappealing for people with financial responsibilities: “It may reduce the official permanent headcount, but in terms of people committing to your business for the long term, it's not a great people strategy, and not great for agency culture,” she adds.
Forde has since co-founded The Zoo London
, which aims to fill the seniority gap by providing agencies with “fractional consultancy” – specialist consultants who work on a contract basis.
“It's not that agencies don't want senior expertise, but they can't make it work on a full-time basis. Fractional consultancy is a win for the talent, who get work-life balance, and to choose their projects. It’s a win for the agency because it delivers real financial benefits as well as fresh thinking and different capabilities,” Forde says.
The ‘juniorisation’ of agencies
To fill senior roles, agencies are often promoting younger employees internally “in order to reduce salary burden”, Love says.
Shops that choose to recruit from the next level down risk creating “hollowed-out agency brands,” Davis warns.
“These agencies are light on experienced people for junior colleagues to learn from, and light on service for clients as they get pushed down the line of seniority.”
Kevin Chesters, an independent consultant who previously worked at the now closed consultancy at Habour Collective
, says the age profile of agencies is becoming too young as a result – meaning clients are turning to consultancies instead for the high-level expertise they require.
Chesters, who is a former chief strategy officer at Ogilvy & Mather London (now Ogilvy UK), says there is “a juniorisation of agencies – so they have their lunch eaten by consultancies with proper grown-ups with business experience to pass on. Most clients I know don’t respect their advertising agency to give them proper business advice. Why would they?”
While it is “theoretically great” to give opportunities for younger staff to shine, it should only be done for the right reasons, he adds.
“Most often it is penny-pinching from holding companies trying to do things on the cheap to protect margin as the fees come down. And it isn’t great to over-promote people into roles they don’t have the maturity or experience to do, because it’ll just set people up to fail,” Chesters says.
Adland wellbeing charity Nabs says a lack of support for inexperienced candidates has a wider impact on the team.
Uzma Afridi, principal business psychologist at the organisation, says: “Promotion without support is not sustainable. If a team leader is feeling worried, overwhelmed, or stressed, that will affect their work and management style, which will affect their team members too. Supporting a manager into a new role properly can make all the difference between a thriving team and a struggling team.”
Nabs statistics show that mental health challenges are on the rise in the industry. In the first three months of 2023, Nabs experienced a 100% increase in demand year-on-year for its support services, with mental health calls now accounting for more than half of all emotional support calls it receives.
However, industry leaders at holding companies stress that a “sensitive, nuanced discussion” takes place before making any restructuring decisions.
Xavier Rees, UK group chief executive of Havas Creative and chair of the IPA Talent Leadership Group, says: “The biggest danger for agencies, and the most frustrating thing for their people, is an urge to protect senior roles at all costs – and those which go down this route will end up with bloated management teams out of proportion to their wider business. This is unsustainable and quickly becomes a burden.
“We see this happening less and less – but equally, nor do I think agencies are cutting senior roles at the expense of more junior people. It’s a sensitive, nuanced discussion, and certainly not one-size-fits-all. What’s right for one agency won’t necessarily be right for another.”
But where there are significant changes in the make-up of agency teams, clients are taking note, according to Adam Foley, chief executive of the7stars-backed media shop Bountiful Cow.
“I’ve heard from a few people in the pitch intermediary world that clients…[have] become dissatisfied with too-junior teams at their current agencies.”
Some marketers can be frustrated if the senior staff they meet at the pitch are no longer available to them later on when they are working with the winning agency.
Agencies have long faced the challenge of striking the balance between the presence of senior leadership and the core day-to-day agency team during the pitch.
Hannah Astill, lead consultant, media practice, at intermediary AAR, says clients want to meet the team at pitch who will be on the account long-term.
There is an “increasing pressure to field the team [that] brands will be buying and working with on a regular basis”, she says. Closing this leadership gap is one of the barriers AAR is addressing with the launch of its No Bullsh*t Leadership course
, she adds.
From a brand’s point of view, senior talent departures make it more necessary for marketers to shop around to maintain “access to gurus”, Zoe Harris, chief marketing officer at On the Beach, says.
“At a time when pitches are increasingly difficult to run and resource, holding on to people who have got a fair few of the ‘been there, done that’ T-shirts in their drawer will be ever more important in determining which agencies will be the winners in the next few years,” she explains.
But Claire Hollands, UK chief executive of Interpublic-owned MullenLowe, is more pragmatic. “The competitive nature of pitches, combined with the investment they take, means agencies must put forward their A-team. For us, this is a combination of our senior management and our best people – where possible casting against the pitch brief. With that approach, clients get the best out of the agency and the biggest value add to their brief. Will that full team work on the business? Possibly not,” she says.
Keeping senior staff pays dividends
In general, more senior leaders are “stepping off the conveyor belt” for a variety of reasons, including to take jobs in consultancy, private equity, or a portfolio life, Chesters says.
“Agencies don’t exactly make it attractive to stay,” he says. “The reality for 99% of senior execs is an endless stress of being expected to do more with hugely expanding scopes of work and reduced fees. For a senior planner, it becomes a bit tedious to spend your days re-explaining The Long and the Short of It to a client whose ‘CEO doesn’t believe in brand’ once every three weeks.”
So what can be done to retain senior talent? Chesters is unequivocal: “Pay a decent wage, create conditions that are motivating and interesting, and most of all invest some proper money in learning.
“It costs 400% more to hire someone than retain them, and companies with a learning culture have a 30-50% higher retention rate. So I’d start here. Why should people want to stay at your company?
"I’m astonished more industry leaders – rather than bleating about why senior (or junior) talent is leaving – don’t turn the question around and ask themselves… 'What possible reason have I given them to stay?’”