Mike Fromowitz
Feb 20, 2015

What the ad industry can do to stop the exodus of their best talents

What do advertising people have in common with construction workers, taxi drivers, textile machine operators and people who operate drilling machines? They’re all working in areas where jobs are disappearing the fastest. Fact is the advertising industry loses more jobs than any other industry having shed 65% of all jobs over the past decade, according to the Wall Street Journal.

What the ad industry can do to stop the exodus of their best talents

Asia has always been a difficult place to retain top advertising agency talent. Some of the best people in the ad business routinely hop from agency to agency, spending only a few years in one place, then jump ship in search of greener pastures. When I was getting into the industry, I was told that it would be common, expected even, to bounce from agency to agency every two years or so during our careers. It was the way things were done.

Today, ad agencies have an even more difficult time in getting good people to commit to their jobs for the long run. Agency people are consistently seeking satisfaction elsewhere with some moving over to the client side or joining design and production houses. Others are leaving the business altogether. Few things in business are as costly and disruptive as unexpected talent departures.

Remember that old adage, “Advertising is the most fun you can have with your clothes on”? Well, the times have certainly changed, and based on a survey by US ad agency Deutsch working in conjunction with the American Association of Advertising Agencies, 25 percent of advertising people don’t love the business they’re in. 67 percent complained that it’s getting harder and harder to do great creative than it used to be.

Creativity used to be put on a pedestal, but that isn’t the case these days as creative people are seen by many clients and even more so by ad agency management as a commodity. When asked about advertising in general, many of those creative people surveyed noted that the industry isn’t such a creative place to be these days. Negativity is everywhere in the industry. When asked the names of the most creative companies, ad agencies weren’t even mentioned. Apple was. And so was Google.

What do ad agencies need to do about this?

Advertising has been and should be a wonderful and fulfilling career choice. During my several years in Asia, I had the opportunity to work in and build a few agency environments that were creatively inspiring. I also worked in a few agencies that had toxic environments. Surprisingly, they happened to have been the same places, only 12-18 months apart. My colleagues and I were successful because we helped to build ‘creative’ agencies that attracted the best talents in the industry. Fact is, your agency can be creative too, but you have to want it to be a ‘creative’ agency.

It’s for this very reason that I believe our industry needs to get serious about inspiring employees and keeping them happy. As a service business it’s really our people that we sell.

David Ogilvy once wrote: "Superior service to our clients depends on making the most of our people. Give them challenging opportunities, recognition for achievement, job enrichment and the maximum responsibility. Treat them as grown-ups - and they will grow up. Help them in difficulty. Be affectionate and human."

He also said: “Some of our people spend their entire working lives in Ogilvy. We try to make it a stimulating and happy experience. We put this first, believing that superior service to our clients depends on the high morale of our men and women.”

So what can advertising agencies do to retain their staff? You have to have a great culture that cares about people. You have to have an integrated offering and a modern view on marketing communications that people will rally around. You need to understand what drives creative people. What is it that gives them job satisfaction? You need to provide a good working environment that allows them options to grow their careers, and most importantly, keep them stimulated.

Agencies need leadership, not deadweights.

Passion is contagious. But there’s nothing more brutal than watching mediocre people run an ad agency. In the blink of an eye second-rate leadership can destroy morale, work and confidence in the business. Smart agency management aligns their employee passions with their firms goals and aspirations. Human nature makes it difficult to walk away from areas of passion. If you fail to lead you’ll unknowingly be encouraging employees to seek their passions and leadership elsewhere.

Don’t let your Creative Director work on the most exciting projects and leave the rest to juniors.

Creative people don’t like boredom. If you don’t challenge people’s minds, they’ll leave you for someone/someplace that will. Don’t hog all the best work for yourself. In fact, you should be giving your creative people work they will enjoy doing and want to prove themselves on. What’s the use in having a thoroughbred racehorse if you don’t let them run? Talented people have good thoughts, ideas, insights, and observations. If you don’t take the time to listen to their ideas, I can guarantee you someone else will.

By giving them some bigger challenges, you will instill a sense of pride and responsibility in your younger talent. Creative people at all levels want to be valued and actively contribute to making the agency brilliant. So give them real, manageable, achievable projects with the right level of responsibility. Allow them to raise their profile and make themselves famous to the wider industry. They’re looking for inspiration, not just a set of tasks, so think of ways to inspire them above and beyond the day to day work requirements.

Give staff the credit.

CEOs and their Creative Directors need to promote some of their more junior people who actually do work hard on projects and meet deadlines. Sending them a personal “thank you’” email is great but not enough. Do the right thing. If you fail to care about people at an emotional level, they’ll eventually leave you regardless of how much you pay them. The best leaders don’t take credit – they give it. Failing to recognize the contributions of others is just as good as asking them to leave. Remember, your most talented performers always have options and will find other employment.

Stop taking on projects where there’s not enough time or budget to do them well.

Some managers of agencies think that working overtime and often into the wee-hours of the night is just the agency way of life. That’s bollocks. What it is, is bad management. You need to stop selling clients on things that can’t be completed unless your staff works themselves to death. Unrealistic deadlines that you promised a client is a strain on relationships, family lives, health, and for what? So a hair shampoo or bathroom tissue can get more brand awareness?

This is advertising we’re talking about, not some higher calling. It’s up to agencies to set responsible, realistic deadlines for clients so that people can do their best work and feel good about it. When fear becomes the driving force ( e.g.: the fear of missing a deadline or disappointing a client), creatives begin churning out work and lose passion.

Build your agency’s reputation

Your agency reputation (your ‘brand’) needs to be in good working order to attract the best talent. A highly regarded agency’s profile is critical for attracting creative talent. If you’re not living by what you promise, or not demonstrating the qualities and values that resonate with creative people, they’re unlikely to give your agency a second look.

Make sure all your best work is noted and recognized by the newspapers, magazines and online. I think it was Maurice Saatchi who once noted that 50% of your agency’s reputation is based on the ads you produce and 50% on how you PR it.


Mike Fromowitz
Partner, Chief Creative Officer
Ethnicity Multicultural marketing + Advertising Inc.

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