These are the words of one of the 26 senior UK and US advertising leaders interviewed in the latest Truth About Talent report. A report which does not skim the surface of the significant challenges the industry still faces when it comes to building a diverse and sustainable workforce that can create the most effective creative work.
Far from the ‘great resignation’ being over, the report underlines that believing the war for talent is over is wishful thinking in the current environment. According to the report, 80% of agency leaders admitted they are not ‘really happy’ in their current roles.
Geraldine Gaillemin, Managing Partner of The Blueprint, explains: “Agency leaders have so many things on their plate right now, but the biggest challenge is the business model. It is a procurement race to the bottom and until we fix that there is a genuine pressure on people.”
While talent has been reticent about leaving roles with the latest round of tech redundancies in the spotlight, for the advertising industry at large it remains an employee-driven market. These employees might take longer to leave or need more persuading in the current climate, yet they will leave nonetheless.
Advertising leaders, who are quoted anonymously in the report, point to the fact that talent is ‘always on loan’. A range of comments focus on ensuring creative spirits don’t get swamped with politics and process. As one leader explains: “Creatively minded and commercially savvy individuals are very much in demand. They have more options than they used to have, and the working environment is very important. They want to be away from the politics, have space to do their thing.”
“Leaders will start to vote with their feet if they can’t create change,” Gaillemin explains. For Gareth Moss, Founder of The Blueprint, the happiness deficit facing leaders is a reflection of broader societal challenges and geopolitical uncertainty. He points to research conducted by online marketing company Reboot Online, which polled 2,500 professionals from 29 different industries. The advertising industry was ranked as the fifth-happiest industry in the UK, with 74% job satisfaction. Ranking above advertising and PR were the science and pharmaceutical, creative arts and design, environment and agriculture, and charity and voluntary work industries.
“The lack of happiness levels amongst leaders is endemic of what is going on in business more broadly,” he explains. "It is so difficult because there has been Brexit, the Pandemic, war.” Making the analogy with boxing he notes that at some point ‘you can’t get up again.’ An insight which chimes with the industry epidemic of burnout; a challenge which hits leaders gradually and then all at once. Such challenges can be particularly acute in disciplines such as new business, where the ability to brush yourself off and go again is crucial for success.
“We have had three once in a generation issues to contend with,” Moss explains, adding that advertising, as an industry at the very nub of capitalism, is so often the first thing to be impacted. “The truth is there are still too many agencies pitching for small projects, which drives a downward pressure towards overwhelm,” he adds.
The pressure of overwhelm is particularly acute in an ecosystem in which Generation Z talent has different expectations of the workplace. (Spoiler alert: those expectations don’t include sacrificing every aspect of their lives to work.)
Yet these expectations are driving increased generational tensions in the workplace which are being met by Millennial leaders, who are increasingly acting as a generational bridge. As one agency leader explained: “Geriatric Millennials are the key to the bridge. This group understands Gen Z, they understand the work life balance Gen Z wants. Millennials also value the sacrifices made by Gen X.”
Yet these geriatric Millennials will need support to ensure their ambitions aren’t crushed by conflicting demands leading to burnout. As Gaillemin explains: “There is a squeezed middle in the advertising world who need more support.” She shares that over the previous months, she has had a steady stream of leaders coming to her seeking client side roles in the face of unsustainable workloads. “The key for the squeezed middle is leaders at the top really listening to them and helping them to drive change. Leaders need to listen to their geriatric Millennials,” she adds.
For Moss, the question for agency leaders is one of how you are building and letting a talent ecosystem ‘flow’. A step-change from the stereotyping which has seeped into the broader business narrative when it comes to analysing (and swiftly dismissing or diminishing) the expectations and better boundaries of Generation Z.
Moss adds that what is vital to success is not perpetuating a hierarchy with three distinct generational groups in the workplace. Moss explains: “The key for Millennials is to ensure that they have the opportunity to take on more responsibility to help them get into leadership positions.” He notes it is also important to support them through life transitions like becoming parents and navigating working with a young family.
“All that cultural insight from Generation Z needs to percolate into an agency and Millennial leaders can really bring that into the mix. The key for leaders is to recognise that you can delegate and give more responsibility to Millennials,” he adds.
The Truth About Talent calls time on the industry’s perianal purpose debate with the simple truth that purpose is a non-negotiable for talent and clients alike.
93% of UK and US agency leaders say social impact and status drives talent and client attraction and retention. As one leader explained: “Having B Corp status can be a differentiator for both talent retention and attraction. Increasingly, people feel able to raise their hand if they think we’re not operating according to our values. We don’t use our people to provide our values. Our values are focused on what talent is looking for.”
Gaillemin believes that agencies need to embrace a holistic view of purpose. She explains: “If an agency can’t define its purpose then talent will ask for it. An agency’s purpose is increasingly a hygiene part of the conversation for talent.”
For Moss, the North Star of purpose is key to tackling one of the advertising industry’s biggest challenges: that of differentiation. He explains: “One of the biggest challenges for the industry is distinctiveness.”
He continues: “Culture-fit’ is a word that should never be used. For talent, it is all about having shared values.” Being crystal clear on what those values are and then living up to them not just in a single campaign, but in the day to day workings of an organisation, is the key to building distinctive agency brands.
“With so many agencies now full service it is much harder to be distinctive. The irony is that many agencies don’t know how to be distinctive. They are homogenous groups trying to be all things to all people,” adds Moss.
In this soup of undifferentiated product offerings, a purpose-driven accolade such as B-Corp status can help the meat of an agency's offering and purpose rise to the surface. As Moss explains: “B-Corp has done a brilliant job of both attracting talent and brands to agencies. Everything about B-Corp is distinctive.”
Moss believes pressure on network agencies to go after every given piece of business makes their lack of distinctiveness a particularly acute problem. In contrast, he points to the success of a new breed of independent agencies as evidence of the power of distinctiveness and a clear point of view. He explains: “These new agencies built from the group up are clear about what they stand for; NCA and Uncommon, Special Group, David, Gut. All of these agencies have been set up over the past six years and they all have new models, new approaches to people and are thriving.”
While the industry narrative has maintained a stubborn attachment to a ‘Is WFH killing creativity?’ narrative, the research suggests that progressive leaders are embracing change. 71% of leaders have accepted that hybrid work is now non-negotiable. Work-life fluidity is here to stay.
Yet the truth remains that the pace of agency life remains challenging. The challenge of finding the time and space for creativity in an always-on marketing ecosystem and for making room for decompression in working environments is an overarching theme of the research.
The report reveals that pitching is a major pain point in meeting work and life expectations. As one agency leader explained: “Gen Z employees just don’t feel the compulsion to be hands-on with pitching at all hours of the day on top of their already full schedule of current client work. Pitching is now seen as a side hustle to their core purpose.”
This ‘pitching fatigue’ is aligned with both a lack of time and purpose. Pitches that lack the latter run the risk of burning out talent, rather than supercharging their creative careers.
Moss makes the distinction for pitching for the huge retainers from global brands such as Coca Cola, with scattergun smaller projects worth less than £150,000 with six or seven agencies on the shortlist. “When it comes to pitching, agencies need to have their own distinct purpose, vision, values and culture. They need to know exactly who they are and who they want to work with,” Moss explains. “The fatigue of pitching comes from a lack of shared values,” he adds.
He believes that this problem can be addressed by a ‘back to basics’ approach. One in which agency leaders are clear about the brands they want to work with. Gaillemin adds that pitching needs to be aspirational again and really be able to skyrocket careers and experience. “Change is not about fixing attitudes to pitching, it is about fixing the industry,” she adds.
The Truth About Talent research reveals a bleak picture when it comes to maximising the potential of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in the creative industries. According to the research, only 23% of agency leaders think their agencies are ‘really good’ at DEI strategy and implementation. Tokenism is highlighted as the biggest obstacle to authentic diversity.
“The key issue is inclusion which takes time and money. Rewiring the agency ecosystem is about more than bringing in really senior, usually ethnically diverse people, not giving them the time and investment to ensure they can thrive and stay,” explains Moss.
He believes that many agencies turned to Chief Diversity Officer roles in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. “With agency Chief Diversity Officer it was often a big title with no weapons. They were the first to go in the downturn and they were not at the core of agency decision-making. It was a band-aid and not effective,” he adds.
The research has provided Moss with a nuanced view on why diversity is not one person ‘coming in’ to solve a vast problem. “There is never a plan for talent and there is never a plan for diversity. In advertising, people need to hit the ground running and make an impact quickly. There is no adaptation time.”
This means that diverse talent with huge potential is not given either the opportunity or investment to succeed. In short, the industry is still setting up diverse talent to fail.
Moss points to the success of seeing diversity as a collective endeavour as opposed to an individual job title. “We have seen agencies achieve progress by creating a board from across the company whose job it is to ensure that DEI is being actioned,” he explains. “Success is about the reach of change in an organisation. It is a collective rather than individual endeavour,” he adds.
Yet when it comes to driving meaningful change there are still barriers when it comes to both hiring diverse talent and ensuring that talent is supported to reach their full potential. In short, agencies are still making defensive decisions; hiring for ‘cultural fit’ or on the basis of experience of doing the exact same job before. A reliance on the past which has a disproportionately positive impact on white men, who are statistically more likely to have previously held leadership positions.
“Hiring by committee will never fulfil the potential of diverse talent,” explains Moss, who shares that group think will default to who has had the exact same experience before, rather than who has the untapped potential to do things differently. “When it comes to diverse leadership we are going backwards,” he adds.
The ‘glass cliff’ is also in effect when diverse leadership is not set up to succeed. While a lack of actionable feedback means that the playfield for diverse talent is far from level. As Gaillemin explains “When agencies do have diverse talent in place our research suggests they aren’t getting the same level of feedback. They aren’t being set up to succeed.”
Advertising leaders have weathered a pandemic, a cost of living crisis, a war, the climate emergency amongst other challenges, since the inaugural Truth About Talent survey lifted the lid on the truth of a ‘depressing as shit’ industry.
Yet while the answer as to what has changed in the past 5 years is not nearly enough, the bright spots of the research underline the creative growth that comes from doing the work to do things differently.
As one leader shares: “In 2018, we implemented core working hours from 10am - 4pm. This was quite a polarising conversation in the boardroom. It has had a huge impact on engagement. When you’re here, the agency is packed. That’s rewarding in itself - you can mix with a broader range of people - and the fact the core hours are in place takes away all the stress and decisions you need to make to get to work. You just structure your life around it.”
Another leader shares the positive impact of a ‘game changer’ and ‘life changing’ parental leave policy, underlining how progressive leadership is paying dividends.
Yet, while there has clearly been progress in some corners of the industry, The Blueprint team believe that fundamental issues in the industry’s business models are still breaking talent.
“The biggest problem is the business model,” says Moss, he continues: “Our industry sits on quicksand and agencies are in a standoff with procurement. As a collective it is really important agencies focus on the value they deliver; not hours but outcomes.”
In short, fixing advertising’s hours-based business models is key to driving sustainable working practices and systemic change. As Moss explains: “If our industry can be paid its value it will provide the oxygen to invest in capabilities and talent. At the moment the industry is built on quicksand and agencies are not paid for the value they deliver to clients.”
It’s a situation which Moss describes as contributing to an ecosystem in which agencies are ‘on the edge’. A status quo approach which he believes leaves industry leaders attempting to solve problems with one hand tied behind their back.
With the Truth About Talent revealing once again how a broken business model is breaking talent, the challenge for leaders is not to just cross their fingers and hope for the best, but to commit to making change, even when that change feels impossible.