Will Your Agency Become a Revolving Door?
By Mike Carlton

About a third of agency employees plan to quit their current job during the next twelve months.
Talented, committed staffers are strategically more important than clients or immediate profits.

Starbuck’s Baristas

It was a revelation. A Starbuck’s barista gets more initial training than the typical advertising agency employee receives in a year. And about a third of agency employees plan to quit their current job during the next twelve months.

This sobering information is from a study that was presented at a recent American Association of Advertising Agencies meeting. Nancy Hill, president of the 4As is reported to have said, “I knew it was bad. But I didn’t know it was this bad.”

Martin Sorrell, CEO of WPP Group, which has over 145,000 agency employees, was even harsher. He called it “criminal neglect.”

More Scary Numbers

The study of 3,000 agency employees also discovered that 70% of them would return a recruiter’s call. And almost all of them (96%) felt they could easily get another job as the economy improves.

Also reported was that the average training time for each agency employee is about 16 hours a year. And historically agencies have only spent about $1,000 on this. Ten years ago about half of all agencies provided some form of employee mentoring. But the Great Recession killed much of that activity.

In a separate study, MetLife found that employees across the board have grown more dissatisfied and disloyal. Confirming the 4As information, MetLife’s research shows that thirty some percent of employees hope to be working somewhere else within the coming year.

A Big Disconnect

The past few years have taken a big toll. According to the American Psychological Association employee moral fell and stress levels skyrocketed as employers, bent on cutting costs, stopped raises, eliminated bonuses and asked their people to pick up the slack left by laid-off colleagues.

Yet many employers don’t recognize the magnitude of the festering problem. And assume that good employees continue to be loyal. So it is no wonder they’re shocked and surprised when folks quit. Usually on short notice.

And the problems have just begun. Many agencies will see their talent churning like a revolving door. This lack of staffing stability will surely cost agencies dearly as the job market improves.

Personal Hurt

In this environment it is very easy for agency leaders to feel somehow betrayed when valuable employees leave. And that is understandable. The agency has kept them employed during the hard times. And now, when things are just starting to look up, those very folks choose to bail out. Leaving the agency with disruption and replacement expense. Not to mention the angst clients feel when their agency talent changes.

Yet agency management harboring ill feelings is not constructive.

The Other Point of View

Clearly, what agency employees see, and what they have experienced, is a quite different picture.

On a macro scale, the advertising agency industry has recovered to about the place it was in 2008. Revenue is climbing again and profits are improving. Yet this is being accomplished with something like 20% fewer employees.

Employees realize that productivity is up significantly. And that is at least partially due to their extra efforts. Yet their paychecks don’t show much increase. And more importantly, they don’t feel appreciated for the contribution they have been making. So they feel betrayed, too. And they know that as the economy improves the demand for their talents will surely increase.

Perfect conditions for those seeking greener pastures.

The Best Agency People

At their core, good agencies are idea driven. They attract people who are also idea driven. And frequently very bright. And often quite talented. The intellectual challenge and sheer fun of conceiving and developing powerful, market-shaping new ideas is the primary force that draws them to agencies.

Historically, junior and mid-range agency people have accepted less pay than they could command elsewhere just to have the opportunity to actively participate in an idea-charged environment.

They will accept challenging trench work in the early years in exchange for the opportunity to grow.

They recognize that they must do some routine stuff in order to pay their dues. But when they are left to fend for themselves and learn on their own they feel frustrated and unappreciated. Particularly if they are caught up in turning out repetitive stuff on a continuing basis with diminished opportunity for using their full intellectual power.

The best ones quickly become bored.

In fact there’s a saying that you can easily spot a good agency person by their low threshold of boredom.


During the recent bad years many good agency people picked up the pace and cranked out lots of billable stuff. Now, with the economy in a nascent recovery, the good ones want to shift their work balance to issues that are more intellectually challenging. And accelerate their professional growth. As well as feeling appreciated for their contribution to the agency’s success.

If their agency doesn’t accommodate that, discontent builds.

As the job market opens up, and a talent shortage naturally builds, their discontent can lead to a staffing churn that no agency can afford. Becoming a revolving door is extraordinarily expensive.

Addressing the Issue

There is no question that today, attraction, retention and growth of junior and mid-level agency talent has become a top priority.

Here are some thoughts that may help in proactively addressing the issue:

1. Leadership
Good people value good leadership. They like to win. And good leadership is different from good management. It has been said that leadership is about doing the right things and management is about doing things right. Big difference.

The best agency talent is looking to agency leaders to bring greater balance into their work lives. Most good people recognize the economic need to produce a high volume of stuff. And, they’re happy to do it if the work balance is right.

But if they feel that management is preoccupied with the financial numbers and just views them as some interchangeable production tool, then they are probably already packing their bags to leave.

Protecting and enhancing the agency’s investment in them requires leaders that overtly value their intellectual contribution. Then clearly and consistently articulate that position.

And make sure that leadership deeds are in sync with leadership words.

2. Growth
The unspoken compact between a talented person and her employer is simple; “I’ll help you become more successful if you help me become more successful.” And, success to ambitious young individuals primarily translates to professional growth.

Good people understand that they must continually grow their skills to achieve the financial and psychic rewards they desire. They will usually put up with short-term frustrations if they feel they are moving forward. And that their employer, in turn, expects them to move forward.

They fear getting stuck in a dead-end job. And are turned-off when they perceive that their leaders are letting that happen to them.

Leaders that continually provide growth opportunities for their people, and demand that their people do in fact grow, create a very positive bond.

3. Challenge
A separate dimension of growth is challenge. No one ever knows what his true capabilities are. All we know is that each of us is capable of much more than we have ever accomplished.

We also know that reaching outside our comfort zone can, and often does, lead to failure. But once in a while it can lead to stunning success. This risk/reward dilemma is played out every day for each of us.

Good agency people expect to work in an environment that celebrates challenge. And encourages people to experiment with notions that exceed conventional thinking. An environment that doesn’t punish failure while seeking a new way, but rather recognizes that failure is part of the price of success. While they may not articulate it directly, good agency people want to be continually nudged out of their comfort zone. Agency leaders that don't do this underestimate the ultimate capabilities of their people and permit a mentality of mediocrity to flourish.

4. Mentoring
While there is currently a lot of talk about mentoring, it is still vastly misunderstood. Most of today’s better agency leaders had excellent mentors when they were younger. There were no formal mentoring programs then. The selfless mentors just intuitively nurtured their young charges. Yet today it seems as if little time is dedicated to passing the gifts today’s leaders received on to the next generation.

At its core, mentoring is an act of unconditional love. It is driven by many of the same instincts as parenting. And as such, it is very intimate, personal and long-term. It stems from the desire to see the junior develop his maximum skill potential. And, that result alone is the reward for the mentor.

So, if you can be a good parent, you can probably be a good mentor. But, only if you want to be. And are willing to contribute the time and attention necessary.

Young agency people want and appreciate good mentoring. And will go where they can get it, even if that means a short-term financial sacrifice.

5. Coaching
Mentoring and coaching are different. Coaching is less personal, more structured and more task driven. And it is frequently team oriented.

Coaching is skewed toward accomplishing specific and immediate tactical work related objectives. Its measurements of success are usually apparent quite quickly.

A group of individuals, each with strong and complementary skill sets, do not automatically coalesce into a strong team. It takes skilled coaching to weld the individual capabilities into cohesive synchronized team performance.

Leaders who expect teamwork to happen automatically are usually disillusioned by the results. Coaching doesn’t work on autopilot.

And good people expect leaders to provide the coaching necessary for their team to succeed.

6. Training
All good professionals need the intellectual stimulation of focused craft skill training. Most of the more traditional professions like, medicine, law, accounting, architecture, etc., have industry standards for continuing education.

This training can take many forms. Off site seminars. On line programs. In house classes. Regular participation in these kinds of programs assures that practitioner skills are continuously maintained at high professional levels.

Unfortunately, rigorous training processes are not structurally embedded in the advertising agency industry. Yet advertising practitioners have every bit as much need for continuing education as their professional brethren.

During the past few years, one of the first expense items to be cut in many agencies was the staff training budget. But the reduction or elimination of these programs has in no way diminished the training needs of good people, or their expectation of it.

Or the value it brings to them and their agency.

7. Networking
Association with peers is important for good agency people. Feelings about their individual skills and capabilities are largely shaped by colleague opinions. Not only within their agency, but more importantly, in the general advertising community.

Good agency people like to network. And recognize the benefits from it.

Now, from agency management’s standpoint, networking can be a two edged sword. Staffers can learn a great deal about the craft and the business from others within the advertising community that will benefit their agency. But, networking can also increase their marketability and chance of becoming known by someone who may offer them a better job.

Because of the cost and the risk of losing good people, many agencies have cut back on paying for, or even allowing time for, staff networking activities.

Yet on balance, encouraging and supporting networking is probably in a good agency’s best interest. Particularly if their people are happy and proud of their shop they can spontaneously become great evangelists for their organization. And in the process make the attraction of additional talent easier.

8. Variety
Repetitive tasks are boring. They put the intellect to sleep. Good agency people get bored quickly. And the smart ones won’t tolerate it.

If bored, they frequently invent mental activities to overcome that boredom. Sometimes those self-invented activities are beneficial to the agency. Sometimes not.

It is not easy for agency leadership to provide continuing variety in the work of bright agency talent. It takes a lot of proactive attention to keep from sliding into a gray dullness. Planned rotation of responsibilities in a way that maximizes talent need for variety while minimizing the discomfort of continuing change takes real leadership thought and care.

Routine tasks and activities are less disruptive. More efficient. And less messy. But allowing routine to create boredom in skilled talent carries with it a very high price.

When asked why they changed jobs, most agency people cite an increase in variety (change of work responsibilities) as a principal reason.

9. Respect
When work production is valued over intellectual contribution respect for the individual diminishes. This is a simple fact. The person turning out stuff is viewed differently from the person creating important ideas.

There is a machine-like quality to an economically driven stuff producer. They know it. And management knows it. And good agency people do not like being thought of in that context. It feels kind of like being an interchangeable cog in a big, impersonal mechanism. Not fun. Not enjoyable.

Good agency people want to be respected for their intellectual contributions and the market results those ideas deliver. These are not always easily measured in immediate units of output or dollars billed.

But they understand that producing things is key to the economic welfare of their agency. So when they are in a period of grinding out stuff their leaders must continue to celebrate their intellectual contribution.

10. Money
You’ll note that this is last on the list. Not that it is unimportant. Compensation is very important. But, it is not the first priority of good agency people.

What they are paid is an outward sign of the value of the contribution they are making to the agency and its clients. They expect that pay to be a fair reflection of that value.

Their compensation is kind of a personal score card of how well the market values them, and thus has great emotional meaning.

But they fully understand that without the intangible psychic benefits of their job, money alone would be insufficient.

It is not unusual for compensation consultants from more mundane industries to be perplexed at how good agency people view the psychic vs. monetary benefits of their jobs. And the overall importance placed on something as simple as fun.

Money is always important. But never underestimate psychic rewards.

The Revolving Door

Talent is what drives advertising agencies. Talented, committed staffers are strategically more important than clients or immediate profits.

This is important so let me say it again.

Talented, committed staffers are strategically more important than clients or immediate profits.

Staff talent is what differentiates each agency in the marketplace. And what drives business success.

And strategically, there is little that can be more damaging to an agency than becoming a revolving door for talented people. Yet it appears that many agencies are heading that direction. Not a pretty picture.

If Not Now, When?

Recently an agency leader was talking with me about a number of their bright young account executives. And how energetic and productive they are. Yet he went on to acknowledge that they desperately need training and mentoring.

I suggested that he immediately enroll them in a training program. His response was an eye-opener. He said, “That's a good idea, but right now they are so busy that the agency cannot do without them for the few days initial training would take. But we’d like to train them later.”

All I could silently wonder was, “Would they even be around later?”

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