Leaders matter in adland’s talent crisis

Grace Blue Global MD and EMEA CEO, Sarah Skinner has authored this thought leadership piece on why leaders are pivotal in attracting, retaining and investing in talent amid adland’s talent crisis.

Much has been written recently about the state of talent across the agency landscape, painting a gloomy picture of high churn, inequality, below sector pay and burn out from the relentless toil of pitches and the need for the sector to evolve and attract new talent. If you read Mark Sweney’s article in The Guardian last week, you probably despaired like me at the picture it painted of an industry once in its pomp, now a scorched wasteland. Life in agency land came across as the last choice for anyone looking for a fulfilling career.

At the start of the year, the Advertising Association’s Talent Taskforce published its findings with the overarching strategy of investing in our talent’s future. Its report highlighted the importance of attracting and retaining the lifeblood of the industry – its people – and the importance of promoting the industry as a career choice. I am a member of that taskforce and enjoyed the many conversations with industry peers about what advertising needs to do to sell itself better as a profession where talented people of all ages and from all backgrounds can truly unleash their creative, strategic, and technical skills and capabilities.

Effort is rightly being channelled into focusing on the entry and mid-level talent, but I find it interesting that there is less attention on the senior executives who are responsible for setting the vision for the future. For the agency sector to evolve, it must invest in talent at all levels, and, for me, this includes its leadership. Arguably, this is the most important place to start.

As executive search professionals who operate at the leadership level, we are witnessing a definite desire from agencies to bring in new skills from other sectors and this is an ambition which should be applauded. However, unlike other industries such as consumer brands, management consultancies or tech platforms, there is still a tendency for agencies to default to hiring talent who have previously worked in an agency at some stage in their career.

I believe we need to see a real change of mindset from agencies to be braver with some of their hiring decisions and in how they set these individuals up for success. Talent from other sectors will bring new thinking and new ideas to the table, but this may also mean that the value in ‘behaving’ as an agency leader is less obvious. Competing sectors take a longer-term view and invest in new skills at the C Suite minus one level, permitting an individual more time to integrate before being promoted to the top roles.

This isn’t common yet in the agency sector and perhaps it should be.

An additional myth that should be debunked is that the agency world is not attractive to those other sectors. It is. It offers variety, agility, creativity, and innovation. The access working at an agency gives to company board rooms to genuinely unlock business transformation is hugely exciting.

The bigger question is around career longevity for senior talent. The 2021 All In Census of our industry showed only 4% of respondents were aged 55-64, compared to 17% of the UK working population. Ironic, when you consider that over 50s consumers are one of the most lucrative and fast-growing markets, yet there is this disconnect between our industry and this key audience for advertisers. If agencies can demonstrate they are committed to retaining and growing senior leaders who bring quantifiable value and experience, they will gain greater access to talent that can help transform their businesses.

The final challenge is there is a perception that senior talent from beyond the agency ecosystem is prohibitively expensive. Again, this is a misjudged view that needs reframing. At the leadership level, talent is much more interested in how they can be rewarded beyond just remuneration. A structured career path and investment in how they can learn through MBAs or NED training are examples of areas that offer significant value, beyond the salary line.

From our experiences of working with many agencies and leaders in this space, the desire and interest is there from agencies to cross pollinate with new skills and thinking and from senior non-agency talent to join this industry. To achieve that requires bravery, a different mindset, and yes, some risk, but the long benefits will be far more valuable.

By investing in their leaders, agencies can future proof and transform for the better.  In combination with the other initiatives around talent, led by the likes of the Advertising Association, ISBA and the IPA, the days of doom and gloom will be over and column inches will be dedicated to what makes adland so brilliant a place to work in.

This article was written for Creativebrief and published on 27 April 2023. For more information please contact marketing@graceblue.com