How do you solve a problem like... junior agency staff getting itchy feet?

Each week, we ask agency experts for their advice on real problems facing today’s marketing practitioners.

It’s been a weird year in work. And it’s been weirder, more stressful and less comfortable if you’re at the beginning of your career. Junior staff were likelier to be furloughed or let go during the pandemic – and less likely to have access to an exquisite home office.

With a competitive talent market emerging as economies restart, many younger agency workers are reconsidering their chosen careers, or at least their current berths. What if the promise of Cannes visits and some bonus pay down the line isn’t worth sticking around for?

We asked readers of The Drum what managers, senior staff and agency bosses should be doing to make their agencies career destinations – and how their businesses are giving younger staff decent reasons to stay.

How do you solve a problem like... junior agency staff getting itchy feet?

Yomi Amoussa, chief operating officer, BBDO West Africa

In my view, this is anchored within generational gaps and the prevailing differences between how millennials and gen Zs engage with the world (work inclusive).

From a West African point of view, how prior generations view and structure workplace environments, rules and career trajectories is growing increasingly out of sync with a multi-hyphenated collective who want to explore and engage with all facets of the world, off the back of growing exposure brought about by globalization and strong Western media influences.

Solution? Organizations will have to make the hard decision of either evolving to accommodate this group or risk the sustained behavior of feet ‘itchiness’. Collaboration to create ‘with’ rather than ‘for’ this group will be critical for the evolution of sustainable systems that will aid retention.

Will Barren, group marketing communications executive and co-chair of M&C Saatchi Group Juniors Network, M&C Saatchi

While a fun work environment is important, office parties and Cannes visits feel a million miles away, so instead agencies must become famous for creating fulfilling, flexible environments with proactive management. The pandemic has forever diminished opportunities for chance interaction. As a manager, if you’re not engaging frequently, your junior staff can start to feel detached.

So make time for one-on-ones. Keep them updated on their progress. Train them. Make them aware of new opportunities. We know that during the pandemic junior staff have felt less able to voice ideas, and less valued with less growth potential – but working more. 55% of 18-25-year-olds are considering leaving their job right now. If you treat your staff like workhorses then they will eventually bolt.

Sally Laycock, chief executive officer, Incubeta UK

Attitudes towards work have changed over the course of the pandemic and junior members of staff expect more from their employers following a year of uncertainty. As the job market opens up and people begin to look around, agencies need to be providing support to their ‘up and comers’ by investing in their career and skills. With one-third of 18-24-year-olds losing work due to the pandemic, agencies need to support juniors with internal and external training, mental health initiatives and flexible working practices. Additionally, supporting social causes such as LGBT+ communities, DEI and sustainability generate loyalty from the next generation.

Emma Greenaway, senior client partner, Cult LDN + NYC

The incentives need to change. Long gone are the days when a carrot works – let alone one that feels like it’s five years away. Ensuring someone is learning, being pushed and owning projects is the way forward. Pull them into the meeting (even if it’s on Zoom), let them learn by doing, then trust that they are capable of leading something and give them the opportunity to stumble. Are we so caught up in our own egos that only perfect will do? Much more importantly though, give them a voice and then listen and learn from them, as it goes both ways. They are the audience most brands want to tap into – ask them, what do you think?

Gary Kopervas, senior vice-president of brand strategy, story design and innovation, 20nine

Everything we learned, even before the pandemic, told us that junior staffers want to feel their work is creating a positive impact in the world. They want to make a difference. We can’t guarantee every client is out to save the world, but juniors need to know they’re creating something of worth and their time is well spent. Studies show that companies that can articulate a clear sense of purpose are more likely to attract and retain top talent. Luxe perks like trips to Cannes or promises of future financial bumps aren’t enough. Frankly, they’re not the motivators they used to be.

Camilla Sovik, junior creative, Checkland Kindleysides

It’s my third year in the industry, but what a time to be a part of it. Here’s my advice on behalf of juniors everywhere. Show us we’re valued. Never underestimate the value of recognition for juniors, especially through tough times.

Don’t just put us on the banner. Bring us into the whole project and let us learn. I’ve just planned and executed a Covid-safe launch shoot. We’re resilient.

Uncertainty is our main worry. Be human, keep structures flat, be approachable. Even through furlough I felt supported.

Make agencies career destinations. You say you want people with ideas, so don’t be stagnant. Give us progression. Being true to this is more important than a Cannes trip.

James Ray, chief executive officer, Armadillo

Are we now working at home or living at work? This is a particularly pertinent question for juniors, who’ve been affected more than most, as we creep back to some kind of normality in the industry.

We’ve recruited for a range of junior positions and we’ve found that whoever’s managing the process, they need to work from an agreed core set of questions and assessment criteria. And in turn, we need to provide junior candidates with a really clear understanding of the role and what will be involved. Particularly the pace of the industry, which hasn’t decelerated during the pandemic.

Our investment in external business coaching for everyone has been invaluable for us, giving junior staff access to support and guidance that’s usually reserved for seniors. Feedback from the last six months has been great, and it’s definitely something we’ll continue.

Les Marshall, head of talent and leadership, Dentsu

It’s certainly a hot market right now, but good people will always be on the lookout for enticing opportunities. That’s why solutions to talent attrition have to be long-term and systemic, focused on creating a culture that people want to be a part of. Much of this comes back to our people leaders, and ensuring that they share feedback, show appreciation and are equipped to have good, open conversations about career development.

It’s also about empowerment – for individuals in defining for themselves how they can work most effectively, and for leaders in taking decisions that are going to support their people’s career goals. Enabling people to connect with a company’s broader purpose (for example, social impact or DEI) is also crucial in helping people find meaning in what they do, beyond their day-to-day work.

Dan Owen, chief executive officer, The Armstrong Partnership

Joining any company is daunting, especially in one of your first roles. Working remotely, it has been difficult for juniors to build a rapport and confidence with colleagues, as well as see and hear how things are done. Now it’s even more important to encourage a culture of inclusion so everyone’s involved in discussions.

We’ve used lockdown to our advantage, investing in a creative space that will unite the team. It’s important all people are shown encouragement, clear career progression and development.

Most creative people thrive together, so we must reassure new talent that having a home where we can collaborate and learn from each other will support their growth and wellbeing.

Leigh Ober, global chief people officer, Rapp

Given the way the pandemic forever changed our industry landscape and ways of working, we’ve had to pivot our traditional assumptions about success, work commitment and career ownership to meet our employees’ needs – and that’s an ongoing process. We’re learning as each day evolves, and working to adapt to what our people need and want in this emerging world. It’s a stressful time and people are craving recognition, influence and growth – and they deserve to get it.

As managers/employers, it’s up to us to take more responsibility for individual fulfillment. Firstly, find out what fills their bucket and motivates them – then create opportunities so they can get that experience. Secondly seek out, and be open to, their ideas, advice and feedback to improve our own teams, leadership and agency. Finally, enable them to move to new roles, even if it’s painful for you to lose that talent on your team.

Parry Jones, deputy chief executive, What’s Possible Group

Build a business you are proud of. Every three months we ask our people: how proud are you to work for the What’s Possible Group?

It is a simple question that is core to how we judge our success. No KPI is more important. The question is deliberately vague. You can be proud of the work, your clients, how you treat people, your approach to the environment, diversity, inclusion, community, wellness, innovation, learning – or simply the impact you make.

Work really hard to build a business you are proud to work in. And then find people who share your passion.

If you’re an agency expert and would like to join in with future debates, just email me at sam.bradley[@]thedrum.com.