Steve Henry on how digital can address advertising's staff crisis

By Steve Henry | co-founder

June 16, 2015 | 6 min read

What's the biggest problem facing advertising?

We can probably all nominate different candidates for this – but I'd like to draw your attention to a major one. A people crisis.

Steve Henry

A recent study found that the industry’s staff turnover rate was 30 per cent – 10 per cent higher than the national average. There was a famous blog a couple of years ago entitled "Why Great People Are Leaving Your Crappy Agency" or words to that effect. Now we can see that those words weren't empty ones.

This talent churn is estimated to cost the industry £184 million every year – and I don't just mean in headhunter fees. Churn is disruptive. It takes on average 21 weeks for a senior replacement to get to grips with a new role.

The problem starts with those few truly digitally proficient members of your agency. They’re the new superstars of the marcomms world, highly valuable commodities who get plenty of enticing offers.

As I said in a speech recently: if you want to hire creative technologists, good luck. They're rarer than the gold dust found in a hen's rear molar, they probably want to work freelance within half a mile radius of the Tea Building, and they may well be Swedish.

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But actually a bigger problem isn't getting those superstars, but creating a company where everybody else can talk to them.

It's as if the ad industry has been saying: "The internet provides this incredible creative and commercial opportunity – and although most of the people here can't write a single line of code, that’s fine. We've got those five guys over there in the corner who get it.”

That's a recipe for ‘sleepless-night’ levels of stress.

The phrase “We’re a truly digital agency” is bandied around in client pitches, whereas in reality most ad folk don't even know what code is. But code underlines everything in the digital world.

It's time we stopped nominating other people as our guides through the virtual landscape and learnt the equivalent of being able to order a beer abroad by understanding the basics of code. That way our creative output will naturally improve as we better understand technology’s possibilities and boundaries.

You can’t get there by simply replacing your old staff with new digital whiz kids. Those people are already working at Google. Google can afford a level of compensation and company culture which is simply unmatchable by ad agencies. In the next five years, multinational conglomerates will set the bar even higher. If agencies are to recognise digital’s potential and address their staff turnover rates, they must unlock the potential in talent already within their organisations.

A big issue here is anxiety about technology. There’s good reason behind this anxiety – like every decent sci-fi villain over the last 50 years, technology is inhuman, ever-changing and incredibly powerful. But there’s a broad scale between technophobe and technophile, and moving someone along the scale means transforming anxiety into excitement.

I’m old enough to remember when desktop computers first arrived in the office. At the time I remember thinking “They’ve put a toy on my desk”. I was excited to get to grips with it because it appeared fun.

So don’t rely on handing staff textbooks as they leave for the night and asking for a cover-to-cover analysis by the next morning. You have to make this fun!

Also explain your objectives to staff. You’re not trying to turn advertising execs into developers. You’re not training them in code because you want them to forge a new career in website development. You’re training them to think in a modern way.

Adapt your entire staff and you’ll find your business will flourish. You’ll no longer depend on the few people in your office who can build a website (and who can throw a spanner in your quarterly plans by accepting an exciting new role at Google).

More importantly, your people will feel valued and valuable. They’ll come equipped to creative meetings with that extra dimension of thinking. And in a time when people can feel out of touch at virtually any age, you’re potentially extending careers by decades. The majority of people will appreciate the investment in training and will reciprocate that loyalty.

Google’s Eric Schmidt said: "For most people on Earth, the digital revolution hasn't even started yet. Within the next 10 years, all that will change." The race for digitally literate staff will only heat up. Make sure you retain your existing talent by investing in their future – and attract new talent by demonstrating that you really 'get it'.

It's not as scary as you think.

In fact, it can be easy, empowering and fun!

Steve Henry is co-founder of Decoded and was a founder and creative partner of the advertising agency HHCL


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