The marketing industry is facing a brain drain – here’s how to fix it

The Promotion Fix is a​n ​exclusive biweekly column for The Drum from Samuel Scott, a global keynote marketing speaker who is a former journalist, newspaper editor, and director of marketing and communications in the high-tech industry. Follow him @samueljscott.

Photo by Jj Mendez on Unsplash

Following Sir Martin Sorrell’s departure from WPP and Mark Read’s appointment as the new chief executive, most discussion has focused on Sorrell’s new company and Read’s vision for the old one. But one issue has gone unmentioned.

“Great ideas come from great people,” Read said during a recent earnings call. “Great strategies come from great people. And so while our technology is part of our offer, even great technology is designed by great people. So, I think we really need to make WPP more than ever a destination for the best talent in the world.”

Every business wants to attract the smartest people. But Read’s statement may specifically refer to a reported labour crisis at WPP. New York University marketing professor Scott Galloway discussed the situation in his 2017 bestseller The Four: The Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google.

“Some 2,000 of its former employees have migrated to Facebook or Google,” he wrote. “By comparison, only 124 former Facebook or Google peeps left to go work at WPP. Consider the reverse migrants –124 that went back to WPP. Many of them, it turns out, had only interned at Facebook or Google and went to WPP when they weren’t extended offers in Palo Alto or Mountainside. The ad world today is increasingly run by the leftovers.”

It does not stop at WPP. To investigate the industry-wide brain drain, I interviewed senior executives at agencies, universities, and trade organisations throughout the world as well as young marketers in the daily trenches. (A WPP spokesperson said Read was unavailable for comment.)

Most discussed the same causes. Agency staffers are underpaid, overworked, and tempted by dreams of startup riches. New graduates are grabbed by tech companies that have head starts in on-campus recruiting. Students see marketing as unprofessional snake oil. This column will explore these issues.

Why agencies have trouble keeping talent

In the agency world, the pay is low, the conditions are bad, and the tech world is like a mythological siren who lures people away with promises of sexy technology and high salaries.

“The industry doesn't have the cultural caché it once did, nor does it present a more fun counterpoint to other professional services beyond the trappings of ping-pong tables and getting to wear sneakers,” Faris Yakob, founder of the nomadic consultancy Genius Steals, said. “The hours are long, the perks are gone, and the salaries are small except for the most senior staff – but only 5% of people in agencies are over 50, so most agency folk won't ever get there.”

“I read over some job descriptions which want marketers with five years of experience who can perform a village of activities with no team but label it a ‘marketing superstar’ for starter salaries,” Daniela Sztulwark, a marketing consultant in Tel Aviv, tweeted to me.

Before my prior work in the high-tech industry and now as The Promotion Fix columnist for The Drum and as a professional marketing speaker, I was a mid-level executive at various agencies – and every single job was a soul-crushing experience.

The worst was a sweatshop in which the junior employees worked for a few dollars an hour after including overtime. The agency offered unpaid internships to graduates under the promise of future paid positions. But the company often did not follow through.

I once proposed a career development plan to increase the prominence of the staffers and thereby the brand of the company. “I am the agency!” the chief executive shouted back at me, emphasising the first word. He cared only about himself. I updated my CV that night and eventually left. Not surprisingly, the agency closed its doors – and at least one executive I knew had to go to court to get past-due wages.

I will never go back to the agency life. Agencies today are seemingly only places to start one’s career before getting out as quickly as possible to something in-house. After all, few will tolerate antics such as those allegedly of Havas Chicago chief creative officer Jason Peterson. I have always wondered: why do so many firms think good people will accept these conditions?

“I hear the same question from clients in everything from retail and financial services to technology and the public sector,” Victoria McLean, a British career and recruitment consultant as well as founder and chief executive of City CV, said. “My answer is always the same: if marketing directors and agency owners want to attract good people of any age, they need to pay the same attention to their employer brand as they do to their consumer brands.”

But many agencies I have seen do not want to spend the time and money.

“Organisations must start seeing staff development as an investment and not a threat,” Jane Cave, managing director of the Institute of Direct and Digital Marketing in the UK, said. “By putting development programmes in place to up-skill their staff, they will be more likely to retain talent. Our 2018 professional skills census also found that fewer than a quarter of the respondents took their newly-acquired skills elsewhere. For those that do leave, this could even be down to a lack of opportunities to apply those skills and insufficient recognition from their current employer.”

Still, as Hugh Baillie, president of the X Practice in APAC and EMEA for Weber Shandwick, put it, the overall trends are not favouring agencies.

“We used to be known for shaping culture and being a core part of people’s lives,” he said. “With the introduction of consultancies, the draw of tech companies, and brands taking marketing in-house, the competition has intensified and our glamour has faded. We are now competing for those talented individuals who want to use their ability to make a difference. Combined with tough economic conditions, CMOs are increasingly struggling to claim the recognition and the resources needed to attract and retain the best talent.”

Why good marketers are going to tech companies

Part of the problem is that tech companies already have strong presences on college campuses, according to Elliot Lum, senior vice president for talent strategy and program development at the Association of National Advertisers Educational Foundation in the US.

“They take a marketing approach to the HR recruiting process,” he said. “That same discipline is often lacking in the marketing and advertising industry. If students aren’t aware of marketing and advertising as a career, they will opt to go into a company that is actively engaging them and giving a compelling reason for them to come to that organisation.”

A Pathways 2020 report by the foundation highlighted the “unprecedented talent challenge or ‘talent disconnect’ as millennials look to other, seemingly more appealing fields.”

“This is driven in large measure by a lack of common vision, vocabulary, and perceived relevance among marketers, young professionals, and the schools that are expected to educate them,” the study states.

The problem is nothing new.

“When I was at Oxford, a consultancy or law firm or bank would appear almost every week to woo, wine, and dine us,” Yakob added. “Never saw an advertising agency or holding company. Of course, [agencies] need to reach outside of the universities as well, supporting initiatives that support and encourage people from diverse backgrounds and provide paid internships and apprenticeships.”

One of the first things you learn in journalism is to follow the money. Marketers are doing the same and are attracted to the potential pots of gold at the end of the high-tech rainbow.

“The allure of a windfall of money that will fund the purchase of a yacht where they can sail around the world,” Jeff Fagel, senior vice president and head of marketing at digital media company Epsilon and Conversant, said in reference to what attracts people. “Startups and tech companies are sexy – there’s an opportunity to build, experiment, improvise and fail.”

But be warned: many marketing agencies can be sweatshops, but startup “unicorn” successes rarely make most employees rich.

Fewer young people want marketing careers

“Marketing has a bad rap,” Dann Albright, a content strategy and marketing consultant in Colorado, said. “There's a lot of bad marketing out there, and the industry has lost some of its reputation because of it. For quite a while, digital marketing was full of shady practices and bad SEO. It's moved far beyond that now, but hasn't managed to shake that bad name.”

Others said the industry is not taken seriously because many – if not most – do not have marketing degrees or even any level of formal education.

“Would you trust an accountant without a degree?” British marketing consultant Samuel Brealey asked. “It's a joke because there are no boundaries now. You have Mark Ritson offering a course for just over £1,000, and you can study online at the Chartered Institute of Marketing. In the UK, that's a legally protected term – not like the Content Marketing Institute, which is just a business.”

“Marketing departments, even for top brands and companies, are full of people who ‘fell into marketing,’ so surprisingly few have formal university marketing degrees,” Byron Sharp, the director of the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute for Marketing Science at the University of South Australia, said. “This is the complete opposite of areas like journalism, psychology, or law, where everyone has a relevant degree.”

“If a marketing director said ‘we’ll only hire people with marketing degrees,’ they would find it near impossible to fill positions. They’d certainly miss out on good people,” Sharp added. “So why aren’t young people choosing a marketing career? Why are they studying something else at university and then later falling into marketing? And why has this problem been around for so long?”

We do not know the answers. But regardless of the reasons, I can attest that there is nothing more frustrating than arguing strategy with a superior who has never studied formal marketing and instead follows the cults of inbound marketing and content marketing.

The marketing industry can market itself better

Agencies and trade groups believe that the marketing industry needs to mimic the tech world and increase outreach to students.

“The marketing industry needs to better position itself as one that is open to a variety of entry routes and experience levels, and marketing departments must ensure they offer a range of entry points to a wide range of people,” Gemma Butler, marketing director at the Chartered Institute of Marketing in the UK, said. “Organisations too must be clear on the role marketing plays within them.”

First, the marketing industry must fix its own messaging.

“Marketing is one of the most misunderstood industries among young people. As a discipline, it has evolved significantly in recent years,” Mark Evans, marketing director at the British insurance company Direct Line Group, said. “As an industry, we typically fail to show to the outside world the role we actually play within companies and consumers’ lives. It is typically seen as ‘just advertising.’”

“Marketing needs to do a better job explaining that it is not about ‘picking the right shade of blue on the website,’” Daria Generalova, the co-founder of ICOBox, a facilitator for companies selling products through initial coin offerings, said. “Marketing is about defining the strategy that enables salespeople and other front-of-house departments to succeed.”

Second, highlight career opportunities. An August 2018 CIM study found that young marketers today prioritise pay and job security.

“[The industry needs] to be more involved in large national skills events, reach out to schools, colleges and universities as well as offer collaborations, placements and graduate opportunities,” Alison Watson, undergraduate business programme team leader at Arden University in the UK, said. “Marketing apprenticeships will be attractive to the younger population as they will provide on-the-job experience and academic qualifications.”

“If the industry marketed the diversity of early-stage careers better, I bet more young people would be attracted to it,” Danielle Poleski, head of digital at the British mobile dating app JigTalk, said. “It’s tough leaving school and jumping straight into a role without any knowledge of what it will actually be like and where you exactly fit.”

Third, show that it is a professional field.

“When you search ‘marketing’ on Google, you get a load of hard sales tacticians trying to flog their snake oil remedies,” Brealey added. “It dirties the field and makes it look shit. If you're young and smart and into business, you're probably not going to want to look and act like Better Call Saul – which is what many marketers appear to be. The field currently lacks the ambition and professionalism of other disciplines like finance and even accounting.”

Fourth, return the focus to creativity.

“Marketing has always been the rock ‘n’ roll side of the business world,” Oliver Roddy, marketing and business development manager at the British agency Catalyst, said. “Nobody ever thinks of finance or logistics as funny, sexy or exciting. The main selling point is the work itself. As long as the work we're producing remains emotional and memorable, more and more people will want to work in the industry.”

“Advertising before banner ads offered decent jobs to creative artists and writers who wanted to make more money than in editorial, then later generations grew up seeing ads as just creepy shit that follows you around the internet,” adtech critic Don Marti tweeted. “So, not a good field for creative work?”

What the industry has been doing

In the US, the ANA foundation offers academic and visiting professor programmes as well as career and classroom resources. In the UK, the School of Marketing was created “to solve the looming talent crisis in the marketing industry”. Students learn from executives at companies including Microsoft, IBM, Unilever, Santander and Direct Line Group.

“Most people [have] a rather superficial and negative impression of marketing from the likes of Alan Sugar in The Apprentice,” Evans, also a SOM instructor, added. “This is why I’ve got behind the School of Marketing. As marketers, we have the skills to address our industry’s image problem, so now it is time to act.”

CIM provides real-life professional experiences through activities such as The Pitch competition, which takes students through a real-life challenge set by a major global brand. The agency Fold7 also holds Hack Your Way into Advertising events.

“We’re reaching out to schools to encourage young people to not only take creative courses but to consider marketing as a career option for creative minds,” John Yorke, Fold7’s creative director, said. “Marketing offers rich rewards for creative minds, yet kids and even graduates remain unaware of the breadth of options available to them in the industry – marketing covers a lot of ground for multidiscipline-seeking millennials.”

General Assembly is another global resource for training, staffing, and career transitions in areas including marketing, product management, and professional skills development. GA’s Marketing Standards Board found three specific areas in which the marketing industry is lacking: leadership development, career guidance, and clarity in hiring.

One GA board member is Andrew Stephen, the L’Oreal Professor of Marketing at Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford. Despite the difficulties facing the industry, he believes students of a certain type will always find marketing to be rewarding.

“Marketing is ultimately about people,” Stephen said. “If someone is interested in people and understanding what they like and dislike and how to best interact with them and find value for them, then marketing is a great career path.”

The Promotion Fix is an exclusive biweekly column for The Drum contributed by global marketing keynote speaker and workshop facilitator Samuel Scott, a former journalist, newspaper editor and director of marketing in the high-tech industry. Follow him on Twitter. Scott is based out of Tel Aviv, Israel.

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