Agencies aren't just facing a talent crisis – they’re in danger of terminal decline

Samuel Scott’s recent column in The Drum on the brain drain facing the marketing industry was, as usual, full of thought-provoking insight, but I couldn’t help disagreeing with his central thesis, that the industry could market itself out of the crisis.

For agencies, facing the biggest threat they’ve ever experienced from the tech companies fundamentally rewiring our world, something far more drastic is needed.

The only way agencies have any chance of survival in the war for talent is for a total reconstruction of their entire culture, values and working practices. Moreover, when people are the only real asset an agency has, this is a war that threatens the very foundations of the agency world.

Can this be fixed? I’m sorely tempted to say it’s almost too late.

I’ve spent most of my career helping agencies find and retain the UK’s best talent and it’s been a privilege to work with some of the brightest and most strategically brilliant people in the country.

The problem is, talented people just don’t want to work in agencies any more. For most of my career, the most brilliant minds yearned to secure a place at our top agencies. If you wanted to define culture and change the world – and make a lot of money in the process – there was nowhere better to build a career.

I used to have the country’s best talent battling to land a place at our leading agencies. Today, when I put a prime agency job on the table of candidates looking for their next role, it’s more often rejected than not.

Scott pithily sums up the reason why in his column: “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.”

Let’s look at pay first. It’s true that agencies simply aren’t paying market rate for the type of talent they want and need. In the real world, it’s always going to be hard for agencies to even come close to the eye-watering salaries on offer from the tech giants sucking up the brightest and best from all corners of our market.

The good news for agencies though is that salary isn’t everything when it comes to talent. Purpose, a company’s culture and values, is of equal or greater importance than cold hard cash. We see this time and time again when placing candidates and there is a constant stream of research hammering home this point, such as a recent Deloitte survey that found two out of three millennials had selected their employer based on its values.

But it’s not just with salaries that the tech companies are wiping the floor with agencies. From the lowliest startup to the biggest global leviathan, tech companies are built, run and grown based on a clear mission, driven by the most authentic culture and values.

Talk to anyone at a tech company, from founder to exec and it’s crystal clear why the company exists and what it’s role in human society is. This is purpose writ large, to a level most agencies can only dream of.

Yes, of course the tech companies are more innovative, more agile and more entrepreneurial than agencies could ever dream of being. But at their core, the real difference between the two is purpose.

Agencies have long paid lip service to culture and values, talking loudly about their role in the world and the cherished position of their people. The truth is very different. As confessions and exposes in The Drum and other publications continue to reveal, life at agencies is, as Scott sums up, a “soul-crushing experience”.

Worse, it’s one bedevilled by homophobia, sexism, lack of equality and even illegal overworking leading to suicide.

So, is it really too late for agencies?

Well maybe. It’s hard to see the one-way traffic between agencies and tech firms being reversed any time soon. The desire to work in a company with true purpose is only going to increase and the tech firms’ growth is only really getting started.

Agencies can take steps to at least slow their decline but it’s going to have to be a brutal process of reinvention. Starting with a focus on their existing staff, they’ll need to take a good hard look at their employer brand, their hiring process, their culture and values and determine, and communicate both internally and externally, what their real purpose is in society.

There’s too much talk about agency structure today and whether it’s fit for purpose. It’s time for agencies to stop navel gazing about their own company structure and focus instead on their higher-level purpose and value.

Once they truly understand what they stand for and what their mission in society really is, maybe they’ll have a better chance of convincing talent to join them to help achieve it.

Melina Jacovou is chief executive officer of Propel London

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