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Advertising’s secret shame: 7 ways to limit staff attrition

By Emma Tozer | Co-founder

April 4, 2022 | 6 min read

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What's this?

Advertising has long accepted levels of churn that would make other industries blush; yearly staff turnovers often approach a third of workers. Emma Tozer, co-founder at agency Media Bounty, argues that unchecked attrition harms agencies, clients and workers alike. But remedying it might be easier than you think.

A revolving door

Media Bounty’s Emma Tozer on how to stop the revolving door damaging your agency and workers / Jon Tyson via Unsplash

The agency talent model is broken.

According to the IPA 2021 Annual Review, staff turnover across its members was 26.8% last year. It’s been pretty much the same for years now. In 2014 VCCP founding partner Ian Priest highlighted at an IPA symposium a 30% churn, acknowledging advertising’s staff retention record was “pretty bad.”

While there has been a marginal improvement, this continues to far outstrip other industries, many of which have rock-bottom reputations for pay and conditions. Voluntary turnover in education stands at just 8.7%; transport and storage at 9%.

Employees jumping ship every year or two to find new opportunities with better pay and more development opportunities has become the norm in our industry. Does that serve anybody well?

The costs of attrition

From an agency point of view, it’s far from ideal. This level of staff attrition is hugely disruptive and costly, and reflects poorly on businesses’ reputations and the industry.

It may not be the best option for employees either. There’s no doubt that those taking new jobs get pay rises every time they jump, but at what cost? Their experience may be broad, but is it really deep enough?

We want our people to get under the skin of their clients’ businesses. Employees need to understand businesses’ problems. How well can they understand clients’ businesses if they only complete one business cycle?

Leadership opportunities tend to be more forthcoming for those who stick with an agency. And if people choose to quit when things aren’t going to plan, they’re missing the opportunity to demonstrate one of the most vital skills in business: resilience.

Halting this talent merry-go-round is easier said than done. But the way to start as an industry is to invest in talent and allow individuals to grow in their jobs. We need to treat our people with respect and reward loyalty. Here’s how.

1. Sell honest dreams

In our industry, we’re good at selling dreams – never more so than in the recruitment process. How many times have you heard, ‘this is not how it was sold to me’? Honesty is the best policy; we should not be setting people up to fail. Candidates also need to do their due diligence.

2. Invest in development

The sheer number of new employees that join us having never had an appraisal before is concerning. These are not new entrants to the industry but people with years of experience.

There’s a school of thought that appraisals are outdated, but if you’re going to drop them in the name of being progressive, they need to be replaced with some other form of structured development program. Even if you’re keeping appraisals, don’t stop there. Development should be an ongoing conversation. That’s why we run formalized check-ins on at least a monthly basis.

3. Encourage ownership

Give people opportunities to own their work, including juniors. Many agencies avoid putting someone with one or two years of experience in front of clients. We give juniors those opportunities. Juniors feel empowered; clients love the fresh thinking. It’s win-win.

4. Invest in training

Commit not just to job-related training, but also training to enable teams to be good citizens, whether that’s ED&I sessions through organizations such as UNLRN or helping them navigate the climate crisis. Our teams also undertake volunteering opportunities, which allow for more hands-on personal and professional development.

5. Encourage breadth of experience

Explore opportunities for secondments or job swaps between affiliated agencies to feed the appetite for experience at a different agency. It would mean better longer-term retention for the agency and greater security for the employee.

6. Offer flexible working

Advertising has always been famed for its high-pressure environments and long working hours. But the world has moved on. People want a work/life balance, and they want flexibility.

I’m proud of the fact we have part-time workers who aren’t parents. They’re people who want to use their skills to contribute to making the world a better place, use the time to study or even just have a better work/life balance. Equally, I’m immensely proud of our working parents who we support with a flexible approach.

7. Reward loyalty

Let’s not perceive people who return to agencies they’ve previously left as taking a step back in their careers. We need to see longevity in a role as a positive, bringing a depth of experience that’s commercially valuable, as well as being proof of resilience. You don’t have to change your job to keep learning and challenging yourself. You just need to have a growth mindset and work for an agency that is committed to giving its people opportunities.

Work & Wellbeing Agency Culture Agency Models

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