The Future of Work Work & Wellbeing Retention

Advertising’s missing middle will haunt the industry this year

By Jon Wiliams, CEO and Founder

January 25, 2023 | 7 min read

Ad agencies are being hollowed out, argues Jon Williams of the Liberty Guild. Can agencies change their practices and workplaces in 2023 to retain talent?

A donut on a plate

/ Unsplash

Many a dewy-eyed memoir is filled with stories from the days of glory. The fast cars, the exotic shoots, the drugs, from post room to boardroom in the blink of an eye... you’ve heard them all. In much the same way that the ads themselves used to hold a special place in the hearts of the viewing public, advertising agencies were, in that unreconstructed moment in time, cool too. But to stretch the analogy, in much the same way that everyone is adblocking now, it’s not exactly top of anyone’s list as a career move any more.

There is a dangerous vacuum at the heart of the business, a net deficit caused by two seemingly unstoppable forces. Agencies can’t attract new talent. And the talent we did have has bailed out during the great resignation/recalibration.

Why? Well, would you join the back of a queue for a network grad scheme when Aldi’s pays £44,000 and advertising starting salaries are between £22,000 and £24,000? Or when McDonald’s is offering school leavers not only a decent salary but a business degree at Manchester Met?

More pertinently, why would you burn a 90-hour week in an agency when you could burn it at a young hungry startup that actually shares your values and where you get an equity stake so your graft actually comes back to you?

And then, during the pandemic, a whole lot of people left the industry. Fired, furloughed or just fundamentally disenchanted, most of them aren’t ever coming back. Less the big resignation, more the big recalibration.

We know from procurement data culled from RFIs that it wasn’t so much the expensive suits who left, or the cheap juniors. It was those in the middle. The hard-working talent who did all the work. And taught the juniors. That brings trouble now and in the future.

Agencies just haven’t tried very hard to update a culture that was cool in the 70s, 80s and 90s, but is absolutely not cool now. Oxford or Cambridge is about as divergent as some agency grads schemes get. They’re generally just not set up to accommodate young people from non-white, non-middle-class backgrounds. Even when agencies try to bring them on board, it’s not an easy enough ride. How do we make it smoother?

You need to ask someone smarter than me, for a start. I opened this up to Matt Wells, recruitment specialist and founder of Congregation, and James Hillhouse, founder of Commercial Break, a transformation agency focused on increasing working-class representation in the creative and marketing industries.

Their thought starters don’t have all the answers, but perhaps they are a start...

We need to create a sector that overlays people’s passions with commercial opportunities for business growth again. You want entrepreneurial souls? We should rewrite contracts to allow room and support for second businesses or side hustles. This isn’t just a good-to-have any more, it’s an expectation. And if you don’t allow space for it, people will either never come or they will just leave and go and do it anyway.

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Be clear on your purpose – decide what you actually stand for. Purpose is not just some trite words painted transiently on the wall behind reception or a cabinet full of awards ’for good’. Change your viewpoint so you share values with the workforce of the future. Show that you can actually help to change the world – not just for awards but for everyone. Going B Corp is a great way to start, but not the only way.

Evolve the working culture. What worked for Don Draper does not work for now. Stop the macho bullshit, the weekend work, the glorification of bad behavior and inhuman feats of sleep deprivation. Banish the bro culture. Cultural change is about structure – culture changes over time if you change the structure now.

Then, when you do take on placements, you have to learn how to properly manage them – develop programs to fit them, not you. Don’t sell a fantasy, deal in reality. Don’t just leave them in the corner to ‘learn by osmosis’. This is real.

Looking at the paths of progression of work – make them totally transparent. Many young people leave the industry because they feel they are left to fend for themselves with no career progression laid out for them.

Never ever ever think that the young, underrepresented talent is an agency for change. You are the agency (literally). And you need to deliver the change.

We’re nowhere near where we need to be yet, but we’ve come some distance – and next year we need to double our efforts, then keep doubling them. We need to start a new chapter of our history on different terms, built with tolerance and inclusivity at its heart. Let’s write some new adland stories. Together.

Jon Williams is CEO and founder of the Liberty Guild

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