Talent Agency Culture Agency Leadership

No one wants to work in ad agencies any more. 6 tips to stop the brain drain


By Matilda Andersson, Managing director

January 8, 2024 | 7 min read

What if adland’s brain drain was related to a now normalized batch of poor working conditions? Dr Matilda Andersson explores a solution.

Brain drain

In a people-led industry, why is our agency and work culture set up to run people into the ground instead of supporting talent to do their best work?

In 2018, Samuel Scott discussed the marketing brain drain in The Drum. Since then, there’s been the notable ‘Great Resignation,’ with the UK advertising sector experiencing a record 32.4% churn rate in 2022. In 2023, we witnessed trends like ‘Quiet Quitting,’ ‘Loud Quitting,’ ‘Rage Applying,’ and ‘The Great Exhaustion,’ with professionals, including directors and even the office dog, opting for freelance work. While some blame Gen Z’s perceived lack of work ethics and mock those choosing ‘Lazy Girl Jobs,’ perhaps deep down, we all desire positive change in the industry for a better future.

Mark Pollard, the strategist evangelist, is on a mission to rekindle joy in advertising, questioning if anyone truly enjoys working in the field right now. So, how can agency leaders flip the script and foster a culture of fulfillment in 2024?

Here are some key takeaways from leading agency teams through turbulent times.

Invert the pyramid: power with, not over

It’s time to change how leaders lead by flipping the traditional hierarchy. Instead of seniors leading the way, let’s put juniors in charge. Mary Follett’s management theory suggests ‘power with’ – a collaborative approach instead of ’power over.’

This change can improve communication and support for those delivering the work at the front line with clients. For instance, involving junior team members in advisory boards, prioritizing team well-being in people and culture efforts, and having senior executives work alongside their teams to transfer skills can break old habits and promote a better way of working.

Something to believe in: vision and vibes

Inverting the pyramid isn’t about giving up leadership; it’s about supercharging it.

This strategy revolves around a robust agency vision and a unique, transferable way of working. Leaders play a crucial role in setting a vibrant and energizing workplace vibe, ensuring team members feel seen and valued. Creating an environment where brilliance can thrive, that embraces difference, even the right kind of weird.

Anything to break free from boring, restrictive ways of working towards a more fun and creative future. According to Chris Kay, ex-CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi, it’s all about transforming from a CEO to a chief energy officer. Teams not only need a clear purpose embodied by leaders but also thrive when the agency is an amazing place to be and learn. Let’s infuse that energy into the workplace.

T-shaped skills: breaking down silos

Everyone complains about silos, but little is done about it. With changes in work culture, client demands, tight budgets, and advancements in AI, we don’t have time for office dramas and politics.

To counteract silos and future-proof skills, hire for and develop T-shaped skills - the vertical line represents deep expertise in a particular field (for example, graphic design), and the horizontal line represents cross-discipline and the ability to collaborate with other roles. Make it work long-term through shadowing, secondments, and cross-disciplinary training programs to build empathy and stronger collaboration.

Routines and rituals: cultivating culture

High-performing teams aren’t born from sporadic team-building events. Instead, we need to cultivate culture through intentional routines and rituals. Team culture is a constant work in progress, and committing to routines and rituals writes Alison Coward in her book Workshop Culture, a guide to building teams that thrive. Run meetings with purpose, incorporate check-ins, and establish unique and engaging ways to acknowledge achievements. Diversity, equity, and inclusion should be ingrained in the daily fabric of agency life, not confined to occasional events.

Stay instead of exit: the value of talent

My top career regret? Letting amazing talent slip away because they didn’t feel valued. Don’t just wait for exit interviews – keep your top talent on board with stay interviews, especially those from marginalized backgrounds. They might not always know you value them, so clear the message. IPA has developed a useful framework for ‘Stay Interviews.’

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Beyond that, tell team members they’re valued through staying bonuses, a one-off payment coming back from maternity leave, support towards childcare, betterment funds, and paid sabbaticals after a few years. This is not about the benefit, it is mostly about signaling that you want the team to stay on the journey with you.

Stay open and flexible: riding the cultural wave

The cultural landscape is always in flux, and what matters to your team keeps evolving. It’s not possible to dictate whether it’s all about hybrid work or bringing everyone back to the office – find the balance that helps your team thrive. Right now, it’s all about making things click in a hybrid setup, but be ready for more changes. Future success will demand us to stay hyper-connected, tuning in and leaving lots of room for feedback.

Final advice - treasure your team, spread the good vibes, and inject some more joy into the mix in 2024.

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