Why are ad land’s middle managers hurting so much?

—The pandemic amplified existing flaws in our talent management systems, says Mo Dezyanian. Now’s the time to reinvest in training, and perhaps reconsider career paths—

Anyone who has built an agency knows that finding middle management is tough. Whenever I’ve sent a job description to peers, the typical response is, “Good luck! I don’t envy you.”

But since the beginning of the pandemic, it’s become much worse.

I’ve interviewed more than 20 middle management candidates in the past 18 months (we’re growing), and the stories I hear now are unlike those I heard in the past. Pre-pandemic, candidates were typically looking for a “diagonal step up”—a bit more responsibility, more money, a new client. Now, the most common goal is to escape their current job. Somehow, anyhow.

The widening gap 

Working in an industry that has operated as a pressure cooker for decades has its drawbacks.

But after many long months spent confined to our homes, separated from friends and extended family, surrounded by fear and a sense of impending doom, we’ve gotten dangerously close to exploding.

Not to mention that we work at jobs whose grander moral purpose is, well, often debated and not always easily understood. In a world where people grapple with much bigger issues, it can take a toll on the soul. All that and more contributes to the dismal state of mental health in our industry.

Every conversation, particularly with agency leaders, acknowledges this issue: “We need to do more for our talent’s mental health” they say. “The way we think about work needs to change.”

Despite this, I’m seeing utter desperation in job interviews. Candidates are complaining about how miserable they have been in their previous role. Complaining to the edge of tears. In a job interview!

And yet, I did not find the same sense of gloom in entry- or senior-level interviews. What does that tell you?

I admit, I don’t have any research to back any of this up. My view is skewed towards my bias and experience, so it’s all anecdotal. Yet I can’t help but wonder: What are we missing?

I don’t have the answers, but I know this for sure

I’ve heard the problem is that we promote folks to management too quickly. Middle managers are inexperienced, and therefore lost. I don’t disagree, but I think the issue is a bit more nuanced.

One of the roots of the problem is that we don’t have great tools for management training, or a defined career path. This isn’t just specific to the ad industry, but its effects are more pronounced here because of the high-pressure work environment and, worse, the subjective nature of our work.

Just look at similar service-based consulting services, such as law, accounting, or consulting. Career paths, and the responsibilities, salaries and benefits associated with each new position, are reasonably well-defined.

In our industry, people are often moved forward based on being assigned to certain accounts. We scale—or we think we do—by saying “You’re doing really well: Can you now supervise others whose roles are similar?” That’s a mistake for a consulting service business rooted in knowledge work.

I’ve made that mistake before too, and not that long ago. I’ve seen people be great at managing client relationships, but choke at the first task of management: hiring.

The way I see it, management’s number one job is to build strong productive teams. That means hire, train and, unfortunately, sometimes fire. A good manager needs to understand this cycle and hone their skills for each step. None of these steps are easily learned, especially when so much time and attention in the early part of our careers is focused on the work itself—being a great creative, say, or keeping clients happy.

Let’s start with the obvious: Managing people should not be the only way to advance. I believe we can start by providing opportunities for growth based on technical skills. This allows those who do not want to be people managers to have an opportunity to build a career in the industry. In other words, great creatives can still have an upward career path even if that path doesn’t include people management.

At the same time, we need to invest in training management skills. Becoming a people manager should be a distinct career choice—respected and supported, but not the sole path to the top.

I’m not discounting the complexities of a consulting business and client relationships. I am saying that now is the time to have a long-overdue conversation about our middle managers—our future leaders.

Mo Dezyanian is president of Empathy Inc.