Does adland overlook the value of experience?

—When senior talent leave an agency, they are typically replaced. But in times of economic malaise, some agencies are choosing not to fill senior vacancies to cut costs—

By Ben Bold

Campaign recently published a feature headlined “Upward talent drain: pressure on juniors as ‘gurus’ depart”.

The thrust of the article was that it used to be more common for junior staff to head for pastures new once they’d gained some career experience, leading to a drain of talent at agencies looking to fill those junior vacancies.

But recently, there has been something of a turnaround. In today’s recruitment market, when more senior people leave their agencies, their former employers are not necessarily looking to replace them.

According to Emma Love, founder of recruitment company The Great and the Good, this has meant “heaps of senior talent” are on the market, while “many others [are] looking around, wanting to move but finding nowhere to feasibly go.”

“Roles are harder to fill as salaries are being squeezed,” she added.

Increased economic pressures as holding companies weather client spending cuts are only exacerbating the situation. Simon Davis, chief executive of Walk-In Media, said that a “relentless prioritization of profit and margin at the big holding companies is being delivered by the centralization and consolidation of senior talent, which has reduced the number of senior positions required across their organizations.”

Furthermore, when agencies are willing and able to recruit senior talent, they are now more likely to offer fixed-term contracts instead of permanent positions. Many argue this is far from appealing to those seeking longer-term financial security, ultimately damaging agency culture.

The result is that the upper echelons are being deprived of more experienced staff, which is having a negative impact across agencies—from junior teams lacking support, to clients having to deal with relatively inexperienced talent.

Campaign asked a number of agency people, is adland overlooking the value of experience?

Jon Peppiatt—Former chairman of Bartle Bogle Hegarty, chairman of The Blueprint

The best agencies don’t but, overall, I would lean towards yes.

The most successful agency leaders I talk to understand the critical need for diversity in all shapes and forms in their teams, and that includes having a balance of young and old.

But in tough economic times, experienced (and more expensive) people tend to be first in the firing line.

I get it, but would argue that, in many instances, this is a mistake for the simple reason that experience makes you faster.

One’s ability to quickly understand the client’s business problem and respond with smart and original strategic and creative solutions is greatly enhanced if your team has some experienced thinkers in the room.

Clients also appreciate experience, love, and increasingly need, quick solutions and, in a more project-based, flat fee environment, it actually helps agency profitability as well.

Mark Denton—Ex-art director

I lined up the tins of beans in my kitchen cupboard the other day. There were a couple of rows’ worth, following a three-for-two deal at my local Tesco. And then they were all perfectly facing the front with their logos proudly dead centre.

It’s hard to stop thinking like an art director after 47 years on the job.

Whether that job has been art director, creative director, commercials director or all of them, nothing changes. You see, you just can’t shrug off that acquired attention to detail.

It’s the same in-built “itch” that had me cringing when I recently came across a poster with two pack shots, three logos, a QR code, an illustration of a dinosaur, a stock shot of a dog, and a forgettable headline, used not once but twice. The saddest thing about the poster was that everyone involved in the project was probably earning more than me.

I had a word with a headhunter. I wondered if I might be useful in a creative department somewhere. He laughed, we had a drink or two, then I went home (after I’d lined up the beer mats, obvs).

Tony Quinn—Chief strategy officer, BBD Perfect Storm

I suspect this is symptomatic of a much bigger issue, namely the value we place in the transformative power of creativity.

When we are at our best, when we are brimming with confidence, our ideas transform the fortunes of businesses and the people that make them what they are. Our ideas change beliefs, behaviours, society, culture, the whole world, for the better.

When we are at our best we are a premium industry, fuelled by premium talent that clients pay for handsomely.

However, when we stop believing in the premium nature of our products, we stop believing in the primacy of premium talent, whether junior or experienced; we become commoditized, caught in a race to the bottom, where price and margin become the discriminators. And that can never be a good thing.

Amina Folarin—Chief executive, Oliver UK Group

Experienced staff can be expensive to attract and retain, but for good reason. Their expertise, knowledge, and skill sets are fundamental in driving business growth, evolving strategies and levelling up junior talent.

While the money freed up by consolidating talent may help the bottom line at first, it will leave businesses exposed and vulnerable as leaders scramble for top talent when clients and agencies bounce back from these times of economic turbulence (which they will).

To prevent the loss of experienced talent (across all levels), adland leaders must prioritize redistributing people across their business and client accounts to adapt quickly to changing needs. We build flexibility into our model to keep up with the demands of such change. This helps us keep our eye on the landscape to ensure we’re bringing the best talent to the hearts of our clients’ businesses.

In addition, leaders should explore more flexible ways of working with experienced senior talent through part-time working or project-based consultancy, accessing a bank of new ideas and ways of working with lower financial commitment. With leadership ever more complex, removing layers of experienced management completely can leave more junior staff unsupported and at greater risk of burnout.

Agencies must continue to invest in the learning and development of their staff, heavily and consistently. Create a culture that engages, supports and nurtures talent, or risk losing them to an agency that will.

Jane Evans—Founder and creative director, Uninvisibility

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

Our industry’s obsession with youth means we consistently get rid of the talent who recognize the repeating patterns.

Cross-generational workforces are the way of the future—mixing the impetuous creativity of youth with the wisdom and caution that comes from experience.

But to get there, we have to stop putting people in boxes. We all know young people who are wise beyond their years, and 50-year-olds with the imaginative powers of a child. We know 25-year-olds who could run the world, and 80-year-olds who run marathons.

There have always been, and always will be, fast starters and late bloomers. The beautiful thing about this world is it’s filled with amazing people. Beautifully different people. By writing off whole generations, we miss out on the gifts each brings.

Rahmon Agbaje—Co-Founder, Loud Parade

I believe to a degree that adland does overlook the value of experience. Media is an industry that moves very quickly, and often younger, inexperienced staff are thrust into positions of big responsibility very early in their careers. They’ll very rarely say no because they want the opportunity, even if they’re not necessarily ready for it.

This can often enable younger members of staff to grow if things go well. However, when mistakes are made, media can be a blame game, so it may be difficult to recover.

Sometimes it can be better for younger members of staff to learn from those with more experience, to make their mistakes first and develop to a point of maturity.

Having said that, the attitude of a lot of younger people is that they want more responsibility, more roles of leadership and they are often willing to move on if they feel stagnant or limited at a company.

Tilly Swan—Strategy partner, Stick & Twist

I’ve loved my agency life. But I’d be lying if I said it didn’t dawn on me that I might “age out” of the industry.

For me, what is affecting senior talent more than younger talent is the often unsustainable structure of agency life.

I have one need and one want, which I find echoed by my peers and those who have made an exit.

I need a workplace that will support my reality. The responsibilities I now have as a parent or a mother or a carer to a loved one. I want a workplace that gives me autonomy, less politics, and a structure that supports the essence of the business while allowing me to make the biggest difference to the brands I work with.

If we get these right, the leak in the bucket may well be plugged.

This article originally appeared at Campaign UK.