Solving the Talent Crisis Requires Resetting the Client-Agency Relationship

Media agency work life balance

By Ali Plonchak, Managing Partner and COO, Crossmedia & Sebastian Schichtel, Managing Director, Crossmedia

A lot of ink has been spilled on “The Great Resignation.” A lot of thoughtful commentary has come out on this current advertising talent crisis.  Much of it is framed within the context of the challenges of Covid-19.

We believe that the issue needs to be framed in a broader context that deeply examines the underlying structural reasons that have led to the current situation.  In so doing, we can actually rebuild a more sustainable paradigm for all stakeholders—for talent, for agencies and their clients.

The pandemic is the accelerant, not the cause, of our current situation. The truth is that dissatisfaction and disillusionment among the agency ranks had been growing on both sides of the Atlantic.

In its simplest terms, agencies and clients need sharper alignment on the agency value proposition.  Agencies have ceded ground as core CMO strategic partners, impacting scope of work and compensation in a way that diminishes agency world’s ability to keep talent happy, hungry and on board.

As brands have embraced digital transformation over the past decade, they have been faced with a level of complexity that is challenging, often overwhelming.

The shifting emphasis from brand marketing to micro-optimization often at the expense of big picture business impact, has been profound.  The ripple effect on marketer and agency talent has been severe, requiring greater resources put against the tedious “setting of levers.”

The most successful agency-client collaborations that leave talent feeling fulfilled stem from a shared conviction that media contributes vitally to brands’ overall, holistic businesses. Reinforcing how a jr. employee’s actions contribute to macro outcomes is critical in keeping talent happy.  Agency leaders and clients need to strike a balance (especially in digital) about what is meaningful vs. what is a rabbit hole of micro-optimizations.

At the same time, these changes have led to the value of work diminishing in the eyes of brands’ procurement departments, resulting in increasing downward pressure on agency compensation.

At a recent industry webinar, Mastercard chief marketing & communications officer Raja Rajamannar agreed, “Compensation has to be motivating and inspiring to the agency partner. It’s not all about efficiencies and turning the screws on the agency…. We want them to come up with innovative ideas and fantastic media deals….. One of the biggest mistakes brands do is to hold their agencies to ransom.…..”

The Path Forward

The solution lies in re-evaluating media agencies’ value proposition to develop mature, sustainable and ultimately accountable scopes.  The core principles that generate the most satisfaction with talent are:

  1. Make Media A Mission: In collaboration, define media’s macro goal.  What will everyone from the CMO to the day-to-day team be proud to celebrate in 18 months?  Build the scope to deliver upon this goal.
  2. Explicit Expectations: Agencies & clients need to have honest conversations about the way we work together. Is the expectation that the agency be available around-the-clock? If it is, be upfront and the team can be structured accordingly, especially in today’s hybrid, distributed workforce where time zones can be bridged. Agency talent dissatisfaction is often a result of ever-shifting client expectations that cause chaos in the lives of agency talent.
  3. Strategic Structure: The workload that agencies shoulder under the banner of “media processes” continues to expand with data-driven marketing. Nowadays, agencies need to hire more operational and engineering talent to build, connect and keep the data pipes flowing.  It is wise to continually evaluate how we can re-think and re-organize work processes in order to take the tedious elements of the job away from planners and strategists so all talent can focus on the high touch work that inspires and excites them.  In short, to maintain talent, agencies need to build better scopes and enable team structures to be attractive to a broader talent pool than just the next-gen Don & Donna Drapers.
  4. Post-Pandemic Work Model: Sushi and beer carts; foosball tables and cool office spaces were enough 10 years ago. But if you really want to build a vibrant, sustainable culture that builds true community with minimal churn, the pact with talent must run much deeper. That means creating a work model that is based on trust and allows  talent the flexibility to decide where they want to work, how long they want to work and when they want to work. With this great freedom comes great responsibility.  Instilling trust as a sincere measure of empathy for individual goals leads to greater loyalty and higher productivity.

By practicing these principles in earnest, Agencyland has the timely opportunity to return the sparkle to agency life. Let’s reassert our place in the strategic and creative high ground along with our newfound dedication to DEI that gets the new generations excited about our industry.

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