Transforming Organizations for the Modern Day Ad Exec

By Chris Hubble of Bastion db5 and Tim Anderson

From the Mad Men era to the creative zeitgeist of today, the ad industry has experienced quite the transformation. The industry as a whole, the work it produces, and its clients are frequently studied and discussed. Given industry and cultural changes have also impacted ad executives, companies would benefit from studying their employees just as closely. After all, delivering on employees’ wants and needs will help attract top talent, increase satisfaction, lead to better work, reduce turnover, and have a positive impact on the bottom line.

To get a pulse on how modern-day ad agency employee feels in the current climate and determine how the industry could evolve for the better on their behalf, veteran brand strategist, Tim Anderson, and market research firm, Bastion db5 partnered together to launch a first-of-its-kind research study.

Our specific goals were to understand:

  • How confident advertising executives were in the industry
  • How personally fulfilled they were in their careers
  • To what degree their current agency was satisfying their needs and wants
  • What they would like to see change moving forward

Responses represented a diverse sample of agency types (advertising, marketing and PR) and sizes, as well as tenure, level (including C-suite), role, and demographics.

Key learning and implications:

The silver screen of ad agency life glamour seems to be slipping away for some. Many reported feeling overworked, underappreciated, and concerned about job security. But there are even more concerning issues we need to consider addressing.

“Confidence” is relatively strong, depending on the cohort

Given the pandemic’s impact on nearly every business, we were curious how confident adverting employees were in the ad industry. Overall, 61 percent (T2B) of respondents were “cautiously optimistic” – with 21 percent saying they’re “very confident” and 40 percent saying they’re “somewhat confident.” Still, nearly a quarter of respondents were “not very confident” in the industry. And, digging deeper, there were important differences across groups.

Respondents in “marketing” organizations are more confident than those in “advertising” or “PR.” People who work in “large” companies are less confident than those in “small” or “medium” ones. And confidence declines precipitously as people get older – with only 18 percent (T2B) of 45-54-year-old respondents saying they’re confident in the industry – which illustrates the universal impact [at least the perception of] ageism is having.

Larger, more traditional agencies and organizations with more “experienced” employees should take note and consider how they can reassure their staff. 

WHAT is “attractive” is the same, but the WHO is shifting

Not surprisingly, employees were most passionate about creative expression. It’s why most went into advertising. Yet, many felt their current organization and/or client(s) don’t allow them to fully express their creativity – especially in today’s more risk-averse climate. As one respondent said, We have a lot of old ways of thinking we need to shed to be true innovators.”

As “agency of record” status at big holding companies continues to wane and shift toward project work, modern-day ad executives are seeking employment with smaller, nimbler, specialty shops and “in-house agencies” that allow them more personal freedom in expressing creativity.

Again, bigger and more traditional agencies and organizations will need to play defense to retain top talent and, ideally, be willing to change their approach moving forward.

There’s a long way to go to address diversity and inequality issues

While select firms have made strides in recent years, issues of inequality and lack of diversity are still pervasive according to most respondents. When asked what things concern them most within their company, issues with racism, sexism and ageism were all near the top. This won’t come as a surprise to most agency leaders.

Gender, ethnicity, and age inequality are blatantly apparent in the ad industry. Of the top 550 agencies based in the U.S., the most senior employee is a man 80 percent of the time. And 30 percent of agencies still do not have a single woman in upper management. The situation with Black, Asian, or other minority executives is even bleaker.

The one bright spot was 85 percent (T2B) believed their organization was “respectful of sexual orientation.” But the industry has a long way to go in most other areas.

Organizations need to evolve more quickly to meet shifting employee needs

The majority of respondents (60 percent) don’t believe their company is “evolving with the times to meet employee needs” fast enough. As one respondent stated, “The current agency model is broken.

C-suite execs believe they’re doing much better at evolving to meet employee needs (50 percent believe their agency is “at the forefront”) than their own employees – where only 24 percent of respondents felt their company is “at the forefront.” And ad agencies are even further behind (where only 18 percent believe their firm is “at the forefront”).

Ad executives top pain points

Top concerns included work/life balance, job security, ageism, and fair pay. Even if they are not easy to change right away, at least these are pretty straightforward issues. The other issues are a bit more complex.

Most execs (75 percent) felt their organization “encourages teamwork/collaboration” and “operates with integrity,” but did not feel their company “minimizes politics/bureaucracy” enough or “supports and empowers all employees” enough. This juxtaposition is likely creating tension. In fact, some of the emotions of how they felt working at their current company – including “demoralized” and “anxious” – were alarming. And more than a quarter of respondents (27 percent) expressed they’re not personally fulfilled in their role.

Many believed their company is not doing enough to help them in their careers. Barely half reported they received “regular performance reviews” and a whopping 44 percent did not feel their company “provides a clear path to raise/promotion.” This is likely contributing to them not feeling supported or personally fulfilled and also adding to their anxiousness.

While these are complicated issues, it would benefit every organization to know how their own employees feel working there. Knowledge is power. Then consider how to address it.

Focus on employee morale

Employees want to feel like their company cares about them on a personal level. In order to do this, management should invest much more time and energy into developing rapport with employees, having direct conversations about what’s going on in their lives and who they are as a people outside of work. Get curious. Be vulnerable. Connect.

Create time and space for open communication about career advancement. Agencies should make the most of their employment relationship by openly communicating needs, expectations, paths to promotion, and raises, helping people become the best versions of themselves. Employees don’t mind being challenged or pushed out of their comfort zones to grow. But they want to know what their path to growth is within the organization without having to ask. Don’t let new business pitches or existing client demands delay or, worse yet, scrub annual reviews. It sends the wrong message to your most important asset – your people.

Finally, many advertising executives want to grow both professionally and personally. Consider how your firm can support its personal evolution in positive ways. It will, ultimately, come back to benefit the agency.

Change is necessary

Agencies have revealed themselves to be as slow to change if not even slower than their clients. If agencies and the advertising industry as a whole want to stay competitive and abreast, attracting top talent, and high-valued clientele they’ll need to address top employee concerns such as the lack of care for employee morale, needed improvement and communication regarding paths to growth and raises, as well as the slow to grow and unwillingness to change with the time’s reputation the advertising industry has become known for.

For more details on the study, to research how your employees compare to industry benchmarks, or for consultation on how to transform your agency, reach out to Tim Anderson at

Chris Hubble serves as CEO of market research and consumer insights agency Bastion db5. Before founding db5 in 2009, Chris served as Chief Executive Officer at Hall & Partners USA. Chris has 30+ years of experience in consumer insights with particular expertise in new product development, brand strategy, brand communications, and customer experience. He’s worked with over 50% of Fortune 500 clients. Bastion db5 has also done work for Yahoo!, Verizon Media, and BuzzFeed.

Tim Anderson is a brand transformation expert, industry thought leader and freelance brand strategist. He has 20+ years of experience leading strategy on a wide range of brands, including Disney, Energizer, Infiniti, Intuit, and Pennzoil/Shell. He’s worked at creative agencies like TBWA/Chiat/Day, David&Goliath, and The Martin Agency; creative consultancy, Phenomenon; and helped successfully introduce account planning to PR at Edelman. Tim is available for both brand and agency thought leadership consulting.