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Confessions of an Advertising Recruiter: Sucking the Life out of the Golden Geese

By Published on .

Credit: siraanamwong/iStock

I recently completed an audit of key issues facing several dozen senior agency leaders. These conversations inevitably turn to talent in the ad industry, you know -- those valuable assets that go down in the elevator every night.

One CEO suggested I would do the ad biz a great service by shining the spotlight on a disturbing observation I've had for some time: namely, the industry is sucking the life out of its employees.

Top talent is, unfortunately, being squeezed out of advertising by the increasing pressures on the business. The three main symptoms are: an overloaded workforce; an exodus to other industries; and the cry for better work-life balance.

Overloaded workforce
A watershed event hit our industry in 2008. The Great Recession resulted in budgets being slashed, agency positions eliminated and severe belt-tightening. Advertising employment hit the lowest point in decades. This created a snowball effect.

Cost-cutting hit publicly traded holding companies particularly hard because they answer to financial analysts.

At the same time, procurement departments became more involved in agency service fee negotiations. One egregious example of a recent procurement exercise was a "reverse auction." This involves agencies racing to the bottom of the cost structure competing against each other in real-time, online!

New digital tools suddenly enabled more precise and timely marketing communications feedback. This created more of an ROI world with clients asking, What have you done for me lately, agency? In the olden days, there were no precise measures of sales impact from advertising. When we created a new Oreo commercial, if it copy-tested well, we aired it.

Morale seems to be an all-time low. The big squeeze resulted in being asked to do more with less, having fewer people with an increasingly heavier workloads. When I worked on the Colgate account at Ted Bates (yes, that long ago), I was an AE with an AAE below, and I reported to a dedicated Management Supervisor and to a partially allocated SVP, all on an account billing less than $6 million! Not today, friends.

Exodus to other industries
Advertising has always been a semi-glamorous business that attracts many talented people. But today, advertising seems to be attracting fewer college grads, who are hired instead by Wall Street, high-flying tech firms or even the client side.

With the Dow at all-time highs, it's understandable that Wall Street will attract more than its fair share. One agency exec said he recently spoke to a room full of new recruits, 90% of whom were women. When he asked his HR chief where all the men were, she said they were headed to Wall Street.

There is a certain allure to tech firms, as well -- especially by those candidates who spend so much time with their noses in social media. However, many people are soon disillusioned when they're hired by Facebook, only to find themselves in a room with 80 other engineers, each trying improve the utility of a single button. Others have said that, from the inside, Google is just a glorified Yellow Pages.

As for defections to the client side, where the grass is always greener, check out my first column in this series.

Work-life balance
Millennials and Gen Xers have taken up the cry for better work-life balance, a term not formerly in the lexicon of this Boomer.

One candidate some years ago quit her hectic job because she was simply fried. She said she was taking a "radical sabbatical" away from the rat race, and would get another job before she ran out of money. I ended up placing her in an agency with an enlightened CEO who afforded her the work-life balance she craved. She stayed several years.

Some agencies are coming around to more flexible hours, unlimited PTO, more functional training, as well as encouraging continued education and working from home. But not many.

Time to refocus on the people, people. Or else you'll have empty elevators at night.

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