The growing talent abyss—and why both agencies and clients are accountable
Clients and agencies need to shift to the same side of the table when discussing how to attract and keep top talent. Collectively, we face big challenges, and if we address them together, we’ll both win. But over the years, a wedge has come between us, often driven by procurement-led imperatives. It’s time to offer up a better solution—one we work on together.
The ad-industry talent churn-rate now tops 30%, according to the Association of National Advertisers. There are countless other options for top talent, from data and technology firms and VC-backed start-ups to consultants or the once-unorthodox independent contractor.
Compounding that, companies are investing in marketing technology at the expense of talent. According to Gartner’s CMO Spending Survey, $1 in every $6 of a marketing communications budget is invested in innovation, “despite doubts in the skills and capabilities available to support these programs," Automation and marketing technology alone won’t grow a business. But big-thinking strategists and innovators can, because they know how to get the most out of the tools tucked under these broad investments.
So why are we letting cost-cutting measures drive a talent migration and slash our companies’ best assets, often by pitting us against each other? Let’s instead show the nay-sayers—from procurement to consultants—how to do better by working together, not against each other.
Think partner, not provider
Our most successful agency-client relationships aren’t built on simply demanding top talent on the business. Your best brand managers are the same as our best people—they seek out environments where they’re valued, empowered and supported in making bold decisions. That means seeing the agency as a partner, not a provider.
And that requires clients to open the aperture of the relationship to share product roadmaps, not just communication briefs. When times get tough, the team can work together to find fresh perspective from people who can help move the business forward.
True partnership is the new world talent equation. Even with the best of intentions, premium pay and promise of growth, our top people won’t work with clients who don’t trust or support them as if they were their own. It’s why we’re also one of the first agencies to have employees actively evaluate clients based on how much they like working on their business. So next time top talent is a top priority, think about how actions breed an environment which naturally attracts and retains those people.
De-coupling talent from value
Procurement-led discussions center around saving money and tend to look narrowly at headcount as the baseline. Make the conversation instead about impact versus pure cost. By de-coupling individual talent costs from the value that our teams bring to the business, we can start to have a much more productive conversation. When marketers put the onus on agencies to extract costs or agencies focus too closely on margins, it stunts our collective opportunity to make innovative leaps toward a business success, instead settling for incremental gains with fewer resources.
Given the cost pressures that marketers themselves are facing, it’s not an easy conversation to have—today’s brands increasingly see multiple roles within their organizations being collapsed into one. It’s all the more reason for brands to champion internally to procurement this idea of value, both for their partners and for themselves. It’s why we’re helping shift the conversation to outcomes over cost.
Let unicorns run free
The best client-agency relationships—including those with standalone dedicated cross-agency models—understand that unicorns need to run free. When top talent actively chooses an agency setting, they’re most often doing so for the diversity of experience. They work across businesses, which means they may want to touch two clients with competing brands in their portfolios from time to time.
When we give these unicorns the authority and head space to operate at a higher level—when clients trust us to build and respect firewalls—we all get cost-efficient value. So, it is imperative for everyone to recognize that the demand for top talent and fluid resources can be at odds with the notion of a "conflict-free" environment. And it’s why regular dialogue with clients is core to ensuring that we support them running free through direct and open conversation.
Ultimately, let’s ensure we all understand our roles in cultivating top talent
We’re not going to solve the talent challenge overnight. But when both agency and client embrace the new talent equation of shared accountability and partnership, when we decouple talent costs from value and when we empower our top people, then we all win. And winning means that we won’t just stem the loss of great people, we will create a virtuous circle of the next generation of talent for the industry—talent that will build and grow great brands and agencies side-by-side.