The real cost of advertising’s flyaway talent

If there’s one thing that advertising does well, its spin doctoring. After all, ours is a profession where we blend art form, storytelling and peddle these away as magical solutions that promise to solve marketing problems and help clients achieve their business goals. The problem however is the way we use these skills to gloss over fundamental issues in the way we do business. Perhaps it’s a time that the industry debates these openly and implements systems to ensure that clients don’t get the short end of the stick and the folk in the agency don’t kill themselves solving problems that are across the industry worldwide. While I’ve probably written about some such issues earlier, perhaps we should tackle them one at a time in separate articles.

So where do we start? The obvious place is dealing with attrition and the side effects that our clients face as a result.  Ours is an industry that see’s the highest level of talent change, even though there are just so many advertising agencies to go around. Logically, this means that people are moving out of advertising to other industries. One would think that this should help in uplifting the quality of marketing across the board if you think about it, right? Talent that goes ‘client side’ should be more understanding after all. The rest of the others go on to pursue more creative industries and avenues like publishing or the movies. Whatever the case may be, the ground reality remains that it doesn’t help the clients in the short term.

If you are a client it can be quite frustrating. And not just because of the new faces. While agency personnel that clients work closely with ‘hand over’ files and give status updates when they leave, there is always a gap. Sometimes more so behind the beautiful curtain that agencies create with their front line suits. Since most agencies are running really lean teams, when someone departs there is no way there can be a true knowledge transfer. This is partly because agencies don’t invest in fall backs, all the eggs are literally in very few baskets. There are certain roles that are very singular in focus. If it’s a team of two, then at least one of the parties can hold the fort till replacements join. But there are obvious problems even then – the age gap or the experience gap. Sometimes it feels that agencies stretch this period between hires, testing the waters, whether the junior person can make do and save the agency a buck in return. In reality since agencies are trying to get cost effective talent they often don’t find replacements fast enough.

It just gets worse when a new talent finally does join. For most clients this feels like turning the clock back or having the agency start from scratch. This is in fact true at times when entire teams leave. While sometimes a new take or perspective is appreciated, the need to re-explain things turns enthusiasm to ire for the clients. This is especially difficult in long-term projects.

Personally I’ve pitched for work and when a certain project got the global approvals it needed and the client came back to us to build it, I was the only person from the team who pitched the project to still be with the agency (a year later). This is can be quite a serious problem. Projects are sold with a vision but with the kind of knowledge transfer that happens, clients feel short-changed when they look around them and find a whole new set of people who don’t quite get the original vision direction. What’s worse is when the client has to deal with an enthusiastic team that wants to sail for newer territories. Partly because in our industry with ideas being so precious, everyone wants to ‘own the idea’. Which means a new team is likely to have new ‘original’ take that it would like to own after all.  So how do we fix this?

Agency side

I don’t profess to have all the answers. I’ve just started toying with these issues. One obvious problem is that there is no reference point to start. Sure you have decks and PPT’s in shared folders. However, there is a lot that is lost in translation and with limited time comes with limited hand-holding. I’ve spent my fair share of time pouring through old PowerPoint decks trying to get a sense of the thinking behind it. Perhaps a company-wide wiki that is only accessible when you are connected to the company server is a nod in the right direction. I am certain there are other companies outside ad land that does this. The problem is that most people might not take the time out to read everything. This is a one stop repository for the history that the agency has with the clients. We’re talking about consolidating call reports, meeting invites, all in one place. The result is a client diary that captures the thinking and chain of events behind the campaign, the associated decks and briefs that are all accessible through a query based system. Add in work that is being produced and you have an archival system in place as well that gives anyone with the access a fair understanding of where the agency and client sit.

Client side

From the client point of view, its perhaps more about getting new entrants to come down to their office and spend time doing a compulsory induction program. This could be split between inculcating newbies on the brand ethos to the projects at hand as well. Group goal setting and brain storming early on helps levelling the playing field and sets expectations. Bonds are built early on with such sharing sessions. To make life simpler, it could be done by the outgoing candidate just before they depart. However, if the attrition is really high, this can be quite a pain point for even the client. Imagine, they are spending an equally large amount of time and resource on training just because the agency is churning talent so badly.

While some clients try to levy financial penalties on agencies whose talent keep moving, this isn’t quite the way to go. Unless agencies are able to translate this into incentives for talent to stay, they will be hard-pressed to find talent that will sign on in the first place. Who ever heard of signing a bond to work in an agency after all?

Either way, I am mulling this over and I think we need a solution across the board. It would make clients feel more confident that their work is in good hands in the long run.