Where great talent wants to live

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Forward-thinking agencies are encouraging new talent to reach for a higher mission.
Forward-thinking agencies are encouraging new talent to reach for a higher mission.

Can the advertising industry reverse its talent drain? Only if it recognizes the transformative power of a higher mission

Miles Nadal of MDC Partners is extremely adept at reminding the advertising industry that his holding company is "where great talent lives." This corporate strapline is better that the typical holding company pabulum. And it works: one of the reasons that I joined MDC Partners’ CP+B more than a few years ago was predicated on collaborating with some of the best thinkers and tinkerers in the business.

So to no surprise, the Nadal line was again intoned at Advertising Week where he reminded us that this business is all about great talent. Industry titans like Havas CEO Yannick Bolloré and Maurice Levy, CEO of Publicis Groupe, sanguinely saw no shortage of brilliance coming out of agencies in the years to come. And yet too many others at last week’s panel-fest in New York echoed a different sentiment: Great advertising talent is becoming increasingly harder to recruit and retain.

When taking one step away from the ego-driven self-congratulation that permeates Advertising Week and beginning an honest assessment of the advertising industry, it becomes amply evident that talent is leaving advertising agencies to go to tech companies, start-ups and in-house creative departments of upstart brands at alarming speed.

The end result is an entire industry where mediocre talent lives. Compounded by other factors like an industry oligarchical system predicated on delivering shareholder value by diminishing cost, a client-side resurgence of procurement and compliance, and a consumer audience that sniffs out bullshit faster than it can be produced, there seems to be little compelling reason for talent to stay in — let alone flock to — the advertising industry.

As if the obvious was not enough, a comedian trained on observing the obvious received a lifetime achievement award at the Clios. Capping off Advertising Week in front of a who’s who of industry legends and soon-to-be’s, Jerry Seinfeld reminded the ballroom that "spending your life trying to dupe innocent people out of hard-won earnings to buy useless, low-quality, misrepresented items and services is an excellent use of your energy."

So let’s add lack of meaning to the list of woes. And this dearth of internal purpose and global responsibility is perhaps this industry’s greatest downfall.

For some agency heads and creatives, the current environment is ripe for transformation. Perhaps unsurprisingly, new business models and agency conceits are popping up outside of the traditional advertising bastions. With a mix of start-up dynamism and emphasis on meaningful creativity, a new breed of advertising is taking hold. And this upstart generation of creativity may be both the advertising industry’s destroyer and savior.

I asked a few of my colleagues and friends – those who are emblematic of the rising tide against the status quo in this industry – why creative talent is fleeing and what can be done about it. (Tellingly, only one of them went to Advertising Week; the title of his panel was #advertisingisbroken.)

John Winsor, CEO of Victor’s & Spoils, doesn’t mince words. "Most agencies are run by bean counters," he says. "It's a shell game of getting paid for more work than you’re actually doing. In this new world of transparency, old agency tricks like short-staffing and selling dubious proprietary models just doesn't work anymore." That’s why, in his opinion, "if you're stuck in a traditional shop, there's probably a lot that's wrong with it. But, if you work in a new school shop or tech-based company, you're having the time of your life. It's all about where you sit."

And as for the creative work, Tim Geoghegan, a Los Angeles-based creative director, concedes that "most advertising does, in fact, suck. And that’s probably one of the only reasons good talent stays in the business anymore. It’s the whole reason awards have merit still – to push the work to be something that does make it seem worth it because you at least made something that made people think, or laugh, while selling."

It’s amazing to think that creativity in advertising is still based on money and awards, but it is wholly true. Yet forward-thinking agencies are creating another form of approbation currency: social purpose. "Who the hell cares about selling useless shit and unhealthy products anymore when you can actually work in a startup where you are tied directly to a mission, and be personally rewarded and enriched at the same time?" asks Rob Schuham, Chief Innovation Officer at Match Marketing Group.

But if there’s a greater mission to the work – to the agency and its clients – could that reverse the trend of talent drain? The overwhelming consensus is yes. For instance, some agencies chase impeccable creative as their mission. As Jordan Warren of Argonaut (a sister agency to mine) points out, the agency is "constantly on the hunt for those clients who want to make history rather than repeat it." Equally important is constant recruitment of talent – "the number one priority of our agency" – and "the satisfaction you get when you create something amazing. It's not about in-house gyms, free gourmet meals and massages. It's about fostering creativity - presenting your people with the opportunities and support to do the best work of their careers, and celebrating like hell when they do."

Other agencies are taking mission to a more literal level in order to attract and retain top talent. Agencies like Matter, Purpose, Manifesto, Common, Human Design, Made Movement, LRXD and Good Must Grow are ingraining purpose into their culture and operations.

Made Movement is an advertising agency that works with clients who help American manufacturing. Common is a creative community that rapidly prototypes and launces social ventures under a unified and collaborative brand. My agency called School, part of Project:WorldWide, specializes in human-centric mediums like digital, experiential and social to create great advertising work -- while also building schools in underdeveloped nations like Guatemala, Ghana and Laos with our partners at Pencils of Promise.

"Today’s young creative minds have that awesome Millennial gene that inspires them to do some good in addition to being successful," explains Jonathan Balck, president of Victors & Spoils. "Finding that balance is the way we attract young creative folks."

It seems fairly simple: If advertising talent is leaving for start-ups and mission-based endeavors, its time that agencies begin to act more like start-ups – collaborative, agile and quicker to ideas – and begin to espouse a greater purpose to the work they do. Work that not only solves problems or sells more stuff, but work that allows everyone in the industry to, as Schuham puts it, look ourselves in the mirror.

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