Agencies scramble to attract talent amid shortage

As agencies face a talent crunch, they are re-evaluating their recruitment and retention efforts.

U.S. businesses are facing a talent crunch. 

As of May 31, The Bureau of Labor Statistics recorded nearly 9.2 million job openings, and nearly two in three consulting firms say they’re short-staffed, according to Bloomberg News.

Creative and media agencies, which laid off thousands of people during the pandemic, are now desperate to fill openings as clients start to spend again. Volatility in the U.S. job market is impacting the sector, said Marla Kaplowitz, president and CEO at 4A’s, which has shared guidelines with agencies for addressing the talent shortage. 

“People are in a very different situation than they were pre-COVID and now employees are empowered,” she said. “They want flexibility and benefits, and as a result, companies have to think differently about how to motivate and engage people.”

The 4A’s has hired Temitayo Jegede as director of talent solutions to support its members with hiring and is working with regional HR committees to upskill staff. The organization is also launching a freelancer portal for agencies looking for talent on a project-basis. 

But it’s not just the labor shortage that’s leading to turnover in adland. Bill Kolb, chairman and CEO at McCann Worldgroup, said people may have exited the industry in search of “a more stable job” without having to worry about the “peaks and valleys of the agency business” after experiencing massive layoffs last year. 

Agencies are also increasingly looking for seasoned talent in niche roles that are difficult to fill, such as programmatic, data or analytics, said Sean Corcoran, U.S. CEO at Mediahub. 

“This industry has struggled with talent over the last decade because of digital transformation,” he said. “There just aren't enough people who understand programmatic, addressable, certain analytics or paid social. The whole industry is going to have to adapt in a truly significant way over the next year.” 

Technology and digital skills are in higher demand than ever as marketers prioritize online channels to keep up with consumer behavioral shifts. Creative agency Manufactur, for example, is looking for web designers and developers to handle an uptick in work from e-commerce startups and businesses going DTC alike, said co-founder Nicholas DeNitto.

“A lot of businesses that waited to emphasize their online [presences] are ready to move forward,” he said.

The crunch is pushing agencies to lean on staffing and recruitment firms and cut back on the amount of work they take on. 

Despite ad spend returning to pre-pandemic levels, WorkReduce, which staffs talent at media and digital agencies, tripled its revenues in the past year as the talent crisis has worsened, said founder and CEO Brian Dolan. The firm has worked with all of the major holding companies on a contract basis and has expanded into Europe and APAC. 

“It's really hard right now for agencies to take on a lot of entry-level talent because they only have the bandwidth to train up so many folks from scratch,” he said. 

He noted that as the workload increases, the training issue is only perpetuated.

While some recruitment and augmentation firms staff talent on a long-term basis, they are often a short-term fix. As agencies evaluate why people are leaving their companies and the industry at large, they are rethinking hiring and retention approaches for the future.

Flexible work

Hybrid work models are playing a big role in how agencies attempt to lure talent. 

Mediahub, for instance, which currently has more than 100 open roles, will not require staff to return to the office for the rest of the calendar year.McCann Worldgroup is also embracing a hybrid work model across its agencies, and at R/GA, 95% of U.S. employees will work in the office less than five days per week. 

PR agency Weber Shandwick is permanently shifting to a hybrid work model when offices re-open, with three days in the office and two days at home. It’s also added to its employee benefits program, Juice, by offering a $250, one-time allowance for employees that are director-level and below to help with home-office needs, and is launching an initiative to let employees explore their passions through time off, travel and remote work.

Agencies are also being flexible in where they source talent from, as remote work becomes more common. Mediahub, for example, will continue to hire out-of-market people to fill remote roles, Corcoran said. 

FCB, which has more than 150 open roles in the U.S. in creative, strategy and more, is also expanding its geographic scope for hires while operating a hybrid work model. 

“We’ve [had to] learn to hire anyone from anywhere and broaden from what we might have historically done,” said Tyler Turnbull, CEO at FCB North America. “We want to have maximum flexibility moving forward.” 

Values and balance

In today’s workforce, a big salary isn’t all it takes to win over employees. Aligning with people’s values is critical, especially among younger generations. 

McCann Worldgroup says it’s doing that by keeping diversity top of mind in hiring. It has also launched a sustainability group and made a commitment to go carbon neutral.

At R/GA, the team built an “inclusive recruitment database” to ensure new hires across the globe are diverse, said global CMO Ashish Prashar. UM has leveraged external recruitment firms and is working with HBCU organizations to hire people with diverse backgrounds, according to Kate Weiss, EVP of global HR and partner.

Talent is also looking for opportunities to develop their careers. FCB, for instance, is facilitating employee growth by rotating people across different roles, and UM is hosting regular career progression feedback meetings with employees. 

As mental health remains top of mind, UM said it is also strengthening initiatives such as “safe space” forums for Black and AAPI employees and mental health assistance through external partnerships. And McCann is partnering with Project Health Minds to offer employee programming around mental health topics.


But in an industry notorious for burnout, talent wants to know most of all that they’re being taken care of. 

UM is offering employees more time off, including a paid, weeklong holiday in the U.S. in late August for Employee Appreciation Week, increasing compensation for highly specialized roles and exploring new benefits offerings as employees head back to the office, said EVP of global HR Kate Weiss.

The Trade School, which currently has about 30 job openings, is re-evaluating its benefits packages as well, seeking to offer more support for employees in areas such as parental leave, said Ashley Kincade, SVP and head of culture. 

“Having transparent conversations with candidates upfront about how much they’re going to be paid and bringing to the forefront aspects of culture that make the agency special, especially in a time where folks have felt really disconnected, is really important,” she said. 

Word of mouth

At Two by Four, Becky Stevenson, director of operations notes the “greatest resource for talent and recruitment is always our people.” 

"I’ve heard it referred to as the 'Great Resignation of 2021' and we as an agency were certainly not immune,” she said. “We have had employees leave to move closer to their families, switch careers altogether, or after working in isolation for the last year, just desire something new." 

While the agency has had “some success” with job postings on LinkedIn, many of its recent hires have come from a referral bonus program. UM has also increased employee referral bonuses to encourage people to bring in more talent, and Weber Shandwick has enhanced its referral program, with employees VP level and below receiving $2,500 for junior hires and $5,000 for mid-level to senior hires.

Meanwhile, Grey Health, which is facing a tight market for experienced medical marketing professionals, credits word of mouth for its hiring luck.

“The health and wellness market is very hot right now and the top talent is getting recruited quickly,” said Cassandra Sinclair, president of North America Biopharmaceuticals at Grey, in an email. 

Regardless of how agencies lure talent back to agency land, solving the talent issue won’t be a one-size-fits all approach, said Barb Rozman-Stokes, chief talent officer at Campbell Ewald. 

As the talent war rages on, Steven Jiang, CEO and co-founder of diverse hiring firm Hiretual, said agencies should be aware that talent is becoming more cautious of who they choose to work for, and therefore, companies should “abide by their mission and values when making hiring decisions.”


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