"Complete sweatshop." "Main management is a club for friends." "Stop thinking of your employees as your slaves. They are individuals with personalities." "Management pretends to embrace women, but it’s still a boys’ club." "The hiring process isn’t The X Factor. Treat your candidates, especially young talent, with respect. The way candidates were treated at the assessment day reveals much more about the agency culture than any claims on your website."
If any more compelling evidence were needed of the revolution afoot in the workplace, you need look no further than this growing mountain of negative reviews of some of the world’s leading ad agencies, posted on company review site Glassdoor.
Against a backdrop of digital-driven transparency, even the graduate recruitment process has become a two-way street in which the interviewer is, in effect, being judged as much as the potential new employee.
For a generation that views its success, or lack thereof, through the lens of Mark Zuckerberg, a corner office or convoluted job title is not the status symbol it once was. This has left adland facing up to its very own branding problem: the next generation of talent simply isn’t buying its "work hard, play hard" culture, for so long such a central part of its ethos.
The shift in the balance of power, enabled by tools that allow the public naming and shaming of employers that don’t meet their staff’s standards, is shaking the foundations of the working environment. Today, a company’s brand is defined increasingly not by what the business says it stands for, but by the day-to-day experiences of its employees, and a virtual and physical revolution in the workplace is occuring.
This is compounded by those in the next generation of talent being more focused on rebuilding the working world in their own image, rather than simply aspiring to join existing organisations, putting the future of creative work in a state of flux.
Sticking to stability
Attracting talent to the advertising industry has become a challenging task, as employees have become more risk-averse in their approach to work. According to research from the Levo Institute and Adecco, › published as part of "The Millennial Economy Report", just 36% of Generation Z respondents said opportunity for growth was their number-one priority when it came to their career. Furthermore, 69% said they would prefer a stable job lacking passion to a passionate job that lacked stability. Meanwhile, 62% said that financial stability was among their top-three priorities.
At the same time, the creative industry’s well-documented diversity problem is contributing to an environment in which attracting and retaining the very best, eclectic talent pool remains a work in progress.
As Cindy Gallop, founder of social-change platform IfWeRanTheWorld and sextech start-up MakeLoveNotPorn, says: "It doesn’t matter how many people you bring in at the bottom if you show them nowhere to go at the top."
She believes the answer to this problem is twofold. First, those men in the "closed loop of white guys talking to white guys about other white guys [need] to hire and promote into equal-leadership status with themselves [those] women they feel threatened by".
Second, young people looking at advertising as an industry need to recognise the fact that change can happen from the bottom up, not the top down. "They can join, do a couple of years in an agency to get familiar with the industry, and then blow it apart by starting their own vision of the future of advertising that will completely disrupt and innovate, because the white guys at the top sure as hell aren’t [doing this]," Gallop adds.
While every generation tends to view those in the one behind it with barely concealed exasperation, exclaiming "they don’t know they’re born", today’s workplace is facing a significant culture clash. One doesn’t have to go far in adland to hear the same complaints: the gap between experience and expectation; an apparent inability to stay in the office beyond 6pm; the belief that one has a right to be heard; or that a spin class should take precedence if the boss fails to keep a meeting to time.
Alain Sylvain, founder of innovation and brand design agency Sylvain Labs, believes there is a generational disconnection within the modern creative business. He points out that Gen X people are leading businesses, while younger people are the ones actually doing the work and accelerating innovation.
"The older people were raised in a strict meritocracy where your worth is proven by your battle scars, while younger folks believe anyone can do anything, despite experience or age," he says. "Many of today’s leaders in business are bitter about the ambition and optimism of younger people. And younger people are confounded by the complicity and short-sightedness of their leaders."
A life’s work
If the very concept of work has been built on the notion of deferred gratification, it is perhaps understandable that with the rapid onset of the age of "no retirement", the next generation of talent simply isn’t buying it.
As Alistair Beattie, co-chief executive of DDB and Tribal Worldwide, Amsterdam, explains: "It might have worked for their parents, but the ‘boomers’ had the best of it. Instead, this generation are considering options beyond the 48 weeks a year in an office, building a career. [They are] seeking mini-retirements, sabbaticals and multiple careers during the course of a longer working life."
Beattie argues that the notion of working for 37.5 hours a week across 48 weeks of the year is simply a hangover from the Industrial Revolution. "It’s not well adjusted to the needs of a modern information worker, employed in a service industry. It doesn’t make the most of people’s ‘natural product’," he says.
This view is echoed by Theo Izzard-Brown, chief strategy officer at McCann London. He believes that the generation currently coming into the workplace is less conformist when it comes to the traditional confines of work, and this is where the creative industry needs to step up and lead the way.
"Starting salaries are pretty low and living costs are constantly on the rise. So we should be looking to offer a more meaningful package to new talent, and that includes more flexible contracts, depending on the individual," Izzard-Brown says. "By embracing people’s passions and encouraging them to have a ‘side-hustle’, whether that’s moonlighting as a DJ or setting up their own business on the side, it all makes for a more interesting person who is more productive in the office."
Of course, attributing the frictions in the workplace solely to generational issues is flawed. After all, some of the industry’s most innovative and creative companies have been built in the winter of their founder’s creative careers.
As Chris Pearce, chief executive of TMW Unlimited, says: "There is a great danger and no little irritation in lumping vast groups of people together and claiming that ‘all millennials are entitled experience-seekers’ or that ‘Gen X will be replaced by AI in the year 2030’."
However, he concedes that generational challenges are increasing as the workforces ages. He adds: "Any creative business aiming to thrive in the next 20 to 30 years has to find a way to attract and retain young entrepreneurial talent beyond salary and location."
Meaning and motivation
In this challenging environment, it is of little surprise that offering employees "meaning" and "purpose" have risen up the corporate agenda. Nonetheless, there is no question that in some corners of the industry the drive to motivate employees through "meaning" is little more than a sop for poor starting salaries and long hours.
As Beattie aptly declares, "meaningfulness" is essential, but love doesn’t pay the rent. "We need to make sure that we don’t force even more talent out of the industry by failing to create realistic opportunities for starters," he says.
As the first generation to inherit a world poorer than that enjoyed by their parents, millennials face a unique set of economic challenges, particularly in the world’s creative capitals.
Neil Hughston, chief executive of creative start-up Duke, says that when he came to London in 1989, smoking was still permitted on the upper floor of double-decker buses, a single ticket for travel within Zone 1 on the Underground was 80p and the average price of a four-bedroom house in London was £82,000. Now, of course, smoking is banned on public transport, it is £4 for a single ticket and that four-bedroom house will set you back somewhere north of £500,000 – but don’t expect the property to be anywhere near central London.
"Perhaps it’s time to look into things like rental contribution and travel allowances as part of the overall starting salary package, and I don’t mean in the sense that these are company loans," Hughston says. "I get that any commercially savvy company is not a charity, but maybe a bursary-style approach or ‘golden handcuffs’ would work."
Smart companies are already embracing this challenge. In 2015, PwC announced that "associate-level" employees would receive money toward student loans, while Starbucks has committed more than $250m to help its employees in the US attend college without accruing tuition debt.
Elsewhere, two years ago, EY – one of the UK’s biggest graduate recruiters – ditched its requirement for a minimum 2:1 degree classification, at the same time banning CVs from its recruitment process, as it sought to open up and diversify its workforce.
Adland has also shifted the goalposts. Notably, in 2016, Ogilvy & Mather launched The Pipe – a six-month, paid (at the London Living Wage) internship scheme that doesn’t call for any experience or a university degree. In fact, the only requirement is that applicants show creativity.
Alice Dipper, people and culture manager of marketing agency Brilliant Noise, says that if we are heading into a period of economic instability, companies will need to prioritise ways of supporting employees beyond their basic salary.
She suggests: "This could be achieved by offering benefits that enhance a specific stage of their lives, such as more paid time off for parents, support for first-time house buyers, investment in training or time off for personal projects."
The notion that work should be something that you do, rather than a place you go, is one that has garnered a great deal of traction and spawned myriad Ted Talks. Yet it is still not felt in the day-to-day experiences of employees in the creative sector. In a recent survey of industry members by Nabs, just 16% of respondents were found to be working flexibly.
Nabs chief executive Diana Tickell says that while there is a trend towards more flexibility, some organisations retain traditional views on office working. For example, they continue to expect desk presence, rather than adopting newer thinking around remote working.
In contrast, younger and specialised businesses are paving the way when it comes to exploring newer methods of working – often with flexibility at their heart. ›
Tickell adds: "We see that those working flexibly, or remotely, including many of our industry’s working parents, are fitting in a full week’s work across a more condensed timescale. It seems that as hours – or at least hours in the office – decrease, productivity and efficiency often increase."
This inability of the industry to banish presenteeism is particularly surprising, as the economic burden that office space represents will place more pressure on companies to reduce their physical footprint.
Hughston says that the future of creativity is less about the physical space and more about the essence of the environment, and the mentality within it. "Creative workplaces of the future will need to foster a culture of excitement and supporting bravery by not selling out creatively," he predicts. "I know that’s incredibly difficult, but I can’t help feeling that both clients and agencies would benefit from it."
In addition, as the appeal and power of freelancing continues to have an impact on the industry, some believe that creating a "culture of freelancing" will be the key to attracting and retaining talent.
As an industry where the most important assets walk out of the door each night, there is a business imperative for creative organisations to focus on how to motivate, maintain and attract the best talent, but also how that talent is sold to their clients.
As Beattie warns: "If we’re not careful, then the future will be distributed, outsourced and auctioned. This is a race to the bottom. If we’re smart, then we will protect our talent by selling the real value of their work and not the hours it took to make it."
However, just as a cursory glance at TripAdvisor would lead you to believe that people go on holiday with the primary aim of taking pictures of stains in hotel bathrooms, if you spend too much time on Glassdoor you may conclude that career fulfilment is anathema to the ad industry. Yet, as with any review site, the experiences posted tend to occupy the extremes of good and bad – in other words, black and white when the majority of life experiences sit within the shades of grey.
Nonetheless, for millennials, who measure life experiences and expectations through the eclectic lens of social media, the desire for a life lived in technicolour is apparent. Here is a generation not content to lean into the existing system, but instead seeks to rebuild it in its own image. It is an approach that, while contributing to tensions in traditional office environments, offers the prospect of an entirely new approach to creative work.
So, then, to Gallop’s advice to new talent: "Don’t go into advertising to ‘go into advertising’. Go into advertising to make what you want to happen, happen. Look around, identify what’s missing, what you think should be there, what you think only you can bring to the table, and then start that. Because we desperately need it, and you will do the industry a load of good and make a load of money when one of the big holding companies begs to buy it from you."
The world of work is changing and full of promise. Just make sure you leave your desk for long enough to see it.