How a new generation of fearless talent is redefining the creative industries

Every generation believes it can change the world, but as the advertising industry faces a tipping point, the pressure from the next generation of creative talent to embrace change is too powerful to ignore.

Believing you can change the world is all too often dismissed as the folly of youth. Yet the speed, scale and progress of the student-led gun control organisation #NeverAgain provides a poignant reminder that problems previously believed to be simply insurmountable or too complex to grasp can be tackled by a renewed energy, passion and belief in the power of the individual to make a difference.

Idealistic though it may sound, the generation written off as "slacktivists" is redefining the boundaries of creativity. The #NeverAgain movement shows there is more than one path to change. That is if you are brave enough to free yourself from what Stoneman Douglas High School activist David Hogg calls "the safety of inaction". 

For the next generation of creative talent, inaction and maintaining the status quo are not always valid career options. As attrition rates continue to challenge the world’s biggest agency networks, the need for change is difficult to ignore. What guaranteed success or failure in the past can no longer be taken as an assurance of a similar outcome in the future.

Jules Ehrhardt, former co-owner of digital product and service studio ustwo and author of State of the Digital Nation, says: "The problem is that you’re either a revolutionary or you’re not. Change is coming faster than we think. Ignore the many signals the market is sending at your peril."

He adds: "The still-nascent #NeverAgain movement demonstrates that unless the adults can resolve [these situations], there will be a reckoning. We’re talking about the most highly educated, motivated and technologically enabled generation of humanity. It would be sad if inaction meant that these voices and their energy ended up in entirely another industry." 

Nurturing the next generation of creative talent

At a recent job interview, a junior creative turned the tables on a chief executive to question how the agency was tackling its eye-watering gender pay gap. Challenging inequality and campaigning for a cause bigger than itself is part of the way of life for this creative cohort, who are not only acutely aware of the challenges facing the industry, but seeking tangible solutions. Even if that means being turned down for a role they had set their heart on.

Sara Keegan, a strategist at 18 Feet & Rising, argues that the industry is in the midst of an "existential crisis" and young creative talent is looking elsewhere. "The best minds are being poached well before an agency can even promise there’s free booze in the office fridge," she says.

This has significant implications for creative leadership. "Historically we’ve been taught that empathy and emotions are born out of weakness," Keegan adds. "But today, we’re challenging this notion by demanding a different generation of leaders; creating a ‘new alpha’." 

For members of the generation that expects transparency in all aspects of life, it is glaringly obvious that they would expect it from their leaders, too. This may sound idealistic to industry stalwarts, but doesn’t the long-term success of the creative industries depend on attracting people who really care about what they are doing? 

Jacqueline Bourke, senior manager, creative insights and planning at Getty Images, believes so. She says that the #NeverAgain campaign has powerfully highlighted the creativity and drive coming through with the next generation.

"Born digital natives and growing up with a DIY education attitude towards social media and content creation, this generation is best placed to understand – and educate generations ahead – how to harness the power of digital to tell compelling visual stories. Nurturing this talent should therefore be a top priority," Bourke adds.

The straitjacket of the status quo

However, even a cursory glance at recruitment site Glassdoor suggests that nurturing talent is not always top of the business agenda. Concerns focus not just on a long-hours culture but also a lack of inclusivity implicit in agencies, some of which are seen, in essence, as "old boys’" networks. Creativity has long drawn on the movements, inspiration and energy of the young. Yet if employees don’t feel they can bring their whole self to work or have a tangible impact on agency culture, their impact is muted.

At a time when a pressure on margins has stripped out middle management, young people face the dual challenge of a lack of mentors and being asked to do too much too soon. In this brutal marketplace, burnout is a cruel fact of life that is already cutting too many creative careers short.

Faris Yakob, co-founder of strategy consultancy Genius Steals, believes young people are becoming less enamoured with the agency deal, which he describes as: "Give us every hour of your youth and you might eventually become senior enough to make some real money."

Yakob warns: "The promise of a stable career for the long term is gone. The glorification of weekend work, the daily routine of office-based working, which inevitably dulls one’s creativity – this is no longer a sacrifice that people have to make, and so they don’t and they won’t."

More than a moment in time

Both the advertising industry and business at large are grappling with the demand for more transparency and humanity from organisations. 

According to Ana Balarin and Katie Mackay-Sinclair, partners at Mother: "When things are out of kilter, there is usually a period of dramatic readjustment. The industry is going through that now and the shift is in full swing."

The changes are not always easy for agencies to navigate. From Diet Madison Avenue to Fishbowl, a new era of social-media-driven activism is holding leaders accountable in a public forum. Justin Pahl, managing director of Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, believes that, ultimately, #MeToo is about changing the power dynamics in life, some of which are very › deep-rooted. "Building a better future has to come from rebalancing that power dynamic by promoting the causes of ambitious and talented young women, along with people from other under-represented parts of society," he says. 

Agencies must provide a long-term commitment. "Change isn’t a ‘moment’ – a word that undoes a lot of the work and progress that’s already been made – but a long-term push," Robyn Frost, a creative at Poke London, says. She believes that, all too often, change in the creative industries is reduced to "let’s just do this one thing" or make it one person’s job, as opposed to recognising the fact that it requires an awareness and effort from everyone, whatever their level.

Frost explains: "Values need to run right through from top to bottom. If there’s fear of failure or a fundamental lack of knowing what to do from leadership, then stepping back and staying comfortable must seem far more inviting. Luckily, there’s a whole generation stepping up and joining those already in and making waves, and we’ll only get stronger with time."

Silenced scepticism

Certainly this vibrant next wave of creative talent is already making itself heard and going elsewhere when it feels it isn’t being listened to. From the steady stream of talent from established agencies into purpose-driven, smaller creative shops to the continued problem of attrition, when it comes to getting to grips with the demands of the working world, expectation and reality are not always in step.

Yakob says that every young generation is more idealistic than the one before. So the idea that this is somehow unique to millennials or Generation Z is nonsense. "Young people have not had their beliefs and values eroded by compromise, they’ve yet to encounter the highest levels of business, where money made or shareholder value created is the only proof of social good," he says.

However, idealism and action are not mutually exclusive. "It seems likely that they will face increased urgency in dealing with global and transnational problems like climate change, tax evasion and democracies under attack. So they might have to rise to the challenges that the elder generations have mostly kicked down the road," Yakob explains

The gratitude conundrum

Behind the drive to kick the difficult issues down the road lies an underlying complacency regarding employee expectations. In essence, it is far easier for established management teams to dismiss the demands of their employees as "entitled" than to undertake the root-and-branch investment and devote the time required to build a flexible and inclusive company culture. 

A common gripe among disgruntled staff is the attitude from management that young employees should simply be grateful to work in the creative industries. Ehrhardt characterises such managers as "the ‘in my day’ brigade", outraged by the new generation of entitled millennials for appearing to value their own wellbeing over the company’s fortunes.

Chris Pearce, chief executive of TMW Unlimited, says this next generation of creatives is faced with three choices. One: reject the agency model outright and go to work for a client or tech company. Two: sign up to the industry and agitate from the inside. If you prove your talent, but then reject the culture, the agencies will have to change to accommodate you. Three: do something yourself. 

"I would advocate route two, and you can always get mad and try route three once you’ve learned something," he says. "Most people hate change, let’s face it. When you throw in 50-odd years of vested interests and ingrained behaviours about ‘how this industry works’ it’s no wonder we sometimes move at a glacial pace."

Learning is not a one-way street, and businesses are recognising the power that lies in listening to the fiercest critics within their ranks – or, better still, employing them as shadow boards and leaders in their own right, regardless of their age or place in pre-existing, but increasingly irrelevant, hierarchies.  

Rick Sellars, creative director at branding agency Interbrand, points out that the new crop of talent brings with it an open mind. "They aren’t wedded to the conventional silos of disciplines of the past but are instead multi-disciplined. There is a real hunger to go beyond their comfort zone and do more both within their own industry and for clients," he says.

A push for progress

Yet despite the focus on transformation, genuine change, particularly when it comes to diversity, is still slow. Frost contends that the importance placed on awards shows could stunt the push for real cultural progress. "On the one hand, we’re seeing work take home awards that wasn’t actually brought to life, demonstrating that simply presenting the idea of change is enough," she says. "At the same time, awards are coveted because, more often than not, they equate to a title bump or pay jump. They’re markers on the track record of success and, sadly, are a requirement."

According to Frost, this "bleeds into other areas of the industry". She adds: "Important issues which urgently need addressing are talked about rather than acted upon. We talk to be seen to be responding, but we can, and need to, do better."

Despite these challenges, creatives across the board baulk at the idea that the industry has lost its ambition. Laura Jordan Bambach, chief creative officer at Mr President and co-founder of She Says, insists that the industry needs to challenge the forces that threaten to make it stale. "There are creative people who can’t access creative roles. We need to do a better job of promoting the fact you can earn a decent living being creative," she argues.

Bambach adds: "When I first started out, I felt like a pirate, I felt I could do anything. But a lot of that spirit has gone as we have ‘productised’ the industry. We have realised we are swimming in a shallow pool and diversity requires investment. It is a real time for change, but that change will take consistent work."

Emotional intelligence

There is no question that technology is one of the key driving forces of change in the industry, but creative leaders such as Sara Tate, chief › executive of TBWA\London, believe that the drive to embrace new platforms should not undermine the industry’s humanity. For while many think that technology now drives evolution, it’s people who are the true agents of change.

However, Tate cautions: "Getting people to change their behaviour is phenomenally hard; much harder than developing technological innovations. This is something the advertising industry, long held responsible for persuading people to give up smoking, buy a new mattress or eat more healthily, should intrinsically understand."

She points to David Gleicher’s formula for organisational change, which states that to overcome resistance and create change, you need dissatisfaction with the current situation, a vision of something better and a series of clear steps to achieve the desired outcome. 

"We are definitely ticking the dissatisfaction box, with the #MeToo and Time’s Up Advertising movements once and for all underlining that many current working environments and practices can no longer be tolerated. But how many visions of a better workplace do we have?" asks Tate.

She points to the example of Danish agency IIH Nordic, which offers four-day weeks for all employees with no salary reduction. But what about the networks and established shops that bemoan the lack of female talent, but are loath to change their working cultures? "We need more four-day-a-week CEOs, more men taking shared parental leave and more client-facing talent working flexi hours," Tate adds.

All these innovations are driven just as much by human kindness as they are by technology, and it is this humanity that will be crucial for the industry to thrive and evolve. 

As Pahl explains:  "AI and robotics will have profound consequences for work in the future, but human capability is not static, nor is our potential exhausted. What might a liberated humanity achieve when the basics of mundane life are automated, when a powerful computer can solve the riddles of disease and hunger? Our imaginations and emotional capacity are our most valued qualities, so it is exciting to think that these could be liberated by the existence of technology. We have reason to apply healthy scepticism, but also to be hopeful."

Indeed, for many in the industry, the cultural challenges faced by businesses at large act as a rallying cry for the power of creativity. Ann Wixley, executive creative director of Wavemaker, concludes that creativity has never been needed more. She says: "[There is an] opportunity to come up with ideas that don’t sit in a box – from voice to tapping into the entire Amazon ecosystem. We need to think of ideas that can live out in the world." 

Changing the model

Selling ideas that can change the world is perhaps the biggest marketing advantage for creative industries competing with the deep pockets of tech giants and management consultancies to lure the best creative talent. To capture, then hold, the attention of this generation requires accepting the fact that equality is a non-negotiable part of business life.

This next generation of creative talent is already rejecting the industry’s traditional signifiers of success. Progressive agencies must recognise that the working practices and cultures of the past should not provide a road map for the future. 

"Looking around, there really is a feeling that many of us were mugs spending our 20s the way we did, usually at work. And perhaps they are right," Balarin and Mackay-Sinclair say. "What we’re seeing is more recognition of the need for balance in our lives. For the next generation, work isn’t the ‘be-all’ for them. For example, they don’t see spending long periods in a particular job as a benefit – to them, jobs are the things that break up the key life moments." 

Unless the industry can resolve its crisis, agencies risk becoming finishing schools for the tech giants, who are already eating up the industry’s profits. This is the stark warning from Ehrhardt, who questions why the emerging generation of talent would subscribe to unnecessarily hostile working conditions, missold projects, and work lacking in purpose.

He believes new companies and models must be built. "For that to happen, we need to embrace the forces of creative destruction, long held back by intransigent leaders. The adults are failing the next generation. Too many have their heads in the sand, overly invested in the status quo, content to ride out their careers with mortgages and college fees in mind," Ehrhardt says. 

An opt-in future

Far from being a threat to the industry, the "forces of creative destruction" to which Ehrhardt alludes could in fact be the industry’s salvation. 

As Wixley explains, the future of advertising is about embracing truth. "#NeverAgain is a pure truth, you know when a brand is being true or not. Great advertising and great ideas take root when they have truth at their heart. Yet in many businesses there is a battle to find that truth," she says. 

There is a risk that the debate about the future of the industry is simplified into a generational divide, as if age and innovation were mutually exclusive pursuits. As Lou Weiss, chief marketing officer at Shutterstock explains, there have been many other points over the years when the industry has learned a lot from grass-roots initiatives. 

"When we’re early in our careers we tend to undervalue experience and then, as we acquire more laps around the track, we tend to overvalue our experience and begin to believe: ‘I know what I’m doing.’ But in order to be life-long learners, we need to surround ourselves with people both younger and older than us. We need to know what tools and experiences dominate their daily lives, behaviours and attitudes."

For Frost, carving out a career on her own terms, where the day job runs parallel to other things she cares about, is at the very heart of what success means, both to her and the industry as a whole. This demands more than empty platitudes from industry leaders, who must show they’re acting on their words. She says: "[They need to say] ‘We see your point, and raise you a list of actionable solutions.’" 

Far from being intergenerational warfare, the future of creativity is about having the humility to respect and recognise the experiences and views of others and not retreat into fear or defensiveness. It is a creative strength – rooted in truth and openness – that should inspire us all.  

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