When it’s time to say goodbye to adland

After a year to forget, is 2021 the time not just to seek a fresh challenge in a new job but make the leap to another industry altogether?

Starting a new job can be a slightly bewildering experience, but of late it has been less about finding the best sandwich bars near work or figuring out a new commute due to the Covid-19 crisis, which has changed the face of office work.

For Katie Lee, add in a dash of homeschooling and a “meet the team” Zoom call (from a freezing house, thanks to a broken boiler) and the weirdness was taken to new heights. 

The team members, in this case, work at the mental wellbeing app Clementine as the former Lucky Generals chief executive has joined the band of adlanders who have left the industry for pastures new.

There may be more people who emulate Lee and make the escape this year, although for some it will undoubtedly be market conditions driving this change.

The IPA, whose census is released in April, is expecting a “significant dip” in the number of ad workers. Cast your eye over LinkedIn these days and it’s hard to miss the preponderance of #opentowork green badges on people’s profile pictures. Whether they stay in advertising or make a change will only become clear much further down the line.

Even for those who kept their jobs, the pandemic has put a stop to “business as usual”, offering a natural break in which to pause and consider the options out there. Between January and May, Google searches on “how to move jobs” and “move careers” went up by 138%, according to analysis by the employment practice of law firm Richard Nelson.

‘Lucky thing’

Asked about the reaction to her news from buddies in the industry, Lee says it was split between those saying the role is a good fit because of her strong advocacy on mental-health issues, others registering surprise and a fair few envious quips along the lines of: “You lucky thing, how did you escape?”

This particular escape was mostly driven by the specific opportunity rather than a yearning to get out of adland.

Lee explains: “When you get to an agency like Lucky Generals, there aren’t many agencies you could go to after that. You then think: what would I do after that if I was thinking about leaving?”

The good news for those pondering whether to leave it all behind is that many of the skills honed in agency life are transferable and desirable. 

Lee says that landing a chief executive role outside advertising would be difficult, but that the “joy” of her new role was that “a lot of my experience really suited it because I’d worked at founder-owned businesses at Gravity Road, Sunshine and Lucky Generals”.

"I really understand that tension between how you look after the founders’ baby. How you can continue to let them be emotional and love everything about their business whilst also bringing whatever might be needed to it, whether that be scale or professionalising or changing things about it," she continues. "I think that when they [Clementine] met me, they liked hearing about my experiences doing that."

While she may not yet have the “tech speak”, being able to manage a disparate group of people and knowing your way around a P&L means she’s amply equipped for the post.

The bright lights of the tech start-up world has proved alluring in recent years to those looking for a new challenge. 

In Richard Arscott’s case, he didn’t just leave the UK ad scene, he ended up leaving the country. Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO's managing director until 2016, Arscott left to launch people directory tool Names & Faces. Based in San Francisco, he says the “pull” of being able to work with his friend of 20 years Paul Galatis meant there was “too much to gain and not enough to lose”.

He picks out the ability to empathise as one of the many transferable skills that he has found useful.

“When you’re building a new product from scratch, you need to be able to understand your customers and users, and the pain you’re building a product to solve, and know how you can marry data and qualitative conversations to help do that,” Arscott explains.

Meanwhile, after plying her trade in senior new-business and agency marketing roles before rising to deputy managing director of Mcgarrybowen, Sarah Hesz left six years ago to found Mush, a social app for mums, and she is now chief commercial officer at childcare app Bubble.

Hesz still follows adland closely – thanks, in part, she says, because she’s married to DDB global chief strategy officer Alex Hesz, an “advertising obsessive”. And she believes her experience has stood her in good stead for start-up life.

She observes: “I think that advertising and specifically new business sets you up extremely well to work in start-ups. Both are fast, smart, ambitious, roll-your-sleeves-up environments.

“You get a really good network that’s unique compared to other jobs. There’s a lot about presenting and sales – that’s basically what the start-up world is. You’re selling yourself the whole time or selling your product, but often selling yourself when you’re talking to investors.”

Plus, Hesz adds, the storytelling skills that are honed through years of producing pitch decks read across well.

But while she has no wish to “cast shade” on the agency world, what Hesz won’t miss is what she terms an “old-fashioned” way of working and a lack of accountability compared with start-up life.

"It does feel that the model hasn’t changed for so long. When I first started out, working in advertising was the sexy thing to do, but now it’s really hard to compete with big employers like Facebook, Google etc," she says. "Obviously, they have many faults, but they do make ad agencies look pretty archaic." 

Lost talent

While the lure of the tech giants has loomed large as a talent issue facing adland, it may have been exacerbated by Covid-19. Julie McKeen, head of media at executive search company Odgers Berndtson, has observed “an unsettled feeling among much younger members of staff”. 

McKeen, herself a former adlander, believes the intensity of advertising was tolerated because of the fun culture. However, with this stripped away by the pandemic, she warns that “the stark reality of working brutally hard without perhaps the security and benefits of a Google or an Apple will unseat much excellent emerging talent from our agencies if those leaders don’t adapt their working practices and structure to benefit from learnings in 2020”.

At the other end of the career scale, McKeen points out, adland’s obsession with youth continues to see the industry lose good people, with senior agency executives plotting long-term strategies to move into brands, scale-ups or consultancies. In comparison, she says: “Walk the halls of a PwC or an Accenture or a FTSE-listed business and you’ll see large boards and exec teams populated by extremely successful people in this age group, commensurate with their experience."

'Leaving my family'

Over the years, agency folk, including senior marketers such as Transport for London’s Chris Macleod, Tesco’s Michelle McEttrick and Toby Horry at TUI, have made the leap to brand-side careers. A more recent switcher was Lisa Thomas, who five years ago during her tenure as M&C Saatchi London group chief executive, deemed the opportunity to run the Virgin brand globally and head its licensing business Virgin Enterprises too good to pass up.

For Thomas, making the move to Virgin, as someone who had been on the agency side for 30 years, was a bittersweet experience. 

“It was everything I had ever known. It was like leaving my family," she recalls. "It was a massive emotional wrench just leaving M&C Saatchi, never mind leaving the industry. I don’t think I understood the ramifications of leaving the industry until I wasn’t in it any more. I felt a bit adrift from an industry home point of view.”

But, despite this, Thomas has no regrets. “I loved my time and feel very privileged to have had such an exciting career, but I also feel that I learned a huge amount and was able to do a huge amount at Virgin that I wouldn't have done if I’d stayed at M&C Saatchi or stayed in adland,” she adds.

While the industry is far from perfect – Lee bemoans its inability to future-proof itself, Thomas its slow uptake of the flexible working agenda, for example – the leavers agree that the people and its sense of fun are things they miss most. 

“There are so many great people and they are just gossipy and wonderful and really smart,” Hesz says. “That’s one thing I think that people in advertising take for granted – that you are surrounded by very smart people and actually when you’re in it, you don’t always appreciate that.” 

Thomas says that while working at Virgin was fun, “on the whole life outside advertising is a bit serious, it’s less based on friendships and it’s a bit more corporate”.

“Your goals [in advertising] are to win new business and keep clients by doing great work, and it’s really clear and simple what you’re there to do,” Thomas says. “In advertising, we seem to be really good at having fun doing this and I miss that.” 

Top tips for swapping advertising for start-ups 

By Julie McKeen, head of media, Odgers Berndtson

It’s a bit like snowboarding – don’t focus on the turn you’re making or you might fall; focus on the destination and the turns take care of themselves. This may sound glib, but longevity, learning, expansion and growth all come up with executives in their discussions with me around their next career step, and each potential next role is easier to assess when there’s an end point in mind.

The other thing I always counsel is to let go of the tyranny of the title. Overtitling is rife and some manager titles in Silicon Valley companies are huge roles with scale P&L responsibilities. Ask instead what you will learn, how this potential next move could help you build out missing skillsets towards your end goal and if there is room to grow and develop with the company. Sometimes, in order to future-proof yourself, you need to take a sidestep on title, but if it makes you more valuable for the rest of your career, it may well be worth it.

Finally, seek references on the company in the way we would seek references on you as a candidate. Do your homework, talk to your network, look at the financials and interrogate press reports and share activity if it’s listed. If it’s a PE-backed [private equity-backed] private company, the investor’s track record is critical, but so is their culture. Will the investor, with no knowledge of what you do, become a de facto boss, emailing you for CPAs and revenue models on a Sunday night? 

Company success, culture and reporting are critical to get right, and in the excitement of an offer in a shiny-seeming company can easily be overlooked. Creative industry people – myself included – tend towards the optimistic, particularly when it comes to opportunities in tech scale-ups, so it’s important when you have secured the offer to try to put that optimism to one side while you reference.

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