Stumbling Up The Ladder: Ad Agencies Neglect Their Brightest Prospects

Imagine that you’re a young writer working for a big ad agency. You go into a client meeting. Present some work. It doesn’t go brilliantly. You’re not entirely sure what you should have done differently. You ask your boss. He looks at you in frustration and sputters, "Act more senior!"

Hands on our hearts, this really happened. (That writer continued: "But no one explained to me exactly what that was. Did they mean go golfing all morning and then take a three-hour lunch?") In ad land, learning by blowing off arms and legs has become the norm. A casual reliance on trial and error (and its kinder cousin, osmosis) has replaced any kind of formal training just about everywhere you look.

Once upon a time, ad agencies prided themselves on the education they offered. Ogilvy called itself the "teaching hospital of agencies." The quality of training could tip the scales when people were deciding where to work. But that was before chronic fear of recessions, ever-shrinking margins, and energy solely focused on the next quarter, redefined staff development as a "frill."

In 2003, we began to see that people at every level were stalling, stumbling fitfully up the ladder, or out the door. So we decided to start Ask Jancy, an online advice column where anyone (creative, account service, marketers) from anywhere (U.S., U.K., Israel, Poland, Japan, Australia, Turkey) could ask two creative directors (Janet, Nancy—that's us) anything (how do I get a promotion, how do I sell my idea to a brutal client, how do I get over my stage fright?). From the hour the column went live, the response was huge and the issues clearly universal. Nine years and a book later (Pick Me), the questions keep coming. 

Ask Jancy was a response to our sense that the industry was losing its way as the people became fewer and the workload heavier. No time for talking, no money for teaching. Leaving all the working stiffs to figure it out. Sink or swim. 

Well, it’s taken awhile (things first took a dive in the early 90’s and never recovered), but the chickens have come home to roost. Agencies are losing status as go-to thought leaders because frankly, leadership is in short supply. Clients are parceling out their projects to consultants and 'specialists.' The best and brightest grads aren’t choosing advertising the way they used to, nor taking it as seriously as other talent-based businesses. 

Advertising is an industry careless of the talent under its roof. Its greatest asset is the people who go up and down the elevators each day, yet a dearth of investment in their growth has left them feeling that they lack value. Even though employees continue to rank training as one of the primary motivations to stay in a company, it has mostly gone the way of the dodo. Cost has long triumphed over benefit. So people feed their sense of worth by changing jobs more often. The best recognize that without mentors and employer commitment to their personal development, their growth is limited and, well, see ya. Meanwhile, smarter, newer businesses are biting at the heels of agencies, offering campus environments for their newly-minted workforce, as well as training, sabbaticals, and jobs that feel more rewarding. 

The next generation of leaders appears to be missing, according to creative directors we spoke to around the globe. (Before we made the giant leap as co-chief creative officers at Ogilvy Toronto to trainers at our new consultancy, Swim, we thought we should be sure it wasn’t just us). In conversations with creative heads from London to Buenos Aires, everyone was beating the same drum: We’re not teaching our people to lead, and now we’re in trouble. The next level down looks like a giant case of arrested development: hard-working, heads down. But the mature, big-picture perspective once typical of people ready to step up has given way to hands thrown up when the going gets tough, tantrums, and myopia. Leaders are made, not born. And we’ve pretty much stopped making them.

The stupefying lack of training and its consequences became the central theme of the 4As conference last spring. The heads of the holding companies pledged to re-commit time and resources. In March, a timely Andrew McMains Adweek article ("Why the average barista gets more training than most agency staffers") provoked a rash of discussion and debate. The article compared the investment Starbucks makes in teaching its employees customer service and how to make a decent cup of coffee, to the non-investment that agencies make in training their rather more expensive talent. 

We can all agree, then—-throwing people in the deep end and saying "good luck with that" sucks as a model. Any notion of saving time and money by not investing in people’s development is a tragically false economy. The industry is on an unsustainable path.

But could it be other groups are coming up just as short on delivering career road maps? Since we announced the launch of Swim just weeks ago, we’ve heard from law firms, tech companies, global client organizations, and a government group suggesting that creative leadership could benefit healthcare, international aid, environmental management, energy, and even diplomatic relations. The idea of "creative leadership training" attracted people outside advertising, instantly. Maybe the ultimate evidence that there’s a massive problem: a TV producer called to pitch us on making a reality show about the whole thing. Cue the theme song.

The need is real. The desire is there. Creative leadership has value anywhere. It looks like the timing couldn’t be better for us to run with our career-long interest in mentoring. Hopefully, a corner is being turned in our industry and others.

If Starbucks can do it, we can too. We’ll have two double espressos with a caramel shot, a teeny bit of foam, and one of those little heart-shaped designs they teach in coffee school.

Authors Janet Kestin and Nancy Vonk are the co-founders of Swim, a creative leadership training lab for advertising creatives and marketers. They were the Co-Chief Creative Officers of Ogilvy Toronto, the heavily awarded ad agency behind famous work for Dove, Shreddies, Maxwell House, and others from 1998-2011.

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[Image: Flickr user vkx462]

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  • harry webber

    Myopia. Tunnel Vision. Insincerity. Duplicity. No end to the
    descriptors for this issue. But nobody calls it by its rightful name.
    Stupidity. Advertising is an $800 billion global industry with no
    visible R&D component. At the University level the curricula and
    instructors date back to the turn of the century. At the portfolio
    school level the so-called "industry" instructors took "shock and awe"
    to the point of insanity and convinced an entire generation of creative
    practitioners that they were "rock stars" instead of sales people. And
    now, advertising, network television and the entire marketing model is
    in free-fall. And the best thing Fast Company can do is field a
    puff-piece for some adult day-care center called "Swim."

    industry is in its death-throws. The lack of leadership at the top is
    the only problem. Management is so busy calling itself a financial
    enterprise instead of a manufacturing business that it has lost sight of
    the only thing that matters. In advertising, the only thing that
    matters is "new." And advertising hasn't done anything new since the
    invention of television. The Internet has nothing to do with
    advertising. The interruption model doesn't apply to the Internet user.
    Madison Avenue has thrown away billions of dollars in shareholder value
    stumbling over that simple fact.

    Luckily, a small group
    of clients and advertising practitioners saw this coming back in 2006.
    They started the Institute For Advanced Practices In Advertising and now
    their brands are taking leadership positions in each of their product
    categories. Now we are working with the second wave of clients to test
    our NeoAdvertising practices against their traditional advertising
    executions. Thus far the results have been encouraging.

    problems will not be solved with training programs and leadership
    seminars. The advertising industry has to rebuild itself from the bottom
    up. Madison Avenue is not Wall Street. If it continues to think that
    way I hope the last person that leaves remembers to turn out the lights.

  • Sandileb

    The situation is indeed very gloomy. As you very well mentioned, training in the ad industry in now regarded as a frill - made worse by job hopping of personnel. Agencies are reluctant to train people they cannot keep even though some have devised means to hold on to their trained staff for a while. The thing is, keeping somebody against their will is really of no benefit to either party. And to say people leave agencies because they either feel they can contribute better somewhere else or because they value training offered by the competitor would be falsification of the truth. People leave to up their salaries because agencies have also become bad payers and people also leave, out of job insecurity or they have been chucked out. I like your idea of going back to basics and train people to lead. Sandile Bunjwa - Strategy and Creative (Gomans - Zambia)

  • John Ford

    Do you know what! They do. Always have and always will. To get up the Ladders of promotion you need to stand out.

  • Rama

    Thanks for this truly insightful article. 

    We all have heard the old saying "Change is the only constant and those who are prepared make good of the opportunity when it happens". Training is one of the key ingredients that can keep the creative machinery well oiled to either expect change or be the change yourself. Speaking of training - it is a broad term. Could you be more specific about the kind of training today's creatives need to stand out from the rest. Don't you think with the proliferation of technology, if individuals are motivated enough they can learn things on their own. I agree with the thought Creative Leadership is most critical element across businesses. Unfortunately, today's people are more bottom-line obsessed than investing time in developing people. If the agency owners can dream big enough, build a strong vision for the future and chalk out a road map for its people, why would people ever want to switch jobs? I personally think we are witnessing a massive change in the way information is being consumed be it online or the mobile platform. And most of the companies who are leading this change are tech companies. This is a point in time where creatives stand to gain immensely from these developments. It all boils down to how agencies can quickly adapt and offer a more tightly integrated communication, that is measurable.

  • Rebecca Rivera

    I'm an ACD/writer who has worked in the U.S. on both coasts at agencies big and small and as a gun for hire. Everywhere I've worked I've been asked to "lead", with no clarification of what "leading" means to that particular organization.
    It's absurd that a creative needs merely to write or design for years and then magically, we're expected to possess senior leadership skills to match our senior creative talent.
    I've miraculously succeeded (thus far) through sheer tenacity and adaptability--not through any training my employers have provided.
    Crap recruitment agencies? Well-trained employees being raided? Large agencies competing with independents? Please! Enough with the excuses.
    Agencies choose not to invest in their employees in spite of the fact that such training would increase the chances of acquiring and retaining satisfied clients. 
    So who can blame clients for hiring consultants and specialists? And who can blame talented creatives for changing jobs often. Why should we invest in employers who choose not to invest in us?

  • leighh

    As the business model has changed and Agencies retainers are shrinking, they are becoming even more agist and billable hours focused then they were before.  It's a change from creativity and ideas to factory models that see project management and margins as leading drivers.  And now they find themselves in trouble.  Quelle surprise.  I admire your belief that you can help them change it.  The need may be there, but the real question is will they be willing to pay for it on more then a one off basis.  My experience thus far has been rather the opposite.  

  • JDA

    Hang on, leaders are made, not born? Slightly contentious... and why are the agencies stumbling along? Few things you fail to address here. Number 1, being that most candidates come from recruitment agencies, meaning they were selected by idiots, interviewed by idiots and handed jobs by suit wearing idiots. Number 2, it's all linear, horizontal crap, copying previous campaigns, side-ways nonsense, much cheaper to just integrate something you did before for the present, right? Number 3, dissemination of information, this website is a prime example of a resource that was not available to this extreme some 10 years ago. Number 4, training? what in how to do things in a monotonous and incorrect fashion that is outdated within a week? Set up your own shop and you simply MUST learn or end up working in a bar... 

    So what happens? The people who SHOULD have been hired, decide, screw you... and they set-up their own operation, surgery, agency, consultancy, whatever name you want to call it, I personally label it 'COS (Chief of stuff) at myshit'. Their rates are cheaper but the work is just as great, if not better... so agencies are left with the same old boring clients (probably because they went to university together) and the new set-ups go hungry for the new market business. They innovate, try new things and capture equally intriguing clients who are willing to attempt a differing and provocative approach. 

    Copyright 2011 for me... unless I invite you in. 

  • David Kaiser, PhD

    Ms Kestin and Ms Vonk

    I am interested in learning more about your business. I tried to find a website or other web presence, but could not. Please contact me.

    David Kaiser, PhD
    Executive Coach & CEO

  • Richard Stowey

    There are an increasing number of meetups and groups which are forming outside of company based training schemes and paid for conferences which definitely take the training out of the equation.

    But training and learning on the job is definitely something which is important and employers should look at in order to increase employee satisfaction and engagement.

    At the same time, it's important for employers to understand that there is a fine line between training, and hand holding.

  • John Mack

    You really should have mentioned that if an agency were to start a formal training program now, then other agencies would come along and offer a bigger salary to the trainees at the end of the training. Not having undertaken the considerable cost of the formal training, a raiding agency could offer a bigger salary. Raiding and the fear of raiding was a significant factor in killing training programs in a number of industries, not just advertising. 

    You also did not mention the attempt to have the advertising aspirant pay for "hands-on" training at some agency "schools," and other attempts to shift the cost of training from the agency to the student. Is that still happening and are students willing to pay?Training programs flourished when agency-client relationships were far more stable than they are today and when the classic agency compensation model was never challenged by the client. Another era entirely.The formal training programs, before being killed, had also become incestuous. Agencies felt forced to hire clients' sons and daughters, some talented, many mediocre. At some point many clients became MBA infested and developed a tyrannical attitude toward the agencies. The MBAs constantly sought ways to "reduce" marketing and advertising costs. They viewed their role as finance-focused rather than focused on creativity.

    A very complicated problem with a complex history.