Why The Ad Industry Is In A Talent Rut And A Prescription For Change

Allison Kent-Smith says the advertising industry has failed to develop and educate talent. Here, she outlines the training-centric steps agencies can take to build a real digital workforce.

Why The Ad Industry Is In A Talent Rut And A Prescription For Change

The advertising industry is in transition. This is the most auspicious period in recent history, yet it’s also the most disruptive. An agency either has the right 21st-century talent, or it doesn’t. Employees either understand digital, or they are actively pretending that they do. Agency talent stays far too long or turns over within the predictable 18-month cycle.


The current transitional time has shifted the spotlight from what we know to what we need to know. Tinkering and agile processes are valued. The prototype gets more attention than the brief. Big-idea people are no longer the singular hot commodity. Employees who understand platforms, media, technology, trends, data, and “how to generate and make ideas” are the new model for talent.

It’s no longer just about great ideas. It’s about great ideas that get made.

Understanding technology, embracing new talent, making things and not just imagining things, evolving traditional agency practices, and leveraging new ways of working are redefining 21st-century agencies’ competitive advantage. Yet many agencies remain stuck facing big questions: Where do you start? Where do you invest? The industry struggles to evolve, react, and fully embrace the new rules for retaining (and attracting) the brightest minds.

On the subject of “Gen Flux,” a recent Fast Company article reminds us that “The vast bulk of our institutions–educational, corporate, political–-are not built for flux. Few traditional career tactics train us for an era where the most important skill is the ability to acquire new skills.” Or as Alvin Toffler says, “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”[ii] For many years, agencies have under-invested in reeducation in the workplace.

We expect talent to leave, and that’s okay. But is it really?

Many agencies share common symptoms. We continue to trade and exchange the same group of digital leadership. Managers invest in a revolving door of the same types of people, who have all-too-familiar titles, but fail to develop the employees who show up each and every day. We continue to highlight acquisitions, awards, senior hires, and big client wins, yet when do we highlight agencies’ practices for employee education?


The advertising industry has failed to develop and educate talent. We now feel the effects of this neglect more than ever.

Walk a few steps down Madison Avenue, from one agency to another, and you’ll hear similar comments: “There’s no vision for digital at the agency,” “I’m faking it [with digital],” “Let’s just hire another social media expert,” “The client would like a top 10 app…in three weeks,” “We always bring in producers at the very last minute,” or “Digital is an agency priority (yet there is not a single UX designer or developer in-house).” Shared confessions across the profession point to serious issues with digital talent, process, and structure that prevent agency evolution.

The money lost on talent attrition, figurehead recruitment, and poorly executed digital projects should shift to the education and development of current employees.

There are a few largely agreed-upon steps that can make an immediate impact. If you’re part of an agency or brand that is stuck, then march into your boss’s office or raise your hand at the next town hall and suggest the following changes. By the way, this will not necessarily make you popular, but it will make you right.


How many UX experts do you have at your agency, and how are they utilized? An agency must have user experience, interaction design, and information architecture front and center. UX experts are not easy to find, but heavy hitters in this area will transform ideas that are impossible to ideas that are reality. A good UX professional solves for both business and user needs. Don’t hire just one UX lead and expect an impact. Ask your established strategy or planning department to “major” in UX and watch what happens.


Are there just a few digital experts at your agency who act as consultants internally? A couple of digital experts are not going to change an agency. Stop hiring one or two recycled digital leaders and expect to get results. A few individuals will not create sustainable digital change. Think of your pool of experts not as a separate department or a “call in the experts when needed” group. Require that every single employee have working knowledge of digital. Map out the village and invest in them.



Does your agency outsource most of your programming? If so, then an integrated understanding of how to build or make an idea remains external. You’re paying your partners to get smarter, but what about your employees? All departments (not just digital producers) need to tap on the shoulder of a developer and ask questions. This is how we learn. These interactions will create a noticeable change in digital understanding.


Are the departments and titles at your agency the same as those at every other agency? Bring in “experts” who are not experts. The industry needs to embrace a new type of talent. Hire a group of high school students, start an agency incubator, begin an academic fellowship program, organize talent by competencies (not title), and ask leaders at the agency to actively teach. Ask your hiring manager or HR person if they have ever hired someone without a title in mind. Nordstrom Innovation Lab provides a great example of a shift in how to think about talent categories and competencies.


Do you struggle with where to learn more about digital? A lot of agency leaders talk about the value of education, yet very few act on it. Start by establishing an agency school. Design learning experiences and opportunities for employees to teach each other. Invite external industry leaders to teach classes. Set up digital experiments. Take field trips and get out of your office. Create digital installations and foster play. Invite your clients to attend the school. Establish expectations for continual learning and integrate participation into annual reviews.


Is your education budget a conference budget? Going to a single conference or workshop is not going to make a difference in employee digital understanding. Your employees will return a bit more motivated or curious, but will they be more educated? Set aside a budget for learning and call the SXSW and Cannes investment something else entirely. Don’t expect a change in digital understanding after a few days of lectures.

Although traditional practices are still in place and continue to be rewarded, agencies cannot ignore the shifts in tools, thinking, and culture that digital has created. We’ll look back at this transitional time in advertising and realize that successful agencies shaped talent through creative and unconventional approaches.

With these common symptoms of digital neglect across the entire profession, it’s time to move beyond problem-identification stage and courageously invest in guiding and teaching employees.


Go on…fix what you recognize is broken.

Allison Kent-Smith is founder of smith & beta, a new digital education company launching in fall 2012, and also director of digital development at Goodby Silverstein & Partners in San Francisco. She can be reached on Twitter @smithandbeta

[Images: Staircase via Shutterstock; Flickr users: Mikko Saari, Cmichel67, and Bob Bradburn]