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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]