Star Wars: The Battle For Creative Talent Between Advertising And Tech

Global Chairman and CEO of The Talent Business Gary Stolkin gets thoughts from agency vets now working at YouTube and Facebook.


In 1977 Star Wars had its theatrical release in the U.S., and in the same year Apple Computers was incorporated. For another 20 years (while Apple made computers), creativity was largely the preserve of Hollywood and Madison Avenue, and creative talent resided in film, TV, and advertising. If there was the occasional battle for talent, it was usually confined to those silos.

1977 Apple II Advertisement in Byte Magazine

Apple, Google, and the plethora of businesses and brands that pivot around the intersection of technology and creativity have changed all that. First, many of these “creative tech” businesses were founded by engineers and have their roots in performance marketing. They have worked out that creativity is a scalable consumer benefit with the potential to create lasting brand value, and they have actively gone out to hire individuals who understand how to foster and sell creativity to drive business results. Perhaps more importantly, however, Apple and Google have become a byword for best practice in product innovation and progressive marketing.

If you have Apple or Google on your resumé, there’s a sense that (at least for now) you hold the keys to the future. These organizations interact directly with their consumers, and learn more about each of them on a daily basis than a packaged-goods company might hope to learn about an individual consumer in a lifetime. While the likes of Unilever and Procter & Gamble make a significant investment in research, Google has a deep, real-time, data-driven understanding of consumers, and an innate understanding of how to sell creativity that engages, influences and motivates. It’s this real-time understanding, exploited through organizational structure and processes geared around driving creativity, that enables it to innovate, as well as produce and buy content at speed, setting it apart in a marketing context. Commercial creativity permeates these organizations and is part of their DNA.

Future proofing the stars

The spectacular growth of these “creative tech” brand owners has fueled an exponential growth in the demand for business leaders and senior talent who understand the scalability of creativity, and how to foster and leverage creativity for commercial success. The primary source of this talent has been the communications agency space, but the battle for stars (and rising stars across all communications disciplines) has been something of a one-sided affair thus far, with leading creative tech brand owners offering agency stars the opportunity to experience an innovation- and content-driven parallel universe that’s a million miles away from the traditional advertising agency space.

With a small number of exceptions, creative agencies are struggling to re-invent their business models in a faster-moving, more content-driven world and, to be blunt, agency stars don’t believe they’ll learn much about progressive marketing working with clients who expect agencies to spend most of their time developing and pre-testing TV scripts. More often than not these agency stars join creative tech businesses for less money than they’re making in their agency job (although the stock-based incentive plans are usually better) because their primary driver isn’t money, it’s to future proof their career.

The battle becomes a war

More recently, this battle for talent has got even more galactic, with many of the traditional “old world” brand owners trying to emulate Apple and Google’s approach, to permeate creativity through their organizations, or at least through their marketing functions. These old world brand owners haven’t fully grasped the nuance around the structural and cultural changes they need to finesse in order to build an organization that has commercial creativity running through its DNA. And at a more basic level, their marketing teams have not disrupted established (and outmoded) processes for developing and buying creativity. But they are going into battle for agency talent and are no longer hiring executives whose agency careers have run out of road, as would have been the case back in the day.


“Creativity” has never appeared higher up the attribute ranking for corporate leadership talent than it does today. It’s increasingly an aptitude that brand owners want to acquire as they seek to develop cultures that more instinctively innovate and drive creativity for commercial gain. So much so, that the global executive search firm I run is developing a new generation of competency-based tests that apply neuroscience to assess the cognitive potency of creative leaders. We see the potential to apply whole brain cognitive exercises developed by top neuroscientists and psychologists to the specific challenges of hiring leadership talent for a broadly defined set of creative businesses.

I asked two stars from the agency world who recently made the career switch–YouTube’s head of brand and creative, Matt Ross, who has worked at agencies like BBH LA, Ogilvy, and DDB, and Facebook’s new global creative director Andrew Keller, who joined the social network after 17 years at Crispin Porter+Bogusky–to explain why they gave up their high-profile agency careers to join one of these client-side empires.

“I think the agency system has a tendency to promote talent away from clients’ businesses, especially on the account side,” says Ross. “Beyond a monthly (at best) check-in with the CMO, and updates internally, agency leaders spend far too much time too far away from their clients’ businesses and their day to day challenges. Ultimately that can lead to a disconnect between the agency and the work. This is why I think startups, or founder-led agencies often make the best work–the senior talent is closer. So for me it was simple, it was about that closeness. I had an amazing opportunity at YouTube to get closer to the business, the product, the strategy, decision making, the work, the consumer, and to culture–the very same reasons I got into the communications world in the first place. There is no doubt however that my agency training has helped, I hope, make me a better client. In many ways the core part of the job remains the same, to protect, grow, and cherish good ideas and find a way, any way, to get them made. And actually that’s very much central to the way YouTube and Google behave as businesses.”

Keller says that creative people are natural collaborators, and this was an opportunity to do it in a different way. “As they permeate the industry, the opportunity is for collaboration to happen freely across media companies, clients and creative agencies,” says Keller. “That kind of connection is what will unlock the full potential of our industry. I joined Facebook to gain a different perspective on the industry, but most importantly for the opportunity to work with more of the amazing people I’ve met along the way.

“At Facebook, I hope to find ways to have a positive impact on advertising. There are many changes needed in relationships and structures between agencies and clients. To me it’s less about where talent is, it’s about creating the best possible work, together. As great ideas come from everywhere, the important thing is how much goodness can happen with surprising collaborations. I’ve been lucky to be a part of some, from Truth to Subservient Chicken to Small Business Saturday. All were the product of a passionate and engaged client, and the leveraging of multiple agencies. I take pride in that. I think it’s healthy that creative advertising minds are spreading out into surprising places. It is actually very positive for the industry at large. The result will be great work because the net gain of any departure is a growing connection to the industry.”


Will the agency empire strike back?

Like the original Star Wars trilogy, I believe this battle is far from over and the agency empire may yet strike back. The very fact that agency stars are so highly sought after tells us something about the historic strengths of the agency space. Agencies now need to win some of this talent back from the creative tech brand owners, and in so doing, secure what will be the next generation of transformational leaders capable of reinventing the agency model.

Gary Stolkin is the global chairman and CEO of The Talent Business.