How the advertising industry is wasting talent and what we can do about it.

Andy Grayson
Oct 4, 2016 · 14 min read

by Andy Grayson and Graham North

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Can we please stop all the whining about how advertising is irreparably broken?

You can’t look at your feed these days without avoiding a tweet, an article, or a keynote speech telling us how we work in a dying industry, how we’re all getting it wrong, or at best, suggesting the same hackneyed strategies for agency transformation.

Search for “the future of advertising” and you get over 149 million results. More than a hundred articles written in the past week alone. (Including such revolutionary titles as “The Future of Branding is Debranding.”)

Amidst the disarray and speculation, pessimists outnumber the optimists by a ratio of 100 to 1. Worse still, you don’t have to read very far to find that many place the blame of advertising’s bleak future on its people.

We need fresher thinking, they say. Digital natives, they say. Googlers and Facebookers and Applers and people who are creative and ambitious and multi-talented enough to shake things up.

Seems like a sound argument, until you realize the tragic truth: The talent you’re looking for already works for you.

Ad agencies, in fact, are the most coveted poaching grounds for giant tech companies like Google who are seeking to recruit in-house creative talent.

And after two years of researching this problem — as agency employees, freelancers, and even clients — the authors of this article share an informed perspective that the capabilities and talent across the advertising industry have, in fact, never been greater.

What’s broken is not our people. It’s our process.

It’s a process that has been endlessly debated but not reinvented, and it has not adapted to the changing world around us. All of this in an industry that prides itself on challenging the status quo.

Agencies have become exceptionally good at wasting talent through antiquated structures that stifle fresh thinking and trivialize the true value of young talent, who are uniquely positioned to dream up new ways to reinvent how agencies work.

What follows are the three problems that we’ve identified at the heart of this massive talent waste, and three easy ways out that we can start tomorrow.

Problem #1: Fear of the Unknown

Why is advertising so afraid to take risks with its model?

A bizarre paradox plagues our industry.

We get paid for brave, inventive thinking that will help clients stand for something and stand out in the world. We pride ourselves on dreaming up the boldest, most provocative ideas that will wake people up and change the way they think about our brands. We scream in frustration when our clients don’t trust us to take leaps of faith on risky ideas, because deep down we know that it’s not actually a risk, and it will be the best decision the company’s ever made.

We traffic in risky ideas. But we don’t make any bold moves to change how we operate internally. Across nearly every agency, the same homogenous structures and compensation models are in place today that were in place years ago.

Much has been written that the secret to success of the most innovative companies in the world resides in how they simply create ways to unlock the talents of their own people.

In advertising, we send in our best and brightest young talent to challenge the traditions and calcified thinking of our clients. We believe in our people’s ability to wade through the messy noise around companies, spot the insight, and say “this is it”.

We believe, and tell our clients, that our talent can solve any problem.
So why are we afraid to turn this weapon on ourselves?

Agency leaders have an untapped army of brave creative thinkers who could reinvent their strategy in no time. But they don’t. Why is that?

Is it because we move too quickly? This rationale would be a generous gift to agency leadership. If it were true. But it’s a cop out.

Is it because we’re too comfortable? Probably. It’s tough to develop the sense of urgency necessary to reinvent when the current model is cozy and profitable for those at the top. There’s too much to lose to throw it all away and try something blatantly new.

The main reason? Because it’s scary. Because all of a sudden, the agency is the client, and we’re being asked to take a risk that might infuriate our customers and burn valuable bridges, and that doesn’t sit well with us.

We don’t turn the weapon on ourselves because we’re scared of the world we haven’t met yet, and we are clinging to an antiquated model because it’s safe. And it’s crippling our capacity to innovate.

In almost every other industry today, Moore’s Law is in full effect — twice the innovation and productivity, half the price. Not us. We’re the opposite. Twice as expensive, and slower than ever.

Look inside your own agency. The young talent in advertising is full of a glorious mix of impatience, irreverence, and speed. But we hold them back. We tell them that it doesn’t work like that, we tell them “stop wasting time doing it differently; the work has to get out the door!” The processes we have in place for making work are smothering our people’s ability to dream and execute ideas that truly change the model.

Problem #2: Designed for Groupthink

The word “groupthink” borders on blasphemy in an advertising industry that prides itself on independent, original thought. Whether at awards shows or internal creative reviews, we are our own harshest critics when it comes to derivative ideas. Only the unexpected, the novel, and the fresh make it through our meat-grinder.

Outsiders imagine a creative process that must be as unique to each agency as the ideas they put out into the world. But insiders know better: the same cookie-cutter approach to making ads exists in every agency. Not only do we fear the unknown inside our own agencies, the processes and structures across agencies have become increasingly undifferentiated and uniform because of macro forces at play.

Five holding companies own over 50% of the advertising agencies in the world. And it’s only getting worse.

Odds are, if you’re reading this, you’re working in a shop owned by a holding company.

By design, holding companies are not interested in embracing unpredictability or bold new directions. Holding companies are public corporations who promise their shareholders incremental growth each year as they employ a strategy to bring efficiency, predictability, and consistency to our industry.

The result? Thousands of agency leaders worldwide with only a handful of bosses. Bosses who set predictable, consistent goals for growth. So instead of seeking out radical solutions to unique agency problems, our leaders focus on safe-bet solutions to satisfy the same meager, incremental goals set for every agency across the holding company network.

The trickle-down effect isn’t exactly a shocker: standardized processes that mask the unique diversity of agencies and deflate agency talent. It’s a repeated, demoralizing pattern of being forced to work for boring clients who play it safe, shave the edges off of our work, and treat the agency like a vendor instead of a partner.

Just ask Lisa Clunie, who co-founded the independent agency, Joan, in May. On a panel just last week with other representatives from independent agencies like Venables and W+K, she spoke of being unburdened by the holding company leash. “The independence isn’t just financial, the entire creative process is up for amendment”. Joan turned work around for Netflix in just 10 days — brief to finished product.

The objective of the holding company and the spirit of agency creativity are grossly misaligned, and the biggest loser in that equation is our own people. Their talent is misused and their voices are diminished.

In Madison Avenue Manslaughter, Michael Farmer describes in detail the decline of the advertising industry and the tone-deaf agency executives who are driving agencies out of business:

“Since agencies [owned by holding companies] have to deliver profit margins, they are downsizing each year… So they are doing more work, with fewer, more junior people at a time when their clients’ need for profitability has never been greater. As a result, they are destroying their capabilities at a predictable rate.”

Advertising is an oligopoly, divesting in innovation, ripe for disruption.

Disruption, according to Clay Christensen, demands actively renouncing the very thing that made us most profitable. That means giving up the goose that laid the golden egg. Good luck telling that to the shareholders of giant behemoths whose very existence depends on hedging bets.

If we don’t fight back, the ad industry will be going the way of the media industry — a graveyard of independent shops turned into a handful of horrific, frankensteined mega-conglomerates stamping out original thought, stifling the best minds, and forcing a flood of talent to seek fulfillment in other industries.

Problem #3: Your Invisible Bureaucracy

Okay. At this point, many of you reading along are still resistant. You’re hanging strong to the belief that your agency is different. Your people are happy.

You’re wrong.

From our research observing agencies, interviewing both employees and executives, one thing is clear: inside every agency there are long-established traditions that guide the way we all work. It’s the muscle memory of creative organizations. And it’s killing us.

There’s no denying it. We all operate under a set of unwritten rules.

We use antiquated job titles to divide our people into silos: account managers, strategists, creatives, production, and so on. We strive to find and hire the most creatively-minded, versatile talent at every level, but when people arrive on the job, we tacitly tell them to stick to what they know.

And then there is the unchallenged assembly line along which work is generated. In a time-based compensation model, the generation of creative work moves along a familiar conveyor belt towards the end. Conference calls, check-ins, status updates. Click, click, click. We have meetings about meetings, the baton gets passed, and everyone hopes the moment of genius will strike the person to whom they are passing the baton.

The pressure, naturally, falls unfairly on the creatives, and we have unwittingly just disenfranchised all of our extremely talented people from having a voice in the creative part of the creative process. And today, they hate this. The creative minds in every discipline, whom we took great pains to find and hire, feel trapped, frustrated, and unfulfilled by this process.

The unwritten rules are not necessarily taught by management, but they exist nonetheless. Unspoken, gently reinforced and subtly encouraged everywhere.

In all creative organizations, there is an unseen hand guiding the way all creative work and all collaboration occurs inside the agency.

For an industry that rails against bureaucracy, this is our invisible bureaucracy. And this invisible bureaucracy prevents change, blocks new ideas, frustrates talent, and handicaps us from tapping into the full potential of our people.

Whew! Looks dire, right? The most important challenges usually feel insurmountable. Don’t worry, though; we can change all of this. In fact, some of us already are.

The thing is, these three big problems are deeply embedded inside the DNA of our industry. And they are collectively suffocating the talent who are our only hope. The untapped potential, diverse perspectives and unique experiences of our people are the source of all the unpredictable collisions that will unleash original thought in everything we do.

Instead, because of the problems listed above, agencies squander the opportunity for their talent to collide and to contribute the kind of unique, unexpected, come-from-anywhere creativity that organically happens when you put the right people together and set them loose on a tough problem.

The good news is that the momentum is already beginning to shift if you know where to look.

The challenge is to identify what’s getting in your talent’s way, and get rid of it. Where to start? Here are 3 ways out:

Solution #1: Leaders, get out of the way

Ed Catmull of Pixar wrote a fantastic book called Creativity, Inc. and if you haven’t read it, you should, because the parallels between Pixar’s creative culture and creatively-driven agencies are striking. Catmull lays out in clear terms what is necessary for creative people to thrive in a creative organization and what management’s role is in those unique environments.

In particular, Catmull shares a profound realization early on in the book that has come to define the Pixar management philosophy:

“We start from the presumption that our people are talented and want to contribute. We accept that, without meaning to, our company is stifling that talent in myriad unseen ways. [As leaders] we try to identify those impediments and fix them.”

This is what we need to be doing in our advertising agencies.

It’s time for agency leaders to steal this epiphany. To recalibrate. To stop believing they are the smartest person in the room and to stop directing the creative process. Sure, this is a massive shift. And yes, it’s hard. Deal with it. We need leaders who know how to let go and invite others to chime in with new ideas for how we work.

Take a page from Ian Tait at Wieden + Kennedy London, who recently confessed that as an Executive Creative Director, his work is no longer the creative output of the company, but rather, the creative culture of the company and how work gets made. As a result, W+K London has restructured themselves with smaller, more collaborative teams and shifted agency leaders from “overseers and sign-offers” to “coaches and supports.” As Tait puts it, “Instead of sitting at the top of the organization, we’ve put ourselves at the bottom. Helping to push people up.”

As an agency leader, are you doing enough to create a forum for new ideas to come forward? Does your talent feel empowered to speak up? Does your talent feel invited to suggest alternative ways of working?

In his vast, incisive-yet-comprehensive state of digital consultancies, Jules Erhardt puts it more bluntly:

“Behind the generation of career-coasting marketers maintaining business as usual sits a frustrated, hungry, product-focused, and purpose driven generation of progressives. For anyone working in and around agencies and brands those generational fault lines are clear to see. With so many options this talent is not hanging around. Many are emerging from a career-long bout of Stockholm syndrome, the self-justification for the all-hours, all-sacrifice lifestyle of the industry.”

Avoiding the erosion of our talent is an easy fix for leaders willing to shift their focus.

Listen more. Doggedly remove barriers in the creative process, and stop trying to swoop in with all the answers. Find your youngest, smartest employees and put them in roles with decision-making power that scares you. And let them show us all a new way to work.

Solution #2: Break your model on purpose

If step one is figuring out how to let fresh ideas bubble up to leadership, step two is actually creating the circumstances for those ideas to flourish.

You can’t change an organization that can’t see its own faults. And unfortunately, many agencies are blind to the hidden rules that guide them. The fibers in that muscle memory are just too strong. In this case, tweaking your current processes by 5% isn’t going to cut it.

You have to break your process on purpose.

You have to find ideas and create experiments that blatantly circumvent your current process. You want to free your talent to break as many of these rules as they possibly can.

At Goodby Silverstein & Partners, we experienced this firsthand. We partnered with a Silicon Valley venture capital firm, Structure Capital, and we upended Goodby Silverstein’s standard creative process developing branding and creative campaigns for Structure’s startups. In 48 hours. On the weekend.

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Brand Camp teams at Goodby Silverstein & Partners

We held Brand Hackathons where multi-disciplinary agency teams were paired up with startup founders and CMOs. Anyone in the agency could participate. The immersion and pressure to land creative ideas at breakneck speed led to phenomenal results. The lesson is obvious: your agency talent can solve any problem, blow your mind with creativity, and do it at speeds you didn’t know were possible. But you have to let them.

The hyper-collaborative creative process allowed a bravely proposed idea to flourish and become real. We immediately took this condensed hackathon approach to one of Goodby Silverstein’s biggest clients, Cisco, who was open to experimenting with a similarly immersive and collaborative process on their projects. The results were the same. Julia Mee, Cisco’s then-VP of Advertising and Partnerships, remarked,

“The process catapulted us into a new way of working together. By the end, we’ve come up with ideas that we all feel great ownership of and we leave saying it’s been one of the most productive days we’ve had in months.”

Our way is just one way. But it’s different. And it works.

Another break-it-on-purpose alternative is San Francisco’s Funworks, who have leveraged the power of improv to rethink the creative process. You can read about their model here. The point is, there are countless ways to reinvent your creative process to adapt to the way that your talent (and clients) want to work.

Do yourself a favor and find someone in your organization and give them the job of breaking your agency or your marketing department from the inside out. Give them room to run experiments with your creative process. And commit to them. The more radical, the better. Break the muscle memory on purpose, evaluate, iterate and implement.

Solution #3: Destroy the holy grail

If we want to save our talent and change the fortunes of our industry, we need to challenge the most bureaucratic, chaotic, legacy process that exists in the industry: The New Business Machine.

New business wins are treated as the holy grail of agency success. And yet, isn’t the new business industry the epitome of the mechanical, dehumanizing process that we’ve been criticizing in this article?

Aren’t search consultants and long, drawn out pitches just a series of layers and obstacles that keep us at arm’s length from the clients we are desperately trying to help?

The irony is tragic:

Despite being people-powered agencies, our first introduction to most new clients is the least people-centric thing we do.

The current new business model sets the stage for a working relationship that de-prioritizes our talent in favor of dated processes.

People are still why agencies win pitches. But for some reason, we forget that every time. We undermine the role of our people in a pitch and lurch straight back into believing it’s all the about the work. “The work will save us!” Let’s be honest, it rarely does. Meanwhile, the in-the-dark pitch process quickly turns into a maddening, soul-sucking drain of guesswork ideas that burn out our most precious resource: our people.

If clients and agencies unanimously agree that most pitches really come down to people, why haven’t we built a better new business approach that cuts out the bullshit and puts those people at the center of it all?

One of the biggest findings from running the brand hackathon experiments at Goodby Silverstein was that the success allowed the agency to be brave enough to try the process on new business. And it flipped the new business script.

Declining to participate in several pitches, the agency offered an alternative:

“Come spend a day with our people. Give us one problem to solve. After working with our team and seeing what they can do, you will fall in love. If not, we only wasted a day, rather than eight weeks.”

No middlemen. No politics. No endless email chains. Just our people, exposed. Take us or leave us. This approach led to some big wins, and has also become a new and permanent product offering.

So the question really is, how can we all do more of this? The first agency that invents a novel pitch approach that is built almost entirely around showcasing their people and less about showcasing spec work will be the agency that will start racking up the wins and changing both the agency and client pattern of abuse.

So light up the torches and burn this thing down.

Bust down the doors of your agency leadership today. Demand that they start listening to your ideas. Agencies are worthless without their people. Just a building and some Macs. You are the x-factor. So leverage it. Speak up. Get vocal. Start a coup.

If people don’t listen, leave.

But they will.

The good agencies will be excited. The intractable ones will be dead very soon.

The time is now to change the process. And agency people are capable of anything.

About the Authors

Andy Grayson and Graham North are both taking detours from the agency world to lead marketing at startups. But they just can’t seem to stay away, so they moonlight with a freelance team of agency misfits taking on projects and running workshops that break the traditional creative process on purpose.

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