Over long years, agencies have taught the people who work for them—the so-called “talent”—that they are expendable. That they are only as valuable as the number of hours they clock or awards they win. That if they are older or female or not white they are less valued. That their experience carries too high a cost. That they will need to job hop to get a raise.
If you’re an agency right now, you’re watching your best talent leave in droves. Anyone who is left is overloaded and miserable about it. Covid Times has only exacerbated the problem, with its furloughs and layoffs. If you’re a brand trying to get great marketing work done, the agency model just isn’t capable of giving you much better than mediocre work most of the time. Great work is the exception, rather than the rule.
I’m sure anyone with a critical eye can find other worthy topics to critique, but the talent problem is the biggest one there is. Even before Covid, things were bad and getting worse. In the future awaits a full-blown crisis. As the decade wears on, it will become increasingly difficult to replace the talent that has left. If we do nothing, we will abdicate our industry to management consultants, low-bid offshore automatons, timesheets, and machine-learned algorithms.
(It’s worth noting that anywhere the word “talent” appears, it’s a euphemism for people. We’re talking about people here. People are the single, driving force in marketing — always the biggest line item on every agency’s P&L. We are irreplaceable. Nothing else can work the magic that people can. We’ve got to get this right because we’re all we’ve got.)
This talent problem is, of course, entwined into every limb and organ of the agency business model—a cancerous tumor that cannot be removed without losing the patient. Even with the best intentions for how we treat the people who work in our industry, and for how we recruit, incentivize, and reward them, we will lose if do not fundamentally re-think the business model itself.
We are an industry that prides itself on applied creativity. It’s ironic that there has been so little creativity applied to the agency business model that got us into this mess to begin with. New agency start-ups, encouraged by the clients they poached from their last shop, too often just cut and paste the same model onto their new shop. Where’s the experimentation? Where’s the risk-taking? There should be a thousand different kinds of models.
This is the first in what will be a series of posts about the talent problem. The good news is that there are some great innovators out there, and we’ll dedicate a future post to celebrating how they’re trying to change the model for the better. (If you have a suggestion for who to profile, please let me know.) And we’ll talk about Dirt’s model and why we’ve taken the path we have.
Before that, next up is an exploration of how we got into this situation in the first place and the great talent squeeze that the next decade will bring. More on that soon.