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The good news is that many agencies have seen client spending return. The bad news is finding, and retaining, the talent to service these accounts is proving to be tricky. Observers have even gone as far as to equate the scarcity of staff to the dot-com era. Here’s what some of the biggest names in the business are saying about how they are staffing, what new roles they are looking for and what they are doing to meet clients’ expanding needs.

A top marketer posited an important question during a recent conversation: “If I’m tripling my marketing budget to recoup lost sales from last year, is my agency going to staff up the same way they did before the pandemic?” Then a look of concern washed over his face.

The fact is many agencies are indeed looking to reinvent themselves to meet clients’ – and consumers’ – taste for digital, demand for superior user experience and penchant for e-commerce.

Many agencies had begun the shift before the pandemic but credit lockdown for “giving us a point in time for all of us to really consider what we want our business to be like, because behaviors changed so dramatically overnight,” says Troy Ruhanen, chief executive of TBWA Worldwide.

This requires hiring quickly after months of operating with reduced staffs. Agencies are now looking for talent ranging from polished C-suite executives to young creators with self-taught multimedia skills and no college education.

The competition is fierce as adland boldly poaches its own, tech lures top talent away and many simply opt to become entrepreneurs. “A lot of agencies got a bit leaner through Covid and now that we are all staffing up, it’s challenging to find talent and a lot of our talent is being approached as well,” says Marty O’Hallaran, global chief executive, DDB. “It’s creating a market where agencies have to really think hard about looking after their people and also how they attract people.”

The grand experiment in action

Before the pandemic hit, agencies were well aware that models needed to change, that silos needed to evaporate and that clients generally weren’t looking to build a campaign anchored around a TV spot anymore.

Shifts happened at various speeds, but rarely at full throttle. Today “there is a massive opportunity to do this constant experimentation and change,” says Bill Kolb, chief executive officer, McCann Worldgroup. “The industry and the client-agency relationship will be better because of it.”

Unpredictable consumer behavior, quicksand privacy regulation and uncertainty about how staff and clients should even work together have agency leaders reacting in new ways.

For starters, many in the C-suite now have an even more hands-on approach. Less travel and more Zoom means “senior staff are in much deeper with the clients and the actual business,” says FCB global chief executive Carter Murray. “We are finding more ways for our senior leaders to be more agile and are having conversations about how to we keep that, frankly, expensive talent focused on clients and not operations.”

Finding C-level talent capable of excelling in this new environment is paramount, says Murray. “If you want to create a business, the role of the CEO is the most important one because they’re the keeper of the flame. They define the talent. They define the product. With the business being so challenged for clients and for us, the role of the CEO is incredibly important. Never before has the partnership with clients at the C-suite level been more important.”

So how are your Adobe skills anyway?

Data and tech specialists should have no problem getting whisked away in this market. Additionally, strategists are in high demand.

TBWA has made investments in all of the above. Centering on business intelligence, cultural expertise and strategy is the “antidote to incrementalism,” says Ruhanen. “[We are focused on a] business partnership with clients that produces creative and strategy that drives disruption ... It’s not just how do we keep the lights on.”

Finding this talent doesn’t have to be in key cities, or even countries, anymore. Agencies are scouring the globe. “Clients aren’t asking to see the team in the room anymore. I don’t get that question ever and I don’t think it will ever be relevant again,” says Ruhanen. “They are more concerned about what your organization can bring to the table.”

This allows for agencies take advantage of the efficiencies of paying people outside of major metro areas, leveraging currencies and, most importantly, widening the talent pool. “We need to give people the flexibility to work remotely more than we ever have in the past. If agencies don’t do that, they will be left behind and lose great talent,” says O’Hallaran. ”Having said that, we still have to create an environment where people want to get together. The facts are that creative agencies perform better when the teams are together ... We are going to go through a period where all agencies are going to be doubling down and looking after their people and reimagining hybrid cultures, while also finding new ways to recruit great talent.”

At the same time, this allows agencies to look more introspectively at existing employees across the globe. “We have an appreciation and understanding of the flexibility that we all have from working from home or being hybrid,” says Claude Silver, chief heart officer at VaynerMedia. “It has definitely allowed us to look at who we have internally and see what horizontal and lateral moves we can make. This benefits retention and mentorship, and certainly hits on our diversity and inclusion initiatives as well.”

Still, Vayner is also looking to adapt by seeking out fresh junior creators who specialize in video and can edit on the fly. They are also recruiting creative strategists who “are community managers that are really looking deeply at the different cohorts and what they are saying. It’s not what you find just doing a normal Twitter search,” says Silver.

The net is wide for young talent. “Yes, they don’t know how to present in front of clients yet and they really don’t know how to write emails with proper etiquette, but they have the skills, determination and hunger we need,” says Silver. “They don’t need a college education; I removed that five years ago ... We’ve been able to really branch out and not just go where we’ve always gone, because we know that that well is drying up.”

Focusing on core issues to stop the churn

The employee turnover rate in adland has never been one of its points of pride. People leave early and often in pursuit of better money, better cultures and the opportunity to work on better clients. At this tenuous moment, leaders say they are dialing up the training and development, creating true career paths for junior talent, boosting sustainability efforts and actually walking the walk with their diversity and inclusion programs.

Angie Hannam, R/GA’s executive vice-president, global chief talent officer, says: “We publish our US Diversity Data every quarter and publicly share it for accountability. Accountability to all the people of color who work at R/GA, and to all the people of color we haven’t yet hired. If we’re going to make actual change, we need additional accountability forces beyond our structures. If many people can see where we are, then many people can hold us accountable for where we’re going. In our most recent quarterly share, we recognize that we have the opportunity to continue increasing BIPOC representation at R/GA.”

Agency sustainability efforts have grown in importance, whether it’s for attracting and keeping clients or talent, says Kolb. “If you go back to 2019, sustainability was on some people’s lists, now it’s on everyone’s lists. It’s not just millennials, it's the full spectrum of employees. Everybody’s asking: ‘What’s your commitment to sustainability? What’s your approach? How do you think about sustainability?’ These are important questions.”

And then, of course, there’s the work. Ann Wool, president, Translation, says: “Doing standout creative work begets standout talent, and we’re very aware that our talent is attractive to many other agencies now. We work intensively to cast our growing team across all disciplines and there’s no doubt the market has become highly competitive. All I can say is if you don’t have a unique and relevant proposition for clients, it must be very hard right now.”

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