Ad world and the war for talent: the half-empty glass

Advertising agencies, just like most other creative and consulting industries, base their success on one factor, one single asset: human resources.

Their business model is built on selling ideas, ideas are crafted by the workforce of the agency. The agency with the most talented workforce produces the best idea, thus resulting in a competitive edge on the only product that the industry is offering. It’s this simple.

Yet, advertising agencies often neglect this, and treat their human resources as a commodity. (Heck, lots of them don’t even have an HR department or program); therefore resulting in commodities themselves, since an ad agency is essentially made up of its people, and that’s about it.

If we look back at how the ad industry lost part of its standing and credibility (I assume we all agree it did), we can see a number of processes combine:

  1. Client companies grew a marketing culture: all of a sudden, the same company that used to make cookies started hiring people that could sell them, alongside those who could bake them.
  2. Seeing the uniqueness of their marketing expertise challenged, ad agencies could have resorted to establishing a sound and proven expertise in communication. Unfortunately, such a choice would have implied building an expertise in a number of disciplines, from behaviourial sociology to semiotics, and investing in research, training and talent.
  3. Instead, ad agencies resorted to the tempting route of “advertising as art”, under the arguable selling proposition of “Buy into this idea because our creative director says so”. (Or under the best circumstances, “Buy into this idea because our multiple-awards winner creative director says so”)

Quite predictably, this only worked when creative directors could count on an already established reputation and they’d come up with a creative idea so brilliant that it could easily sell itself and clients were brave and confident enough to buy into it.

In absence of that, marketers started hanging onto anything, from past cliches that had always worked (and thus would not be working anymore by definition) to tedious focus groups, to assist them in critical decisions. And in today’s world, when any decision is critical, that means everything.

All this has been made worse by an industry that has refrained from investing in talent, in an effort to find the one or two star creative directors that would boost an ad reputation, letting everything else go: how many account directors can get a good understanding of a client’s business? How many of them are brilliant public speakers? How many copywriters could write an episode of a sit-com, and make it at least as funny as your average tv-show?

Not many, and quite a few of them would be tempted to move to other industries, where they’d receive higher salaries and opportunities.

Therefore depriving ad agencies of talent. Which in turn results in poorer ideas, and a poorer service. Which results in declining fees. Which of course results in less money for hiring and training talents. And so on…

Now, here are two more questions:

Why am I leaving planners aside? Firstly, lots of agencies don’t even have planners. As for those who do, sometimes they have made things worse:  hiring a handful of smart planners was seen as a good enough way to provide the agency with all the brains that it needed. (I always found an insulting stereotype that of seeing planners as “the intelligent ones”, creative teams as “the creative ones”, and account managers as “the reliable ones”. As if someone couldn’t be intelligent, creative and reliable at the same time. Hell, as if everyone shouldn’t be required to be intelligent, creative and reliable at the same time today!).

Why am I complaining about this right now? Because the IPA website is hosting an interesting (though very UK-oriented) view on training talents, by BBH’s Nick Kendall. It’s about IPA’s 7-stage model, but I see it as part of a larger debate on talent in the ad industry, one that deserves each of us spending some of our time and braincells on.


Final Burp: how many practitioners in advertising have done at least one reading in any one of the following: beavioural psychology, semiotics, neuropsychology, game theory, social movements,  organizational psychology, linguistics, anthropology…?


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