3 Ways Agencies Can Innovate to Stop Talent Churn | Marketing Maestros | Blogs | ANA

3 Ways Agencies Can Innovate to Stop Talent Churn

December 10, 2020

By Brian Dolan


There’s an alarming long-term issue in the ad industry. Agency staff of all levels of seniority are leaving their jobs. I’ve seen it personally as my company’s business model helps backfill these gaps. My inbox is filled daily with requests from big agency brands to help keep their teams on track during this wave of people-churn.

Is anyone really surprised? There’s been a negative undercurrent of talent dissatisfaction in the ad industry that has grown louder in recent months fueled by the uncertainty and pivoting going on through the pandemic and economic challenges.

It’s something that we need to pay attention to if we want to attract, retain and nurture the top talent that will be the future of this industry.


Why Is Everyone Quitting?

There’s a perception that staff are burned out and fleeing agencies because of pay cuts, tighter timelines, smaller teams equating to higher personal demand, and greater pressure to perform despite a myriad of challenges. Talent are actively taking to Reddit and other forums to feed the rumor mill with their fears, concerns and suspicions.

In short, the ad industry has a growing reputation issue that is going to undermine our ability to attract and retain the best and the brightest unless three holes are plugged now.


1. Increase Internal Communication, Stat

In most agencies experiencing high churn rates I’ve observed a strong sense of unease about the future combined with a lack of communication from leadership and uncertainty over how to adapt to the new circumstances. Leaders should increase their accessibility to team members and increase their communication across the board, especially those dealing with remote workers.

It’s time to be upfront about the challenges. Rumors can kill. It’s no secret that the industry has been hammered this year and consequently people are looking for signs about what that means for their companies and their futures. Without clear direction from leadership, they’ll make assumptions and those assumptions won’t always be right. If they’re not getting enough guidance, they’ll start making plans to protect themselves and those plans may include jumping ship when they don’t have to.

At a company level, businesses could have more Town Hall type virtual meetings where members can submit questions in advance as well as receiving the current market and business status. After those meetings, or any other time, Managers can chat more conversationally about the threats and changes that might affect their team during a candid and relaxed AMA (ask me anything) session. These can be an opportunity for bonding while significantly reducing the spread of fear or misinterpretation.

There’s something that every leader can do to make sure their remote team feels connected and valued. Check in with people. It can be as simple as starting your work day on your team Slack channel to say “Hi, Everyone!”

You can have shorter but more regular check-ins by phone or video with individuals or sub groups to ensure they feel connected and are able to focus on the items that will keep the team on target. It will also give them an opportunity to share any bottlenecks or difficulties before they become impediments to progress. More astute leaders can also notice non-verbal cues during these calls that may indicate a future flight-risk. Most importantly, it’s an opportunity to notice and casually recognize what each team member is doing well instead of waiting for less regular formal reviews.


2. Make Your Team’s Mental Health a Priority

A year before COVID, the ad agency turnover rate was 30 percent, according to the ANA. There’s no indication that it’s gotten any better. The related cost ranges from 90 to 200 percent of an annual salary, the Society for Human Resource Management reports.

What can be done when the pressures are real and the challenges are evolving? We can take advantage of the unusual opportunities that have been forced on us with the pandemic and economic challenges. This means addressing the issues that are causing burnout as we pivot and reset strategies.

There is legitimate concern about the mental health of the ad industry. Prior to COVID-19, 32 percent of those in the industry were worried about their mental state, according to a Digiday survey. That rose to 41 percent among those making under $50,000 or working longer hours.

I believe this is about a lot more than just salary, it goes deeper to culture and value.

When I started my company, I had a strong belief that our ability to serve clients absolutely depended on each team member. I have found that to be true. But it’s not enough for me to know that. I need my team to know how much I value and respect them and the work they do. We’ve done this by taking a team-first approach and creating a culture that supports team members in being successful.

Clearly, agencies are facing a huge shift in how they create culture with teams working mostly from home. You don’t have the camaraderie of the office. You don’t have the collective competitive will to work into the night. But you do have a chance to offer a better life balance that can be even more attractive.

This is a chance to focus more on the work and what has to get done rather than the hours spent in the office. That plays right into the need for more flexibility as parents are struggling with the lack of traditional child care options and school at home.

We need to be clear about the roles and the work that needs to be done. What does productivity look like? What can get done during the day? What should the priorities be? What are the expectations?


3. Embrace and Celebrate Change as the New Norm

We’ve seen that what doesn’t work right now is trying to do things the way we’ve always done them. It’s time to throw out the trusty playbook. The buying patterns and trends have been completely upended and brands are scrambling to recalibrate. That means ad agencies need to pivot and recalibrate ahead of them.

As part of that, there’s an opportunity to give employees the room to grow where they are within the agency. Take the time to be a career partner, rather than just an employer. Provide opportunities to nurture their talents and develop skills so they have an incentive to stay. The value that the business will receive in exchange will far outweigh any training or support costs.

A new category was created over the past couple of years “Employee Experience” (EX) which now fully recognizes how employees are often the most vital extension of any brand. Agencies have an urgent need to put EX higher than CX (“Customer Experience”) if they want to deliver upon their brand promises and come out of these times of change even stronger than before. Prioritizing EX in large and small ways will certainly reverse the churn trend.

Brian Dolan is the CEO of WorkReduce.

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