Where Has All the Advertising Talent Gone?

August 12, 2021

By Brian Dolan

Vector Goddess/Shutterstock.com

There’s a disconnect in the ad industry. With the past year’s layoffs and restructuring, there should be no problem filling every empty job. And yet, over and over, I’m hearing from agencies that they can’t find the people they’re looking for. Many agencies that I’ve met recently have upwards of 150 open roles that they cannot fill. Why is this happening? Where’s the talent?

On the surface, it’s largely a basic skills gap. The ongoing drive toward digital and programmatic advertising calls for a different approach that requires specialists in nontraditional areas. But this is a shift that’s been happening for years, and there’s been time for the workforce to adapt and yet it hasn’t. Why not? This seems to be an issue of an industry needing to adapt as much as its workforce.

So where are the people who are needed? After having their workplaces shaken up and their lives turned upside down, many are rethinking their future and their long term professional interests. Meanwhile, the tech industry is facing its own shortage and has rolled out an appealing welcome mat. In addition, the next generation is proving to be more interested in money or public service than advertising.

 

Looking for Greener Grass

Typically, there are always people rethinking their future and their careers. That was around 15 percent pre-pandemic, according to the benefits company Mercer. Now, about 25 percent of US employees are planning a job hunt, according to a recent Prudential survey called “Pulse of the American Worker.” That number is 40 percent globally, according to a Microsoft survey.

What’s going on? There are a number of possible factors. From the comments we’re hearing, people got a taste of work outside of the office. They rediscovered previously ignored values like a decent work/life balance and they don’t want to give that up. They also realized how quickly and easily things can change, so they’re looking to take more control over their lives. The ad industry has always been a high-pressure place to work and for many, that increased during the pandemic.

Many people were pleasantly surprised to discover there’s life outside of the city. Those who clung to urban living because that’s where their job required them to be, quickly found out there’s a cheaper option with a bigger house outside of the commute zone. A cheaper cost of living means we don’t have to earn as much to maintain our lifestyle, so we can be more selective in our occupation, role, or how many hours we choose to work each week.

In response, we’re finding that many in the upper ranks of the industry aren’t interested in getting back on the train or commuter lane. To the extent that if agencies insist on reverting back to fully in-person, there will continue to be a hiring and retention struggle.

We recently ran a “back to the office” survey of senior agency employees, and many shared this sentiment. “After working remote now for over a year, I can’t ever see working face to face again. Going forward, working remote will be a must for any future job that I take.”

And additionally, from another senior staffer from a full-service agency, “I would be devastated if the tentative plan to not continue a remote or hybrid model did not come into fruition, as I am planning to move to a different state altogether. Still within commuting distance for a part of a week, but I would have to strongly consider finding employment elsewhere if expected to be back at the office full time.”

So, if some chose to jump ship, where did they head? It’s hard to say for sure. The most in demand occupations are in nursing and installing solar panels, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But there’s no evidence that talent is fleeing the ad industry to work in health care or on construction sites. However, it’s still concerning that our industry doesn’t make the top ten fastest growing careers on that list.

While we’re looking at the mid-career talent shortage, we also should look upstream at what’s coming. Or what’s not coming. College students are not flocking to advertising. The top jobs are in the tech sector and health care, not surprising given the projected job growth.

The college set is asking the same question as those who have been in the industry - where are the jobs located and are they in desirable locations. Why move to an expensive city if you don’t have to, especially if you’re living on an entry-level salary? Do they offer unlimited vacation, as is typical in tech, so employees can enjoy their desired work-life balance? And what are their long term career options? Can these be found in the ad industry anymore?

 

Slipping Into the Tech World

As many existing agency employees began to fear what they would give up if they head back to the office full time, Big Tech was the first industry to promote the extension — and possible continuation — of remote work. Perhaps this may have influenced some of the experienced agency specialists to make an early industry jump?

The boundaries between advertising and the tech world have blurred. Companies are delving more deeply into programmatic. That puts the ad industry in direct competition for a certain skill set that there just isn’t enough of.

Like many industries, IT was hit by the pandemic with job losses. But it’s swinging back quickly. In April alone, 23,600 jobs were added, according to Janco Associates. There are more jobs than qualified candidates to fill them. That will drive up salaries and help draw in the tech inclined from every other industry. By comparison, the ad industry seems to be continuing to find ways to tighten their operational belts for the time-being.

 

Making a Career Shift Spurred By Burn-Out

The ad industry is hard work. Fast paced, long hours, ever-changing, competitive. Tech is not dissimilar. And both can have high burnout rates. When the pandemic suddenly shifted to remote-working for these industries, Zoom fatigue added to their workload burnout as first time remote managers tried to find a more transparent solution to keep track of their teams. As many who retained jobs had to pick up additional workload - many had to accept a pay cut as well. The Workforce Confidence Index coined “sheltering in jobs” for this period. These conditions could have compiled into a tipping point to force some to leave for their own mental health.

I’ve heard a few anecdotal stories from friends who all “know someone” who has used the pandemic period to leave the industry and start their own passion-project. A home store in Upstate New York, a bike shop in the burbs of PA, a previous freelancing side hustle gone full time. New living situations with lower cost of living have pushed a few to throw themselves -and their savings — into starting their dream businesses. These aren’t always related to their previous advertising roles — but leaning on their advertising expertise to successfully launch and support their projects. Admittedly, these examples are common but not as yet a trend. However, if the industry can’t pick itself up to support the new career goals of its employees perhaps this trend could continue to grow?

Evidently, there’s no single or simple answer to the question of where the talent has gone. And yet, the answer is vital in understanding what has happened. And to figure out what to do about it. Agencies have been restructuring and laying off and yet there is a lack of talent in the industry. Where’s the top media talent? And why are they leaving? Until we work together to fully understand these questions it will be near impossible for the industry to develop a forward solution.

Brian Dolan is CEO of WorkReduce.


The views and opinions expressed in Marketing Maestros are solely those of the contributor and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the ANA or imply endorsement from the ANA.


You must be logged in to submit a comment.