Retaining Top Agency Talent During the Great Resignation

As co-chairs of the ANA Agency Relations Committee, Nicole Apple, head of global strategic agency management at Kimberly-Clark, and Kerry Kielb, director of agency strategy and operations at AT&T, have a unique perspective on what client-side marketers can do to improve agency relations and the retention rate for agency talent. In this session, the pair shared tips and insights for how agency relations and procurement teams can work together to successfully recruit and retain top talent at their brands' agencies.

Words of Wisdom

"Being a good client is more important than ever. Client-side marketers should approach this in the same way they approach brand building or brand loyalty programs."
     — Nicole Apple, head of global strategic agency management at Kimberly-Clark

Key Takeaways

Though agencies realized a 13 percent increase in overall revenue in 2021, that increase has not met the demand of rising salaries, with new agency hires now earning 20 to 30 percent more than prior to the pandemic. More concerning, turnover — which is currently at an all-time high — is costing both agencies and their clients money, making retention a fiscal imperative. The current environment has agency talent firmly in the driver's seat, and that doesn't appear poised to change any time soon.

In the wake of this all-time high talent turnover rate, the market is seeing agency talent go to start-ups, client-side opportunities, or jobs in the tech industry. Freelance work has become more appealing, as well.

Some of the qualities that agency talent is currently looking for in a job include:

  • Work-life balance: Work from home, added vacation time, caps on hours, and flex hours are all benefits that are drawing interest from talent.
  • The ability to do meaningful work: This is more important than ever, as agency talent wants to do good work that successfully transforms the brands they work on.
  • An inclusive and diverse environment: Culture has become extremely important to many people, especially as it relates to supporting diversity and inclusion.

Become the Preferred Client

Brand marketers must treat the agency as a true partner and strive to understand not just what motivates the agency itself, but also the individuals who work for the agency. If your brand can become the preferred client of its agencies, top talent within those agencies will always want to work with it. Agency management and procurement teams can play a critical role in achieving this goal. These two teams should have clearly defined roles, but should also work together on a number of things, including:

  • Roster management
  • Agency selection guideline development
  • Agency reviews
  • Ways to drive more efficiency
  • Inclusion and diversity programs
  • RFPs
  • Strategies for ensuring agility

Agencies believe clients that "get it" have some shared traits, such as:

  • Clear and consistent agency review processes
  • Positive reinforcement practices
  • The ability to listen and ask for feedback
  • Strong expectation and priority management practices
  • Programs that reduce transition and onboarding time

Transparency is paramount to a healthy and successful client-agency partnership. Transparency helps agency talent avoid burnout with clearly written scopes that outline goals and expectations. Expectations can also be managed via contractual terms, which can be written with the ability to:

  • Make adjustments in a changing environment.
  • Establish incentives that matter.
  • Outline a vendor endorsement policy.
  • Create a partnership on diversity and inclusion goals.

Finally, clients should ensure agency KPIs match those of the marketing team, which allows both sides to be on equal terms and striving toward the same goals.

Q&A with Nicole Apple, head of global strategic agency management at Kimberly-Clark; Kerry Kielb, director of agency strategy and operations at AT&T

Q. Kerry, can you talk about the makeup of your team, what you look for in people, and how you work across procurement?

Kerry Kielb: The team is a fairly new team at AT&T. It's being built with a few different goals in mind. One of them is to build better clients. We're working very closely with our marketing partners to standardize how we work with agencies and put best practices in place. We work very closely with our procurement partners. We look for people who are optimistic and supportive of the relationships and understanding of the challenges of both sides, because we're often playing a mediation role. You really have to play that role of Switzerland to improve the relationships as you go.

Q. What does successful onboarding look like with agency talent?

Nicole Apple: There's a lot of different ways to do it. It's really about having a clear process and almost having a set curriculum for that. I've seen some clients with an on-demand onboarding program, which I like. It should be something that you can hand over and can be turnkey for a new person. You should also set expectations about what you, as the client, will be handling and what will be done by the agency.

Q. If salaries are up 30 percent and there are signing bonuses, how much more should we be paying our agencies?

Kielb: You have to look at benchmarks. You have to understand what those are. There is data out there that you can reference, and it's refreshed on a fairly regular basis. You've got to be willing to prioritize key roles and understand where those hourly rates or multipliers might be worth spending a little bit extra.


"Retaining Top Agency Talent During the Great Resignation." Nicole Apple, head of global strategic agency management at Kimberly-Clark; Kerry Kielb, director of agency strategy and operations at AT&T. ANA Advertising Financial Management Conference, 5/3/22.

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