How Ad Agencies Can Better Source and Nurture Talent

By Nadalie Dias


The Great Resignation has challenged businesses across industries, and the media vertical is no exception. Agencies and holding companies are struggling to source and retain talent, leading some to question whether there are enough skilled candidates to go around.

But the problem is less a lack of talent and more so the inability of organizations to evolve practices to source and retain that talent. The Great Resignation offers our industry a prime opportunity.

As we collectively reevaluate our purpose and methods of collaboration, let's also reimagine what the agency model looks like and how we integrate talent recruitment and development into our organizations.

Agencies can better source and nurture talent by embracing cross-organizational design, fostering a culture of development — and unlearning ingrained practices that do not serve talented individuals or the organizations that depend on them.

Implement Cross-Organizational Design

Agencies typically suffer from silos. Individuals kick off their career as assistants in one discipline and, if they advance, it is typically because they stick with that one function until becoming the head of a department. Some never acclimate to the first function and are considered to have failed or quit. Others want to shift later in their careers and find it impossible to do so, potentially triggering a switch to another agency.

Why preserve a structure that prevents cooperation and stifles innovation? Allowing talented individuals to try their hands at multiple disciplines fosters new ideas and improved practices — as it prevents an "it's-always-been-done-this-way" mindset and instead sparks questions that drive creative approaches.

Allowing people to circulate among departments also illuminates transferable skills and traits like perseverance, which may ultimately be more valuable to the individual and organization than mastering a tool or disciplinary workflow.

Agencies should take a page out of medicine's book and let newcomers circulate among departments for their first two years at an organization. Allow people to expose themselves to all parts of a business, figure out what they like, are best at, and what their transferable skills are.

For more senior talent, unlock the ability to switch disciplines by implementing rigorous training programs, routine check-ins, and approaching those new to a discipline with patience.

Foster a Culture of Development

Solving the talent crisis begins by boosting retention. The discourse surrounding the Great Resignation has often focused on a perceived talent shortage, but agencies cannot compete for talent if they cannot keep it. To that end, organizations need to foster a culture of development by inculcating a focus on self-management and self-understanding and then applying that to management of teams.

When it comes to management, it is easy to fixate on tactical outputs — the seemingly hard skills of using a media platform. Many agency employees advance in their careers because they have been excellent doers and then, when they struggle after becoming managers, are sent to a one-hour training to resolve the problem. This is the organizational issue a focus on self-management should address.

Self-management means understanding how you work and relate to others. It means being reflective and ensuring that your words match up to your actions. It means building trust by reading the room, empathizing with how your coworkers are feeling, and acting in a way to maximize happiness and productivity, which are most often complementary, not in tension.

This logic also applies to leadership. Just as you cannot be a manager without first effectively managing yourself, you cannot be a leader without understanding why and how you want to lead. What motivates you? What motivates others? How do you play to your strengths as a leader and become proactive about your blind spots?

To agency leaders focused on the old way of doing things, these questions might seem abstract. But they are the sorts of questions that lead to cultures of support and empathy, which are also cultures of productivity, happiness, and high retention.

Unlearn Practices That Don't Serve Talent or Agencies

The practices that have gotten the advertising industry to the moment of the Great Resignation are the same ones that continue to exacerbate retention and recruitment challenges. We need to identify and unlearn these practices if we are to make strides toward better sourcing and retaining talent.

Chief among these practices is advertising's always-on mentality, one of incessant availability to coworkers and clients. This is especially pervasive at the senior level, as those who tend to climb advertising's ranks are the ones who conform and reinforce this unsustainable aspect of agency culture.

Fostering the impression that answering emails at 9 p.m. equates to hard work — and walking away from the inbox at the end of the conventional workday translates to a lack of effort — is not only harmful to employees. It also gives clients the impression that always-on availability is precisely what they should demand from agencies, inspiring the same burnout that reinforces the never-ending search for talent.

In addition to ending the premium on always-on availability, agencies should fight back against the idea that employees should have the answer to every question.

Many organizations do not feel comfortable going to clients and changing their minds, as if reacting differently to new information is a sign of incompetence, not optimization and honesty. If the pandemic taught us anything as an industry, it is that we cannot speak about every issue with absolute certainty. Evolution is to be celebrated, not discouraged.

Advertising insiders know that the technologies and tools available to us are increasingly ceasing to be differentiators. Most agencies use the same tools; the question is how talented individuals at agencies use those tools and synthesize information.

If talent is an agency's greatest asset, leaders must act like it. We must craft organizations that inspire innovation, foster development, and reward curiosity. This is how we emerge stronger on the other side of COVID-19 and the Great Resignation.


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

Nadalie Dias is the chief strategy and marketing officer at mSix and Partners.