The advertising industry suffered in the recession, making agencies leaner and tougher. Graduates, driven by their desire to make stunning ads and dazzled by the glamour image, were disillusioned when they discovered the reality of working through the line, Kevin May writes.

The advertising industry suffered in the recession, making agencies

leaner and tougher. Graduates, driven by their desire to make stunning

ads and dazzled by the glamour image, were disillusioned when they

discovered the reality of working through the line, Kevin May


’Drinks, drugs, gambling and fast cars,’ the headline on a graduate

recruitment ad from last year shouts. Closer inspection of the ad

reveals - hilariously - that these are references to some of the clients

in that agency’s portfolio, but your attention has been grabbed

shamelessly by a well-researched truth about the target market.

Graduates choose advertising as a career because it is perceived to

offer a sexy lifestyle. No two days are ever the same, you live life on

the edge and survive on your wits.

If you like rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous, the thrill of

having a Ferrari while you’re still young enough to enjoy it - not to

mention skip-loads of cash poured into your current account each month -

then advertising is for you.

Andrew Greenstock, who joined Leo Burnett last year as a trainee account

manager, says: ’You’re chopping and changing, working on lots of things

at once, and seeing exciting results from what you’re doing. The product

is just more exciting (than in most jobs).’

Advertising is thought by outsiders to be a thrilling business and the

industry plays on this image when searching for fresh recruits. There is

nothing wrong with that - provided it is not a gross over-promise. Like

all good ads, it should have a grounding in an essential product


So, is advertising as sexy a career as people expect it to be? And if

not, was it ever that sexy in the first place, or has something happened

in recent years to make it significantly less so?

During the recession of the early 90s, the industry’s head count shrank

from 15,000 to 11,000. Much of this exodus was hardly voluntary but,

even now, with the advertising market in a much healthier state and

numbers back up to around 13,000, people are still leaving the business

to pursue alternative careers. One senior agency insider comments,

’There’s this ’downshifting’ - or ’upshifting’, as I prefer to call it -

for a better way of life. It’s got to be better than spending it all in


The recession had a profound effect on the temperature of the


First, agencies became so desperate to retain business that acquiescence

with clients became the norm. The status quo in the fundamental nature

of client-agency relationships has never really been recovered by the

industry. Second, money became much tighter and agency margins were

squeezed. Now the good times have returned, clients see no reason to

increase the proportion of their marketing budget that ends up in the

industry’s coffers.

Alan McWalter, the marketing director of Woolworths, says: ’The business

has become much more competitive in a way that it wasn’t before. It’s

more intense, and the financial screws are on, so agencies have to be

more accountable.’ There will not be many clients remunerating their

agencies to the tune of the full 17.65 per cent this year.

Write-offs became commonplace, especially with the dawning of the age of

the cost-controller. Clients became less prepared to finance the

experimentation that many agencies feel to be an essential part of the

advertising process, and any agency that went beyond the point of merely

pleasing the client found itself footing some substantial bills

occasionally. This precedent has proved a route of no return, in both


So, the advertising industry emerged from the recession with its

confidence battered and its cash flow maimed. Any creative pursuit

requires confidence; it is questionable whether an advertising agency

that feels constantly on the back foot in its client relationships can

ever function at anything approaching optimal effect. It is beyond doubt

that this situation makes working in the business less enjoyable. And,

with less money around, people in advertising were asked either to

expect comparatively diminished salaries, or to work harder for the same


McWalter concedes: ’I guess certain types of individual are beginning to

question whether this is the type of environment they want to continue

to work in and whether there are other pastures in which to use their

talents and offer the level of satisfaction that they want from their

careers.’ It is not difficult to understand why working harder at

something less enjoyable for a more modest return fails to provide a

recipe for widespread contentment.

The advertising business has also changed profoundly. The advent of

total communications and multinational brand management has taken the

focus away from conventional TV, press and posters. Luddite it might be,

but many people came into advertising not expecting to spend their time

translating the brand vision encapsulated in an Italian commercial into

Websites, screensavers and fridge magnets. They wanted to work on ads

that their mum and friends would see and like and that they could talk

about down the pub. Some folk are just parochial like that.

But such aspirations may no longer be realistic. William Eccleshare, the

chief executive of Ammirati Puris Lintas, warns: ’The days when you

could remain in one country, in one market, doing a narrow definition of

advertising and carry on doing that through a whole career, are probably


This ethos of too much perspiration and not enough inspiration appears

to have spawned a mood of dissatisfaction among some sections of the

advertising population. But is this the real reason why so many people

are leaving the industry, and is it anything new? Nick Phillips, the

director-general of the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising,

believes not: ’It’s always been the case. If you look at the numbers by

age, the figures are pretty consistent: about half under 30, and 80 per

cent under 40.’

Advertising attracts creative people, and such people tend to be cursed

with both dissatisfaction and imagination. It is, perhaps, inevitable

that a proportion leave in pursuit of freshly conceived goals. And

probably, in due course, they will become disillusioned, restless or

bored with their new-found idyll, and move on to something


Advertising also attracts egos. It is an industry where success and

prosperity can be found at a young age. And as Gay Haines, the chief

executive of Kendall Tarrant, notes: ’It is an ageist business, more so

than it used to be. Even ten years ago you wouldn’t have found any

managing directors of agencies in their very early 30s.’

While it is generally accepted that not everyone can rise to the top in

time for their 30th birthday, most people entering the industry believe

that they themselves will not be falling by the wayside. In a class

where everyone expects to be the star pupil, disappointment is

inevitable. Some learn to accept this disappointment and reappraise

their ambitions , some decide to jump ship.

The nature of the business provides a solid, but vicarious, training

ground. Haines observes that people are now perceiving advertising to be

the first part of a two-career working life. It is hardly surprising

that, after years of doing something which increases the profitability

of another person’s company, some want to run their own enterprise and

reap their own rewards.

And then there are the people who enter advertising to discover that it

is not quite what they expected it to be. The experience focuses their

minds on what they really wanted to do in the first place, and they go

off and do it. This is nothing new, according to Eccleshare. ’I started

in the late 70s and, within two years, I was the only one from my

graduate intake left at the agency. Everyone else had gone off into

other businesses,’ he says. The same thing happens to some lawyers,

teachers and firemen too.

The advances of the technological age have bought opportunities. For

those who choose to stay, this has led to a greater variety of

directions in which they can take their careers in advertising. For

others, it has proved a catalyst for change. Haines says: ’The

development of the digital area and, therefore, the requirement for more

television programming, is an attractive alternative for people in

advertising. It’s become the sexy alternative, akin to some of the

things they used to be doing.’

Advertising has changed and will continue to change. Along the way, it

will lose some very good people. There are those that will have you

believe that it used to be a lot sexier, but nostalgia can play funny

tricks on truthful recollection. My grandmother claims to be genuinely

grateful to have lived almost half her life before penicillin was

discovered, and talks about the Second World War as if it was a right

laugh. Truthfully, yesteryear’s adland had both sex and shit and both

are still there today.

It’s just that they’ve taken new forms.

And ’sexiness’, in any case, is so relative. There are many things which

the industry needs to sort out and many respects in which it could make

itself more appealing as a career to attract and retain people, but

advertising is still a considerably better job than most of the

alternatives. Some good people are, indeed, leaving advertising, but

most stay. And those who leave put disillusionment low on their list of

their reasons for going.

They leave because of the sort of people they are, and not because they

are no longer attracted to the wizened old hag that advertising has


Tim Little ’I wanted my own brand’

Tim Little is 34 and left Leagas Delaney last year after 11 years in

advertising. He was a board account director, but wanted to set up his

own business. Three months ago he opened a shop in the King’s Road,

selling his own brand of shoes, which he designs himself and has made in


’I left university with a degree in accountancy and came to live in

London with my sister, who was having a great time working in

advertising. After seven weeks staying in each night studying for

accountancy exams, I moved into advertising. The atmosphere was exactly

what I had hoped for - it was very young and very vibrant with lots of

interesting people.

’When I started it really was great fun, there was lots of money about

and lots of confidence in advertising. Then it switched completely, and

that made agencies more serious. People were worried about their jobs

and worked a lot harder. I left because I had always had a dream about

launching my own brand and putting into practice the things I had

learned at the agency. In advertising, I had only a tiny influence on a

very big picture, and that can be quite frustrating.’

Chris O’Reilly ’I might have stayed longer’

Chris O’Reilly is 26 and spent two years at J. Walter Thompson as an

account manager before leaving to teach in Japan. He has returned to

London and is a producer at Nexus.

’I went into advertising because it had a creative side to it, but also

a corporate structure which was a commercial enterprise at the same


After about two months, I realised that as an account manager you’re

quite marginalised from the creative process and that working for a big

agency there was a limited opportunity to do anything


’It took about a year for me to realise that I had to rethink radically

what I was going to do with my career. To go and teach in rural Japan

was about as big a change as I could envisage. I worked freelance in

production when I returned. I hadn’t become disillusioned with

advertising, just account management. If I had joined an agency that was

smaller and a bit more dynamic creatively, I might have stayed longer

But in account management I would still have been unhappy. My job in

production satisfies both my criteria better.’

Sue Sandle ’I miss the people and having nobody to talk to’ Sue Sandle

was an account director at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO. She left last

September after five years in the business. She had no job to go to and

no concrete plans. She had done some marketing for an outdoor training

company and is thinking about working as a production manager for a

photographer. She is 28. ’One of the reasons I left - and one of the

reasons I joined - is that I have always loved advertising. I always had

a passion for ads and, perhaps, I left because I thought a lot of people

that were doing remarkably well didn’t. I think if you’re not in it,

advertising is as sexy as it has ever been but, if you’re in it, it

never has been. Account management is definitely the worst job in the

industry. I think I was ill-suited from the beginning, because my heart

was never in the right place as far as I could perceive account

management to be. Now I am working from home I miss the people and

having nobody to talk to. I loved it and hated bits of it and I felt

quite miserable towards the end, but I wouldn’t have missed any of it

for the world. You’re well placed to do all sorts of stuff afterwards.’


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