As I was on the brink of leaving university, I had an insight that has shaped my entire working life: work looks DULL.
Having spent a few years learning, pursuing my interests and going to the pub every night, the prospect of a standard office job was horrifying. I had an insight into it during my degree, since we did work placements, and I had spent six months working in a marketing department in Stevenage. Need I say more?
Fast-forward to a career in advertising. It enabled me to learn, pursue my interests and go to the pub every night. One of the striking things about my past quarter-century in the business is that advertising agencies and client companies attracted different kinds of people. And this is the main reason why agencies exist: they offer different cultures and require different skillsets.
Every so often, clients would ask why they were spending millions employing agencies when they could just spend thousands employing these people directly. Then they would try, and later discover that those people didn’t want to work for them. They didn’t like their offices, their cultures, their out-of-town leafy locations, the way they dressed – everything.
Smart clients knew that accessing a different breed of people was necessary and that could only be achieved by allowing them to work in a different company and buying their services in.
But, in recent years, something new has been happening.
A new breed of companies has arrived to change the parameters. They have loose cultures, open minds, central locations and a frisson of excitement. They have the heat and momentum. They feel like where it’s at. And they seem to have – whisper it – cooler offices than most agencies.
Those who have grown up in the industry in the past decade don’t realise how unusual this is. There was a clear divide in the past between people and cultures on the client and agency side.
Now there’s a third space and it’s called tech.
Most of these companies don’t really believe in the value of retained ad agencies; they hire agencies for project work at best. Ideally, they have their own in-house creative departments. It is taken for granted that they will be able to do this, because they have the trifecta that was once the preserve of agencies: high salaries, appealing environments and cultural cachet.
I’m sure many of you who work in client companies have been bristling throughout this article at my implicit value judgment that agencies are more exciting places to work. But, for creative people, that has just always been the case. Many other people find it exciting to be in control of a brand, calling the shots – and that’s great. But it is a different motivation for a different skillset.
Raise your hands if you’re working in an agency and have had a colleague, or someone who works for you, leave to join a tech company in the past couple of years. Yup, that’s pretty much all of you, isn’t it?
We had been thinking that the greatest threat to the advertising industry might be our inability to fully adapt to the demands of new media. Or the arrival of management consultancies. Or procurement departments. But it’s not. The greatest threat to our industry is that we are no longer the most attractive place to work for bright creative people with open minds.
All these years, we have been thinking that our asset was our brilliant ideas and the effect they have in the market. It’s not. Our greatest asset is the unique, brilliant people who come up with these ideas and the advice they give to clients along the way.
So, if you’re running an agency, here’s the new question to put on the top of your must-do list: how can I make my company a more attractive employer than a tech company? You can answer that with vision, ways of working, salary, colleagues, culture, diversity, décor, location, training or some combination of all of the above. But if you’re not studying why the tech companies are more attractive (hint: it’s not just the salaries), you’re going to fail fast.
Craig Mawdsley is joint chief strategy officer at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO