Talent wars: should agencies be wary of Google, Facebook and Air New Zealand?

Burton and Bowman recently left adland for techy pastures.

This week, news broke across the ditch that Special Group Australia’s founding creative partners Matty Burton and Dave Bowman would be leaving the agency to take over the Google Zoo operation across the Asia Pacific region.

It was the latest in a string of defections that have seen numerous creatives take up roles at big tech companies. We’ve seen Tor Myhren cross the floor from his cushy position as the president and chief creative officer at Grey to become the vice president of marketing communications at Apple at the end of 2015. Around the same time, celebrated creatives Lars Bastholm and Andrew Keller made similar moves to Google and Facebook, respectively. Moves that gave Ad Age sufficient cause to ask, ‘where have all the creatives gone?

A little closer to home, we’ve also seen creatives Mark D’Arcy, Rebecca Carrasco and Andy Blood similarly leave ad land for standing desks and sleeping pods at Facebook.

But it isn’t only tech companies that agencies need to be wary of. Major corporates are also looking to consolidate their in-house creative departments. It’s the motivation behind Xero’s 50-strong global creative team, Air New Zealand’s growing in-house contingent and why the likes of younger innovative brands such as Burger Fuel and Karma Cola invest in their own creative talent. 

What’s more is that the trend isn’t only limited to creative. We’re also seeing shifts on the media side, with Air New Zealand rumoured to be looking at taking some of its media spend in-house, supposedly due to concerns around transparency that have bubbled up to the industry’s surface in recent times.

Late last year, Air New Zealand employed media veteran John Buckley and then followed that up this year by nabbing DAN’s digital experience wizard Che Tamahori to head the customer engagement side of the business.

The reasoning behind these moves is simple. As more of the ad spend pie shifts online, it starts to make sense for brands to invest in their own trading desks, social media campaign managers and broader creative teams.

When you need a continuous stream of creative juice, buying it by the bottle starts to look expensive in the long run. But does it make sense for corporates to start investing in their own creative juicers and trying to do what their agency partners have always done?

Well, given there are so few examples of outstanding work to emerge from in-house operations, there is certainly some truth to the notion that clients just don’t tend to be all that good at developing their own creative.

Just recently we were again presented with an example of an in-house team getting it wrong when Pepsi’s attempt to be a topical, purpose-driven brand materialised as little more than a viral cringe.      

That said, creative is always dependent on the quality of the talent; and agencies have, until now, been privy to the best in the business. But this isn’t as guaranteed as it once was. 

Keeping talent happy

Leighton Howl, the founder of recruitment agency The Pond, generally talks to creatives who have left an agency for one or other reason. And this has given him some insights into what agencies might need to do to hold onto their best creative talent. Here are five tips from him.

  1. Keep the mentors: Focus on a range of ages in the agency business when restructuring or employing for growth. Older mentors are generally good for culture. They know a lot, have true experience and the agency scene needs them now more than ever to gain more credibility back with clients.”
  2. Do professional reviews: Kick HR’s ass downstairs and get reviews in place, show some respect. Around 70 percent of the creative talent we interview say they have not had a review while in their current role in the last three years or at all.” 
  3. Build in employer benefits: We culled job perks from 2009 for good reason, but maybe it’s time to give a bit more back. Let’s face it, of the 10,000 pros working in digital in New Zealand how many of their bosses paid for them to got to South by South West? Nine maybe? And we’re supposed to be offering world class digital services for our clients? It’s no wonder they’re getting digital work done offshore.”
  4. Embrace the odd long lunch: Take your team out to a long lunch every three months to say thanks. Long lunches are dead with big-spending clients. But what about the studio who worked to 2am and who helped win the pitch last night? Prego Pizzas are $25 bucks, baby.”
  5. Take HR seriously: If agencies want to retain staff, grow again and get back into the game, the need to turn on some ‘True HR.’ If HR is just recruiting for the people walking out the door flip them out the door too. There’s more to HR than replacing departed staff.” 

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So should agencies be concerned?

Asked what he sees as one of the biggest issues facing the advertising industry in 2017, Colenso BBDO creative chairman Nick Worthington pinpoints competition for talent.     

“Clients are hiring creatives, rival companies are hiring creatives and of course Google and Facebook are sucking up talent,” he says. “Our response to that is simply to create a great place to work, where people can produce great work. We have to attract talent, and if the talent in the building can consistently produce some of the best work in the world, that attracts more talent.”

DDB chief executive Justin Mowday agrees with this sentiment but adds that agencies have always had to find ways to keep their talent happy.

“We should be concerned about it, but we’ve always had competition from other agencies and from the client side,” Mowday says.

The difference now, however, is that tech juggernauts have entered the picture and they come bearing pots of gold that even the biggest agency would be envious of.      

In spite of this promise of a hefty pay cheque, Mowday says that the best creative he’s encountered aren’t driven by money as much as they are by the opportunity to do great work.

He says they’re drawn to places where they know they’ll be able to work on significant projects they can be proud of.

“Creatives will always be drawn to the places where they have the best chance of seeing their ideas made,” Mowday says.      

Seguing from this point, Mowday questions exactly how much actual creative work is being produced by the creative teams sitting inside Google and Facebook. He says the Facebook creatives he’s encountered spend a lot of time talking about the creative potential on Facebook but rarely get stuck into producing anything in the way they would at ad agencies.     

“[Facebook and Google] are tech companies, which means that coders are their heroes. Creatives will always serve an adjunct role to the coders. Whereas, at an ad agency, creativity is what our business is built on.”

On this topic, several adland folk referenced Rebecca Carrasco’s short tenure at Facebook as a warning that a tech company might not be the best place to go.

She only stayed at the company for a year, before departing to work on a personal project.    

Culture isn’t enough

These might all be valid points for more established creatives. But the Carrascos, Bloods, Burtons and Bowmans of tomorrow are currently being built in the junior departments of ad agencies. And the problem is that agencies have not traditionally been very good at creating decent work environments.

In spite of all the fancy coffee machines, bean bags and free drinks, agencies rarely, if ever, place among the best employers in the country.  But you know who does? Corporates. Big nasty corporates just happen to be pretty good at keeping their employees happy.

To put this into perspective, media veterans Antony Young and Matt McNeil recently launched a digital consultancy with an interesting point of difference: it would pay student workers $16 an hour for the work they put in.

“We hate this notion of unpaid or underpaid internships,” Young said at the time of launching the business. 

Only in adland (and perhaps journalism) would paying someone minimum wage be considered noteworthy. Elsewhere, it goes without saying.     

Of course, those with creative yearnings have always been willing to slog through long hours with no-to-low pay in the hope of eventually landing a job that gives them the freedom to work on some really interesting projects.

But more and more creative talents are figuring out that they can gain that experience at different places now – and they might just pay you (in dollars rather than drinks) and let you go home at 5pm.     

  • Some sections of this story were taken from the recent edition of NZ Marketing.

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