Talent crisis is the most pressing issue in meeting rooms, WhatsApp groups and networking events. Executive creative directors are struggling to find and then retain creative talent. This situation prompted me to speak to young creatives at different creative agencies and try to understand why advertising is losing its charm, why agencies find it so hard to find good talent, and how this problem can be solved.
What is the root of the problem? Speaking to young creatives, I drew these common themes from their experiences:
1. Creative Agencies Don’t Advertise Themselves Enough
Fatima Ansari is Pakistan’s first and only D&AD Next Creative and one of 10 ‘Next Creative Leaders’ of The One Club. She currently works with Publicis One Touch. During her career, she had the opportunity to hire and train young talent. When asked why it is so difficult to find good talent for ad agencies, she replied, “The biggest problem is that degree courses in advertising are not offered by the universities. This industry is not even on the students’ radar as a career choice because there is no information available about it.” In her opinion, creative agencies need to publicise themselves more and work with universities to hire talent for their creative, client servicing and design departments.
2. Inadequate Job Ads for Creative Roles
According to Anum*, a creative head at a leading ad agency, “We publish the most non-creative job ads for creative roles. There is not enough information about the role. Sometimes, when people look at job ads for creative managers, they perceive them as design vacancies. What is required are interactive job ads with clear job descriptions. These ads should include a ‘challenge’ in order to test the creativity of potential applicants. By doing so, the chances are that you will uncover undiscovered creatives.” At BBDO, for example, we ask potential applicants to sell Lahori food to a Karachiite, shampoo to a bald person or debate why biryani is not overrated.
3. Reverse Ageism
Sidra*, a creative manager at a leading ad agency, says, “Unfortunately, our industry looks at intellect and creativity through the prism of age. They correlate age with excellence and believe that to be in a leadership role age is more important than ability. This has been the biggest hindrance to me as a creative. My growth has been hindered by labels such as ‘abhi choti ho’ (‘you are too young’) or ‘you are still learning,’ when it comes to promotions, client-facing presentations, pitches, increments and movements within the agency, despite the fact that my campaigns have brought success to brands and more business to the agency.” Although she agrees that the pressure to have senior resources comes from clients, “The responsibility lies with the agency to push back and demonstrate that they have confidence in their young resources. This mindset leads to a toxic culture which forces talent to leave the industry.”
Faraz*, a young graduate working as a creative associate at an agency in Lahore says, “The problem is that brands design communications for young audiences without listening to the young people on their teams. We need to understand that a person cannot think like Gen Z after simply reading a report on consumer trends. You need to give this generation a seat at the table and listen to their point of view because they are your consumers at the end of the day.”
According to Ammaar*, a creative director, “You see the same eight faces in senior roles moving from one agency to another because we are not training or bringing young talent to the fore. We need to train them for leadership roles. Currently, they are just given titles as associates or managers, but without giving them a team to manage.”
4. Agencies Validate Job Hopping
Sidra* had the opportunity to hire creative associates after spending a few years in the industry. According to her, “Most of the hiring managers in an agency assess your capabilities by the number of agencies you have hopped. For example, if Candidate A has worked in six agencies with seven brands in the last four years, they are seen as deserving of a senior position, compared to Candidate B who has worked in one agency and worked on nine brands. However, if you do the math, a candidate who has worked in six agencies in the last four years has actually hardly spent eight months working in one agency in a situation where it takes four months to understand the processes of the agency. Therefore, in the remaining four months how many campaigns do you think they have worked on? This is how agencies validate job hopping and then complain about talent retention.”
5. Absence of Growth Plans
According to Saad* and Mahad*, who work as a design and a creative lead, respectively, “The good thing about ad agencies is that they are a good space to start off as one gets to work on different brands, build a portfolio, and understand how different industries address their challenges through their communications. So, it is easy to hire and attract younger talent. However, once they have gained experience and taken on more responsibilities, it becomes tougher to hold on to them because as their career progresses, they are not compensated adequately; therefore, retaining people after they have reached a certain level of seniority and competence becomes difficult. It is at this point that talent moves to the brand side or to start-ups. Ad agencies need to position themselves as more than just learning hubs. They need to have better incentives in place as only then will it be easy to attract talent and retain it as well.”
In Sidra’s opinion, “There is no clear growth plan, not just in monetary value but in terms of the brand portfolio, access to clients, exposure to shoots, jury experience and team building. Most increments are done on an ad hoc basis, especially if someone gets a counteroffer from another organisation. Evaluations or appraisals do not take place, and even if they do, they are conducted as a formality and no follow-up takes place to ensure their implementation. Employees are often told that the agency doesn’t have enough business to provide increments and they will have to wait until new clients come on board. Conversely, young talented people often do not know when or how to ask for a raise, let alone a growth plan.”
6. Bias Against Women
Uzma* who works as a creative lead says, “Agency culture is not flexible for women, and the growth plans are not designed for them. Growth in some agencies is determined by whether one is available 24/7 on WhatsApp, which in most cases is not feasible for women – so the industry rewards male privilege. There is a standard agency culture and if one is not ready to put in late hours, weekends and out-of-scope work, then one is deemed as “not cut out for advertising agencies.”
7. Lack of Discipline and Learning Mindsets
Shadab*, a creative director at an advertising agency says, “It’s hard to find good talent because older creatives have set the wrong precedent – which is, that there cannot be work-life balance when working in an agency, and this is expected from the young generation as well. Yet, this is a generation that is not willing to put in extra hours after six. Having said this, younger creatives also don’t have the drive to build their skillsets even during working hours; they believe in ‘winging it’. This is why it is important to hire a blend of attitude and creativity. There needs to be a learning and growth mindset as well as a willingness to accept feedback and incorporate it to improve the work.”
So what can be done? We talked to a number of people who have hired creative talent for over 10 years. Here is what we learned in terms of how to build stellar teams; teams that have won awards and brought in record-breaking business for brands.
1. The Problem CAN be Solved
Hira Mohibullah, ECD at VMLY&R, says, “I honestly don’t think it is hard to find good talent. However, a few factors come into play in order to attract and retain talent and it really does work both ways. One cannot expect to ‘buy’ good talent with money. In my experience, people are almost always looking for fertile grounds to learn and grow.”
2. Find Headhunting Allies
Mohibullah speaks of allies in sourcing creative talent. “The recruitment team needs to have a good eye to spot the cream. My recommendation is to hire good headhunters. Ansari talks about agencies investing time in building relationships and awareness among university students. “Agencies need to work with universities so that students start thinking about advertising as a career while they are at university.”
3. Clear Growth Plans
Attracting talent is a challenge but retaining it is an even bigger one and according to Mohibullah, “Growth trajectories, compelling work and incentives need to be put in place to ensure retention.” Ansari emphasises the importance of mentoring before a creative moves to the next level. “They need to be trained in management skills before they move into creative manager or creative director roles so that they have what it takes to lead a team rather than working as a solo creative.”
4. Agency Branding
Speaking about the fact that ad agencies don’t advertise themselves enough, Ansari suggests that “Agencies need to train their talent and offer them opportunities to be the face of the agency so they can strengthen the agency brand.” Atiya Zaidi, MD & ECD, BBDO Pakistan, also stresses the importance of agency branding. “Talent will only be interested in working with you if they know about you.”
5. Hiring for Culture
Mohibullah says that although a willingness to learn is important from a hiring perspective, the agency and the vision behind it should be strong enough to attract talent. When asked whether she prefers attitude or talent, Zaidi says that “Hiring for culture is more important than hiring for skillsets, because the skillset is something that you can develop but you cannot teach work ethics, teamwork and a winning mindset. When we hire, we look for people who are more than just creative. We look for people who complement the team and bring diversity to the ways we approach advertising.”
6. Widen the Net with Remote Work Opportunities
Zaidi says agencies can widen the net by offering remote opportunities. “Remote work has allowed us to hire talent based anywhere, and as a company, we leverage this. We have hired creatives from Islamabad, although we don’t have an office there. If one thing has been established in the two years of the pandemic, it is the fact that the first rule in managing a team is trust. We run an agency where we all are adults, not a daycare centre where people have to be constantly monitored.”
7. Creative Briefs for Cross-Industry Hiring
When it comes to hiring across industries, Mohibullah, Ansari and Zaidi believe that setting a challenge within a job ad has helped identify people they would not otherwise have found. Zaidi adds that “such briefs have allowed us to assess the creativity and thinking process of a person rather than assessing them on their CV alone. Sometimes people apply just for fun and we hire them.”
*Names have been changed to maintain confidentiality.
Arooj Anwar is a content manager at an advertising agency.