1. Challenges Facing the Advertising Industry Today

So many challenges confront the advertising industry, perhaps the greatest of which is overcoming the double-whammy recessions of 2002 and 2009 — devastating years in our industry akin to the 1929 stock market crash in the Financial sector. In case you missed it, the advertising recession of 2002 was first perpetrated by the over inflation of the advertising marketplace due in large part to unrealistic speculation of web-based accounts in late-2000 and early-to-mid 2001. Then it was exacerbated by the horrific events of September 11. It became an official recession when we declared war in the Middle East. The last significant advertising recession occurred in 1991, and was also impacted by the declaration of war by the United States. War is good for some industries; advertising is not one of them. This current recession was caused by piggish greed.

The good news is, if you are reading this, you survived. Congratulations, it wasn’t easy. The bad news is, you are left with the fallout of an attrition of talent we are not likely to quickly replace. We are left with an over-abundance of junior people. True, advertising has always been a youthful business – but it’s never been more youthful than it is today.

What happened at most agencies? Most of senior management hung on by their fingernails (in many cases taking salary and bonus cuts), very junior people kept their jobs because they were low overhead and a rash of budding mid-to-senior folks were forced out of the industry or into freelance and “perma-lance” domains. To survive we had to cut payroll and therefore we created a world of talented consultants. While this fallout still has a major impact on how we actually do business (billing, compensation, etc.), let’s focus on how this affects recruiting talent into our industry.

In short, ad agencies have gotten a bad reputation. Once, this was a respectable profession to aspire to. A recent study by JWT revealed that, In terms of respect for the advertising profession, 14% of respondents say their fellow Americans respect ad people, besting only “national politicians” (10%) and “car salesmen” (5%). Re-read this paragraph.

Today, advertising as a career consistently ranks in the lower percentiles in all academic studies of desired professions. Why? We’ve gotten the reputation that we churn and burn entry level talent; and that we sacrifice our developing mid-level talent and that we only care about protecting senior management. This is not exactly the type of industry that will send the best and the brightest of future generations clamoring to work in the mailroom at our agencies, as they did for decades.

We were once an industry that paid well. That perception has changed. We’re now known as relative cheapskates compared to other service/consulting industries. And there is little light at the end of the tunnel, very few agencies train and mentor their young people. It’s bad enough that we are no longer attracting the best young junior talent, but the ones we are attracting we are doing little beyond throwing them into the fire to develop them.

Somehow, though it all, we’ve retained a little bit of our “cool factor”. Invariably, I ask candidates what they are looking for. Ten to fifteen years ago, the answer was usually “a great opportunity”. Today, that answer has morphed into “I’m looking for a cool agency”. I’d like to think that it’s the same answer by a new generation. But, I think not and I think that answer is the ultimate trickle-down effect of what our industry is on the verge becoming: superficial and trivial.

When was the last time an MBA fresh out of Harvard or Wharton or Tuck showed up at your agency and told you this is where he’d like to start his or her career? What’s even more alarming is that your business is probably not even structured to hire one if they did.


So, as an industry, we’re sick. How do we get better? We have failed to promote ourselves well. Ironic, an industry based on promotion has failed to promote itself properly. This is purely a product of neglect. No bad strategy or flubbed execution. We just neglected our industry trying to survive. The doom loop, as Jim Collins says in Good to Great.

Advertising Week in New York was a noble effort toward industry self-promotion. Maybe we can extend the idea as a traveling act and bring it to other cities. The Diversity Initiatives of 2007 are a positive sign for our future. But, it almost seems like the advertising industry should hire a PR firm for itself, one that is experienced in crisis management. If we expect to attract the best and the brightest in the prospective employee pool, we need to promote our profession properly, as if it were a client.

Sustainability: It’s 2010 and there is probably no bigger buzzword out there among our clients than “sustainable”. Suddenly, sustainability has become the biggest initiative in the business world today. Clients want us to help them build “sustainable communities” of customers as well as driving business. Products are sustainable. Business models are sustainable. Results are sustainable.

The only thing that hasn’t proven to be sustainable is a career in the advertising industry. So how do we create a sustainable career environment? A good place to start is a commitment to training and developing talent. Another is to align our industry with academia. Yet another is to adjust our compensation models to the 21st century (salaries in our industry are essentially what they were in 1991).

A sustainable career environment is one of inclusion and accessibility. We don’t value or even need decisions from 80% of our workforce. We have created a workforce devoid of the need to make decisions. This is the single greatest factor in job dissatisfaction: “I never get to make decisions” or “my decisions don’t matter”.

Remember when advertising was a noble career? Well, I don’t – but I’ve seen some old movies that suggest that. Maybe it really isn’t, but it’s certainly better than how we are perceived today. We are in the business of changing perceptions and if we don’t address changing the perception of our own industry we will continue to struggle in attracting top talent into it.


One industry that truly relies on great recruiting is college athletics. The universities are brands that have become sustainable communities with a distinct tradition and culture. Athletic programs are investments that manufacture a product (entertainment).

I’ve always thought that ad agencies — particularly regional, mid-sized agencies — could learn a lot from successful college athletic programs (training, management, planning), but particularly in recruiting. The college coach’s very survival is inextricably linked to the success of his recruiting efforts. Few ad agencies are committed to bringing in the best possible talent on all levels, through all departments to grow their clients’ businesses. Often, agencies hire whom they can to meet their budget and can maintain or keep from losing the existing business.

So the first tip in this series is to approach your recruiting efforts like the head coach of a college sports team. That requires you to evaluate your needs and the existing talent in your marketplace to fill those needs. That requires a recruiting plan and recruiting tools. That requires an unwavering commitment to study the landscape of the industry and those agencies that are doing the best work and driving the best results. That requires the commitment to do with your agency or department what you say you want to do: hire the best people. That requires you to know the difference.

As agency people, we’re quick to say, “our inventory walks out the door every evening.” That kind of thinking commoditized our talent pool. Some people are invariably more talented than others. Some have better attitudes. Some work harder. Some know how to win. Some are better team players than others. “Our inventory” is our intellectual capital. Coaches have a lot of funny sayings when evaluating talent. My favorite is “good enough to get you fired”. That line also rings true for evaluating agency talent.

There are two guarantees in our business:

1.Accounts will come and go.

2.People will come and go.

Next: The Ad Agency Recruiting Primer for 2010 continues with “Defining Roles for Your Team”

michael palma

the palma group

841 inman village pkwy

atlanta, ga 30307

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