Is turnover at an agency a sign of malignancy or merely a sign of the times?

March 7, 2013


“In the room the women come and go,
Talking of Michaelangelo.”

-T.S. Elliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

Although completely irrelevant, I always think of Elliot’s line whenever people come and go in Adland, which happens more than ever these days. Turnover at agencies and other marketing companies is at an all time high. Many of our denizens last only a year or so in their current positions, coming and going with little fanfare. Often of their own volition. Other times not.

Either way, the migratory patterns are erratic, frequent and seemingly inevitable. One day Jack is cranking out a media plan and the next day he’s gone. Granted, the dissolution of company incentives, paired with challenging economic realities, make transience in the work force a reality for many professions. But in few more so than ours. “That’s advertising,” sighs a bewildered colleague upon discovering another cube mate has flown the coop.

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“Job hopping” in Adland. Common as crappy stock photography.

Some of us also jump to conclusions, reckoning a few departures denote an exodus, “It’s like a revolving door around here.” We blame the agency, citing a rote list of flaws. We wonder if we should jump ship as well. We “feel” it’s time for change. Use caution, boys and girls. Feelings are not facts.

I especially love it when clients raise their eyebrows at agency turnover, especially given their rampant infidelities, most hardly willing to make agency commitments lasting longer than a few quarters. In addition, it is well documented that CMO’s have among the shortest tenures of any profession.

Ah, but the grass is greener at the agency down the street. Your paycheck might be incrementally greener but often that’s about it. Be wary of seductive new bosses, promises of better assignments and that badass floor plan. The “geographic cure” is a futile one. Two months into a new gig and the job hopper feels as he did before: restless, irritable and discontent. Alas, it has always been easier to change surrounding than one’s self. Ask any alcoholic.

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“I’m certain there’s greener grass on other side of the hill!”

Besides, if turnover is necessarily a symptom of agency malignancy then why are even the best agencies in the world rife with it? The headhunter’s siren song compels people out of Goodby same as into it.

Regarding agency culture: It is as ephemeral as a sunny day. A few clouds roll in and it withers. No matter where you are, lose a few pitches and the air gets really hard to breathe really fast. And do not mistake an agency’s credentials for a winning culture. A slick website could be masking a sick job site. Similarly, don’t judge an agency on its best campaigns. For every princess in the castle there are three ugly stepsisters. Alas, even Paris has its ghettoes.

For better or worse, we have become tribal nomads, forever moving and hunting smaller and thinner prey. In this lean and hungry context agency turnover makes complete sense. I suppose it’s bittersweet. The fat and happy lifer is a thing of the past.

There are many more facets to this discussion, variables I have not valued here. While my history is one of staying put, I do not disparage those of you who’s resumes are long. But take heed. Some of the very best decisions I’ve ever made involved saying three words: “No, thank you.”

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