Careers can be had in Adland but almost certainly not at the same company. Whether one resides on the client side of marketing or plies his craft at an agency, transiency is a fact of life. People come and people go, some egregiously, but most harmoniously. Such is the ebb and flow between marketing’s coral reefs. Few denizens stick around.

Back in the day, a new employee may have entered into a marketing position, say at Kraft Foods or Leo Burnett, envisioning a full career spent in service to his company. That was during the time of gold anniversary watches and company pension plans. Alas, these and most other markers of solidarity are gone. Long gone.

Looking back I can safely say I was among the last rookie classes that actually believed it possible to stay at one company for an entire career. For a long while it appeared I just might. I remained at the Leo Burnett Company for over 15 years (happily, I might add), entering as a junior copywriter exiting as the Chief Creative Officer of an agency within that agency, LBWorks. During that time I even sat among the company’s board of directors. Heady stuff.

But then I took another job. And then another…

I’ve been in my current position as ECD of gyro, San Francisco for almost two years. If you compare that to my marathon tenure at LBCO, it is but a short sprint. However, compared to my fellow colleagues not only am I not considered new I am probably more tenured that half of them! Said another way, since I began my job a dozen or more folks have joined us and about that many have left.

Reef hopping!

Welcome to Adland, circa 2014. Turnover is commonplace, even normal. Not necessarily indicative of toxicity or any other malady, the myriad species of marketing fish merely change reefs when something shiny distracts them. Why stay? With no equity to be had, or long-term promises to be kept, both employee and employer are part of an ever-changing and fluid ecosystem. Nowadays, and for some time really, we have become so accustomed to transiency that even thinking about a 5-year plan makes us cross eyed.

I don’t believe in reminiscing and I won’t do it here. There are pros and cons to this new world order. But make no mistake it is our reality. Like professional sports, our teams change every season. To remain competitive, one must adapt.

For one thing that means taking it all in stride. Do not look at departures as grave warning signs unless they are part of a mass exodus, which, we must note, are typically referred to as lay-offs. When people do quit, HR still conducts exit interviews, searching for reasons why.

Well here’s one I actually heard: “They offered me a few more bucks and some new things to work on. I figured it might be fun. If it doesn’t work out I’ll come back or try somewhere else.”

How the f**k do you counter that? Why even try? A better move is to thank the man for his great service, sincerely wish him good luck and then offer someone else a few more bucks and some new things to work on. The good news is your mother was right. There are plenty of fish in the sea.

What are they looking for? It’s obvious…

There’s a simple and obvious reason why so many people are constantly checking their smart phones. Two reasons actually. Yet, I’ve not seen or read or heard anyone use either one to explain (their) behavior. But that doesn’t make my hypothesis any less debatable. On the contrary, the silence supports it. I think people are embarrassed to admit to one or the other reason. Why? Because they point to our vanity and that makes us uncomfortable.

The two reasons: 1. We don’t want to miss the girl or the boy or the party. 2. We don’t want to miss the opportunity of a lifetime.

Though based on intuition I’m 98% certain that variations on the above two reasons are why so many of us can’t stop checking our smart phones. Girls are waiting for that cute guy to call. Boys are scoping where tonight’s action is. And both sexes like to think a new opportunity awaits them (a job perhaps) in the very next email.

Anticipating special delivery…

Beneath vanity lies the human instinct for getting something be it sex, money or some other thrilling surprise. Obviously, this desire is older than smart phones. As a boy I can remember running to the mailbox when I heard the mailman walking up our steps. Whether I was waiting for the latest issue of Fishing Facts magazine, The Incredible Hulk or a note from the girl I met at summer camp it didn’t matter. I wanted my thing. Even if I didn’t know what it was. The anticipation was always there. (By the way, anticipation usually far exceeds reality -a lesson I did not learn until much later in life.)

Marketers have wisely and often cravenly taken advantage of our instinctual cravings. Fanning the flames of desire to elicit a purchase or behavior is fundamental to our business. The marketers that understand how to exploit it properly are the ones that thrive. This is why there is so much hype around capitalizing on smart phones. Marketers know people can’t stop checking them in the vainglorious hope something sexy awaits. Ergo if advertisers can tap into that they win. Alas, their spam rarely fits into this paradigm. It gets in the way. Yet, advertisers will keep trying because people keep checking.

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“Let’s check our phones! Let’s not!”

Let me finish by returning to my original hypothesis. If correct, the insight leads to even more interesting ones. For instance, it explains why young people are far more tied to their smart phones than older people. The pat explanation holds that seniors aren’t as tech literate or modern as twenty-somethings and therefore less savvy. But maybe it’s just that older folks aren’t craving hookups and headhunters. Could this mean oldsters are more apt to respond to marketers because their expectations are more grounded?

Getting underneath human behavior is one of the cooler aspects of our jobs in Adland, and life in general. It also puts a premium on intuition versus data.

“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.

“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.

“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.”