How the Steady Stream of Creative Talent Moving From N.Y. to L.A. Became a Flood

The lure of sun, fun and opportunity

A dyed-in-the-wool New York advertising professional, Patricia Korth-McDonnell had heard all the clichés about Los Angeles as an endless parking lot, a cultural wasteland and, perhaps most relevant, a professional dead end at best and career suicide at worst.

Before becoming a partner and managing director of Huge L.A., she had spent a judicious amount of time in Southern California, working on the agency’s Disney business in the early to mid-aughts. She didn’t know the city in any meaningful way, and didn’t think it mattered. Why would she ever leave the Mad Men center of the universe for this overgrown surfer town?

Cut to three years ago when Korth-McDonnell packed up her young family and did just that, planting the flag at Huge with a permanent office in mid-city Los Angeles, just down the street from the giant fiberglass mammoths lodged in the La Brea Tar Pits. She prepared to be underwhelmed by the move, but about a year into it, after working with clients including Lexus, Scion, FX network and Hulu, she had a sort of epiphany.

“I knew immediately that the lifestyle was better, especially as a new mom, but I had wondered if I’d be satisfied professionally,” she says today. “Then I looked at the caliber of the talent, the clients, the work and I realized I was doing really rad shit here. I wasn’t trading anything for this.”

Korth-McDonnell has not been alone in the cross-country migration. Plenty of other industry veterans have done the same. But what was once a trickle has become a flood, with people relocating not only from New York but other industry strongholds like Boston and Chicago and points further afield like the U.K., the Netherlands and South America.

L.A.’s getting creative

The number of jobs in Los Angeles County’s creative industries swelled by 6,000 in 2013, according to an Otis College of Art and Design study released this spring. The 355,600-strong workforce in creative fields in the county accounts for $30.4 billion in total wages, and projections call for still more growth, with an estimated 415,000 jobs in the area by 2018. (Creative occupations include advertising managers, art directors, producers, directors and related positions.)

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, speaking this past August at the site of a major construction project on the city’s West Side—where many ad agencies, tech companies, video game producers and other creative enterprises are based—touted the area’s draw. Los Angeles ranks at the top of manufacturing, green and tech jobs in the U.S., is home to Silicon Beach and the likes of Google, Snapchat, YouTube, Hulu, Facebook, Netflix and innumerable startups, and is also one of the busiest travel destinations.

There has also been a sharp uptick in film shoots in the city, spurred by new state tax incentives for movie and TV production. Commercial shoots for automakers and other major advertisers are in part responsible for that upswing, according to the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp.

The draw for agency types

For the founders of the agency Mistress, the city’s appeal has been clear as far back as 2010. One of its partners, Christian Jacobsen, was already ensconced in L.A., having moved there from New York to work on the Red Bull business for Kastner & Partners. A veteran of agencies including Ogilvy & Mather and Lowe & Partners, Jacobsen thought he would spend a few years “soaking up the sun” before pitching himself to West Coast stalwarts like Goodby, Silverstein & Partners in San Francisco or Wieden + Kennedy in Portland, Ore. “I figured if I was going to have a serious career, I’d have to move on,” Jacobsen recalls. “L.A. was temporary.”

But he saw that L.A.’s agency scene was beginning to catch fire and move beyond its legacy auto business, with agencies including 72andSunny, Deutsch, TBWA and its Media Arts Lab and Omelet building rapidly and churning out some remarkable work. Meantime, hybrid creative shops were also sprouting up, boasting a combination of skills across traditional, digital and social marketing.

Multihyphenates like the writer-director-producer and the social-media influencer—which tended more often than not to inspire sneers in New York—began to find a home in Los Angeles, giving agencies there an eclectic pool of talent for one-off projects as well as staff jobs. “We saw great potential here,” Jacobsen says. “And it completely lacked that old-guard network where it mattered if you went to the right schools or not.”

It was that sense of freedom and lack of bureaucracy that drew Michael Sharp, a veteran of TBWAChiatDay New York, who launched his own shop, Standard Time, about seven years ago, before the East-to-West wave really started to pick up. To Sharp, L.A. felt like a place where he could rewrite the rules. “The environment is such that you have the chance to wipe the slate clean, prove yourself and do things in a completely new way,” he says. “And no one is going to ask why you didn’t spend 10 years at McCann Erickson.”

Shortly before Sharp launched his company, William Gelner left BBH New York to establish his own beachhead in L.A. The chief creative officer of 180LA had, like others, not necessarily thought of this town as a “place you’d put your roots down” in the ad industry. But the budding branded-content business inspired him to look at the city a little more deeply. Gelner was struck by the number of highly experienced directors, musicians, actors, designers and production facilities the town had to offer—not to mention a famously temperate climate that makes outdoor shooting possible nearly year-round.

Gelner set up shop in Santa Monica, which sits right alongside the beaches of the Pacific, and never looked back east. From his perch there, he has watched the area’s creative community expand and mature.

“New York is very much about making it,” he says. “L.A. is about making things.”

The city’s maker community is responsible for some of the freshest, most groundbreaking work in the industry today, Gelner notes, inventing “a more modern storytelling approach.” Agencies like his, with specialties in multiple disciplines, are now the rule rather than the exception in town.

As the line between ad agency, tech firm and entertainment company continues to blur, creative talent from all over the U.S. and abroad continues to be drawn to Los Angeles, and ad professionals like Gelner are seeing themselves more as storytellers, not unlike their Hollywood counterparts.

A world of difference

Agencies in Los Angeles in recent years have become noted brand builders and marketers, as well as arbiters of popular culture, observes Jae Goodman, chief creative officer and co-head of CAA Marketing, as the industry “has shifted toward content creation instead of just media.”

While it was once “fashionable at a mass level to disparage L.A.,” as Korth-McDonnell puts it, that, too, looks to be changing. Newcomers to the area have learned what established Angelenos have known for some time: There exists, generally speaking, an emphasis on work-life balance that makes Los Angeles a healthy place to live and work versus cities such as New York and Chicago.

“There are fewer angry and depressed people walking the hallways,” says Chris D’Rozario, executive creative director at Team One, who divides his time between Los Angeles and New York and who earlier was an executive at Havas. “Everybody works really hard in L.A., but they’re just not so tightly wound.”

Frannie Rhodes, a native Californian who spent most of her ad career in San Francisco and New York, left StrawberryFrog in the summer of last year to become the director of creative services at the agency David&Goliath, based in LAX-adjacent El Segundo. It was a welcome homecoming for her, she says. Not only did she land at one of the hottest boutique shops in town (David&Goliath recently won the Jack in the Box business), but she also happily shed her winter coats.

To her, everything about Los Angeles tends to be lighter and brighter. “I drive up the coast on my way to work, and I have a moment of Zen,” she relates. “And no matter how under the gun you are, you realize that life’s just not that bad.”

Rhodes’ colleague, Mike Geiger, managing partner and chief digital officer at David&Goliath, didn’t ditch his C-suite job at JWT North America for a wardrobe change—rather, he wanted to be closer to the day-to-day creative process and work for a respected independent shop. That said, he adapted quickly to the Southern California lifestyle since arriving this past summer.

Geiger and his family went all in, settling in Manhattan Beach, and buying a Jeep, beach-cruiser bikes and wet suits. “I saw that it was booming here,” as Geiger puts it. “And, I love the ocean.”

Wesley ter Haar, co-founder of digital production company MediaMonks, which counts Beats by Dre, Xfinity and Acura among its clients, plans to relocate to Los Angeles this winter from the company’s headquarters in Amsterdam, a decision that would have been unheard of a few years ago, he says.

He will arrive in L.A. around the one-year anniversary of the opening of MediaMonks’ outpost in L.A.’s Venice Beach. And ter Haar says if he could have a do-over, he would have made the move even sooner. That is because the company’s West Coast operation is the busiest and most successful of all its offices, including New York and London.

“There’s so much buzz, and we’ve found that it’s the place where we can work on the most exciting projects,” says ter Haar. “And there’s a certain way of working in L.A. that I think is not just enjoyable but smart. It allows creative people to stay creative.”

Luring talent to town

The word is clearly out at Huge. Korth-McDonnell says the agency’s human resources department actually had to institute a policy to stem the flow of employees from East to West. Nearly half of the L.A. office’s 120 employees relocated from New York, she says.

L.A. agency people say the recruitment of talent gets easier with every polar vortex and every award-winning campaign from a Southern California shop. Gelner, whose chief marketing officer Stephen Larkin relocated from Boston in recent years, has an effective way—albeit a little cruel—for luring candidates to 180LA. “I Skype them and turn my computer around to show the view—there’s the sunset over the ocean, maybe a few dolphins swimming by,” says Gelner. “It doesn’t suck.”

Even though the destination tends to sell itself, finding great talent, even in L.A., is not without its challenges. And holding onto those employees is yet another concern. Tech companies and startups are among those chasing after agency talent, offering equity stakes and other perks. “The fight is real,” explains Korth-McDonnell. “There are more players vying for talent.”

And yet, as her own agency discovered, luring still more eager and gifted ad professionals to the West Coast is a given these days, and it’s often the transplants who are the city’s most reliable proselytizers. For every strip mall and jam-up on the 405, there’s the thriving arts scene, the beaches, and the almost comically perfect weather.

Sure, many of those new to town might occasionally lapse into longing for life back East. “Remember the good old days?” they will lament. But they also speak of the culture shock they experience on those business trips back to New York, Chicago and Boston.

“What I notice now are the bags of garbage on the sidewalk, and I’m always getting rained on or sweating like crazy,” says Jacobsen. “It’s just a sea of tan trench coats and I’m getting trampled in Grand Central Station.”

Korth-McDonnell says she could never imagine returning to New York, especially now that her young daughter “is a full-fledged California girl.”

“There was the idea that New York was the only place to be in advertising—nothing else was even on the radar, and you wouldn’t leave unless you were retiring, period,” she says. “Now the world has changed, and L.A. is leading where that world is going.”

This story first appeared in the Nov. 16 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.