How Agencies Are Fighting Back Against Talent Raids by Tech Firms and Marketers

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Tech and marketing companies are poaching creative talent from agencies. Illustration: Pablo Iglesias

Never in her wildest dreams did Helen Pak think she would leave the advertising industry to do creative work for a technology company. Then, three years ago, while on set filming a big-budget commercial, the evp and co-executive creative director at Saatchi & Saatchi got a phone call out of the blue. It was Facebook, wooing her for its Creative Shop—a group of creative experts and digital natives charged with developing marketing campaigns for brands within the Facebook platform—as a creative strategist.

Pak was skeptical at first, but ultimately agreed to join the team after seeing some of Facebook's most recent hires. Creative Shop's chief creative officer, Mark D'Arcy, promised Pak the chance to work with top agencies and brands. "The cultural perks and the employee benefits were miles and miles ahead of the ad industry," says Pak.

But despite all that, Pak, after just a year with Facebook, got an even more enticing offer from Havas Worldwide Canada: CEO and CCO. She simply couldn't turn it down.

Pak is far from the first agency executive tempted to cross over to tech-dom. "You're seeing more client-side companies hire more people from integrated or traditional agencies to go into management positions," says Andrew Benett, global CEO, Havas Creative Group. Recent examples include Tor Myhren, former global chief creative officer at Grey, who joined Apple as vp, marketing communications; former Crispin Porter + Bogusky CEO Andrew Keller, who took on the role of global creative director of Facebook's Creative Shop; TBWA executive creative director Rudi Anggono, who left for Google's in-house agency; and Lars Bastholm, former CCO at Cheil USA and Rosetta, who landed at Google's Zoo as global CCO.

As the needs of tech companies exceed the abilities of its engineers, they continue to be on the hunt for creative talent. And where better to find it than agencies? And it's not just Facebook and Google but also CPG giants and media companies like BuzzFeed and Vice that are poaching.

Agencies are putting up a fight, though, devoting more energy and resources to creating an environment in which employees feel they can grow, thrive and, most importantly, do great work.

"It's funny to me, [the question], 'Is talent a big issue?' I think talent is the only issue," says Kim Getty, president of Deutsch LA. "All we have as a company are the people who work here. I can't imagine succeeding as an agency if that isn't at the very top of your list."

Other executives agree that it is a priority, if not the top priority.

"I would say it's real, but not, perhaps, as big as it might seem, or feel or smell," says Andrew Robertson, BBDO Worldwide CEO. "Put crudely, most of these companies, they'd rather fill them with engineers than advertising people."

Expectations and responsibilities 

Some higher-ups believe that finding the right people and preparing them for what to expect in a job are important factors in making sure talent won't rush for the door when the late nights start to kick in or a client ends a long-term relationship.

It's more than simply finding someone who is qualified for the position and checks all the boxes. In an industry where late nights and close quarters are standard, executives say, it is more important than ever to put in the time—no matter how long it takes—to find people who will thrive in the culture and fit well with a team.

At Deutsch, prospective employees go through an extensive process before the agency entertains extending a formal offer. That process includes long conversations with between five and 10 Deutsch team members. "I don't want to hire anyone until I've had at least a meal with them, and usually a meal with a little bit of wine," says Getty. "You need to know on both sides if the fit is right."

BBDO operates under a similar mindset, believing that finding people who mesh with the culture there helps reduce turnover. Ideally, any new hire should feel as passionately about the network's guiding principle—that it's all about "the work, the work, the work"—as Robertson does. "If that's something that gets you juiced up, then ours is a very good place to be," the BBDO boss says. "If it's something that you only talk about and don't really mean, then it isn't."

Entrusting a team with a good deal of responsibility and giving them creative freedom are also ways to retain talent, Robertson adds. It is especially beneficial for team members who jumped to a tech company only to return to the agency world after being stymied creatively. After all, when you're a designer working for Facebook, you're designing for that one platform. Same for Snapchat, Instagram and the other digital players.

Pak, for one, found that at Facebook, ideas coming across her desk were either nearly complete or fully complete, needing little to no input from her. Coming from an agency background, Pak relates, she "missed that ability to work in an integrated fashion." There was less of an opportunity to leave her own mark on the work.

Zach Canfield, a veteran of Wieden + Kennedy and Goodby Silverstein & Partners, found himself in a similar situation at Google. During his time as global head of recruitment there, he observed that employees of the tech giant didn't generate the same volume of work than their agency counterparts. It was a difficult adjustment for him.

"From my own personal experience, I like being around and seeing more production and seeing projects get out the door quicker," he says. After just 10 months at Google, Canfield returned to the agency life and to Goodby, where he is currently director of talent.

Money talks

Another major obstacle to retaining talent is salary. From the junior level on up to the C suite, tech and marketing firms are luring agency employees with bigger paydays.

Amy Hoover, president of Talent Zoo, says she's heard of some young designers who doubled their salaries after jumping from advertising to tech.

More often than not, agencies can't compete, especially when it comes to entry-level positions. Some shops have tried to adjust the pay structure, looking at bumping entry-level salaries from the $35,000 range to the neighborhood of $50,000. But in the end, that way of doing business is simply cost-prohibitive for agencies, notes 4A's president Nancy Hill. "It would just create havoc within the way we get paid by clients," she points out.

Startups and well-established tech companies alike find they can successfully recruit people by offering equity and stock options—something that's virtually unheard of in the agency world.

"There aren't shares to offer to valued employees," Hoover points out. "It's just not how the agency world has evolved with the advent of holding companies. They just started snatching up as many companies as they could to be these global conglomerates where the top guys—and they are all men—running the major holding companies are ridiculously wealthy."

With pay equity pretty much off the table, agencies are focusing more on culture—making a concerted effort to create an atmosphere that keeps people happy and continues to challenge them creatively.

Susie Nam, COO of Droga5—which, she says, has a high retention rate, as well as a number of people who returned to the agency after leaving to test out other fields—believes creating a culture where each member of the team is encouraged to speak his or her mind without fear of retribution helps win over and keep staff. "We have people that come from other agencies that take a period of adjustment to realize that [the bosses] all the way up to the likes of David Droga want to hear exactly what you want to do about something," she says.

It is relatively easy, of course, for agencies to promote culture—anybody can bring in a pool table or a basketball hoop, or host Friday meditation sessions. But those bells and whistles will only get an agency so far—and to many, it all feels so five or even 10 years ago anyway. Creating a diverse management team, and one that strives for a 50/50 gender split among creatives, is another way to keep people, who "want to become what they see," says Nam.


Illustration: Pablo Iglesias


Reaching the next rung

Many agencies have implemented initiatives designed to build the next generation of leaders.

Havas started a NextGen Leadership Program, which grooms some of the agency's most promising talent to take on top executive roles, while Droga5's Women's Initiative encourages female employees to strive for positions of leadership.

The 4A's has also gotten into the mix, developing the Executive Leadership Program, whose mission is preparing some two dozen up-and-comers for the challenges that come with a senior agency role.

"There's a definite correlation between employees who feel like they are growing and being trained, and retention," says 4A's Hill. When the industry spends time teaching its prospects the fundamentals to succeed, rather than throwing them in head-first without needed direction, Hill argues, they'll be much more likely to stay with the agency—or at least within the industry overall.

Some agencies have hired chief talent officers to take on the important job of hiring the right people, and checking in regularly with existing employees to make sure they are also satisfied with their jobs. At Havas, retaining talent is even figured into top executives' bonuses. Havas' Benett uses IBM's Kenexa software to measure everything from company pride to overall satisfaction of employees, determining whether or not execs have earned a certain portion of their bonuses.

No executive wants to lose any part of his or her bonus, naturally. And yet, Benett points out, as CEOs often tend to get caught up in issues like client retention and chasing new business and the day-to-day operations of the agency, checking in with and spending time with their people can fall down the list of priorities.


"It's surprisingly slow, the take rate, on people being genuinely invested in [talent retention]," says Benett. "But again, it comes down to whether it's our holding companies or bigger companies; it's not a core passion or capability of the CEO."

For those who fail to place talent at the center of their business, the outlook is pretty bleak, Benett believes. "You'll be extinct," he says. "I literally think it's as blunt as that."

This story first appeared in the March 21 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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