How a Fixation on Digital Led to a Lack of Talent Diversity in Agencies

Which also spurred a lull in creativity

Agencies are seeing a lack of diversity among its talent pool due to a primary focus on tech. Getty Images
Headshot of Paul Spriggs

The past decade brought us a digital revolution, and with it came a wide range of distinct concerns for the marketing and advertising industry: the question of transparency in the media supply chain, skepticism around accurate metrics, fake news, data privacy breaches, manipulated audiences and more.

Today, we’re at a turning point where the limitations of digital are being acknowledged and the pendulum may swing back and return to an equilibrium across the board, redistributing attention across digital, holistic strategy and creativity. The recent reduction in digital spending by P&G and Unilever is a sure sign that this type of market correction is taking place.

While this redistribution of the marketing matrix is healthy, there is one side effect of the digital takeover that still needs to be addressed: the unbalanced talent mix.

How did it become so unbalanced?

Over the last 10 years, the marketing industry built up an unhealthy reliance on data to lead strategy, creative ideas and media placement, thereby cultivating a false sense of security. This holy grail of the digital disruption led to the idolization of a particular talent mix made up of the young, tech-savvy, digital natives. It resulted in the usurping of human capital in the more interpretive, less data-driven areas like brand building strategy and creativity.

The desire for efficiency, reduced risk and immediate sales resulted in an over-reliance on technology and a complete focus on data-driven expertise. In return, agencies began overlooking those candidates with more experience in brand building, big creative ideas and brand strategy.

Over time, without a talent mix that included broader experience, big thinking and the gravitas to help proactively lead clients with solutions to complex problems, many marketing initiatives became shorter term, failing to build equity in enduring, emotionally resonating ideas. With agency talent increasingly skewing toward facilitators and execution specialists, marketers began to take more control over strategy and process, resulting in a kind of catch-22 situation.

More and more, they started to bring strategy and creative talent in-house, and simultaneously, those with broader and deeper advertising experience in strategy, creative and client management skills began to leave the industry voluntarily or through attrition.

The advertising industry is dominated by a digitally savvy workforce, yet there’s a lack of depth in the kind of creativity and strategy that leads to enduring, brand-building ideas.

All the while, many agencies, hit with slimmer margins, started placing greater workloads on less staff. Naturally, this took the shape of favoring young employees willing to put in extra hours to climb the ladder (many of whom were also more likely to be exploited), which became another pervasive talent problem within the industry.

In sum, the lack of balance in the talent mix is a contributing factor to the lack of balance that evolved between the agency and the brand client, with the brand client taking on more control.

So where does this leave us?

Today the advertising industry is dominated by a digitally savvy workforce, yet there’s a lack of depth in the kind of creativity and strategy that leads to enduring, brand-building ideas, which is the reason brands sought agencies in the first place.

The marketing climate has evolved to favor smaller “activation” ideas, which may create a brief spark of awareness but later fizzle out, leaving the brand back at base level. Perceived as less costly, the myopic lure of digitally-induced eyeballs actually hides the missed opportunity of an enduring campaign idea, which builds cumulative synergistic equity for the brand, leading to better ROI over time. In continuously trying to automate and remove risk, the marketing environment has failed to attract and grow the right mix of talent in order to cultivate long-lasting value for brands.

Looking forward, the current market correction presents an opportunity for the industry to seek out a new, more balanced mix of agency talent to serve brands. Highly skilled digital natives will continue to be integral, but we must compliment this talent with deep expertise in holistic strategy across advertising, marketing and business and seek out those who are skilled in developing enduring and equity-building creative ideas. By approaching talent in a more holistic, multi-generational and multi-faceted way, we can rebuild an industry that reflects the diversity that it serves.


Paul Spriggs is president, Americas of System1 Agency.
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