The Key to Retaining Agency Talent? Letting Them Leave

Agencies can invest in future relationships by respecting an employee’s decision to explore

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Deutsch LA has always been hard for Karen Costello to part with. Costello was its eighth hire when it was founded in 1997, and the agency has since grown to staff 388 people. The creative chair, who has left and returned twice in her career, points to the people at Deutsch LA who unconditionally encouraged her professional growth.

“When you say, ‘Hey, I’ll support you, even if that means you have to go somewhere else,’ those people often come back,” said Costello, who made stops at Secret Weapon Marketing and The Martin Agency between roles at Deutsch LA. “That was certainly true with me and Deutsch.”

As of December, 40 of Deutsch LA’s staff members are boomerangs—hires that left the company and returned. More than one in four people who quit their job regret their decision and 42% who quit said the new job didn’t live up to their expectations, according to a 2022 report from employment search platform Joblist. The most popular reason for regret among employees is that they quit without having a new job lined up, according to the study.

After a period of prolonged resignation across corporate America, employees are realizing that with the right amount of self-advocacy, starting a new job is not the only way to foster professional growth. Today’s workforce is addicted to impulsion, which is only heightened at a time when quitting your job is among the trendiest things to do. Additionally, the remote work environment dilutes the tension traditionally accompanied with resignation, as you no longer have to physically step foot into your boss’ office to deliver the bad news. The natural curiosity to see what else is out there, coupled with a war for talent that leaves candidates with competitive offers, have helped employees justify the jump.

To survive in an economy defined by instant gratification, employers must maintain a rapport with alumni while emphasizing that the responsibility shift or professional growth they’re looking for can exist within the company. When employees want to reverse their decisions and agencies welcome them back, they come with new skills and a greater appreciation for the company, also serving as success stories for future hires.

“Who wants to go back for a repeat?,” said Aisea Laungaue, partner and chief strategy officer at Anomaly LA, who worked at Creative Artist Agency for three years before going back to the agency. “People are too ambitious for that. You have to go back for something that feels like a challenge with the added familiarity with the culture and the people.”

Adapting the job to the talent

In 2022, 130 new hires at Publicis Groupe-owned agency Epsilon were boomerangs. Dave Lucey, vice president of talent acquisition at Epsilon, has witnessed that the great resignation has largely left room for regret. Before looking for a new role, Lucey encourages employees to consider whether they actually have to move companies to get what they want at work. Asking for an adjustment—whether that be a raise or a role change—can be daunting, which means agencies must create welcoming environments where employees feel autonomous to foster talent retention. Although he says it is a difficult conversation to have, looking for a new job and getting acquainted with an unfamiliar workplace will prove to be harder.

Relationships between people outlast relationships between people and employers. 

Aisea Laungaue, partner and chief strategy officer at Anomaly LA

After resigning from Epsilon and working at another company for three months, Kristen May decided it was time to go back. The creative operations lead was looking for “new challenges,” but found that the gig did not offer the work-life balance she wanted. When she decided to go back, she honed in on opportunities for growth within the company while maintaining a heightened appreciation for its culture. When she returned, May maintained her position as senior project manager but was then promoted to creative operations lead less than a year later.

“When you have an idea at Epsilon, nine times out of 10 they’ll say, ‘Yeah, show me,’” said May, who wishes that she “exercised more patience” before making the move.

Nurturing relationships

In an industry that is riddled with contentious account reviews and competitive talent acquisitions, agencies stand out by fostering cross-organizational community. According to Laungaue, Anomaly hosts both official reunions and informal gatherings to stay connected with alumni. The agency is also launching an initiative called “Anomaly Friends and Family,” which invites freelancers, some of whom are former full-time talent, into its office space.

“People who want to pursue other projects or take more time off can still enjoy some of the benefits of being part of Anomaly,” he said, adding that maintaining tense relationships with former talent makes for a damaged agency reputation. “Relationships between people outlast relationships between people and employers.”

Respecting employee curiosity

Costello encourages employees who want to jump ship to make sure they’re not just following “the bright shiny thing,” which is especially relevant in an industry that brandishes perks like free lunches, happy hours and fancier titles that describe the same job. An employer may suspect that a flashy new role won’t work out, but pressuring employees to stay dismisses the importance of making career moves and learning from them. 

“We believe in nurturing people,” she said. “The beautiful thing about creating a relationship of transparency and mutual respect is understanding that sometimes people need to leave to find that growth.”

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