Editor’s note: Chris Hubble is CEO of market research and consumer insights agency Bastion db5. Tim Anderson is a brand transformation expert and freelance brand strategist. 

From the Mad Men era to today’s creative zeitgeist, the advertising industry has experienced quite the transformation. The industry, the work it produces and its clients are frequently studied and discussed. Industry and cultural changes have also impacted ad executives and companies benefit from studying their employees just as closely. Delivering on employees’ wants and needs will help attract top talent, increase satisfaction, lead to better work, reduce turnover and have a positive impact on the bottom line. 

To get a pulse on how modern day ad agency employees feel in the current climate, and determine how the industry could evolve for the better on their behalf, we partnered to launch a research study focused on understanding:

  • How confident advertising executives are in the industry.
  • How personally fulfilled they are in their careers.
  • To what degree their current agency is satisfying their needs and wants.
  • What they would like to see change moving forward.

Responses represent a diverse sample of agency types (advertising, marketing and PR) and sizes, as well as tenure, level (including C-suite), role and demographics.

Glamor is slipping away

The silver screen of ad agency life glamour seems to be slipping away for some. Many report feeling overworked, underappreciated and concerned about job security. But there are even more concerning issues we need to consider addressing.

Confidence is relatively strong, depending on the cohort.

Given the pandemic’s impact on nearly every business, we were curious how confident adverting employees were in the ad industry. Overall, 61% (top two box) of respondents report being “cautiously optimistic,” with 21% saying they’re “very confident” and 40% saying they’re “somewhat confident.” Still, nearly a quarter of respondents report being “not very confident” in the industry. Digging deeper, there are important differences across groups.

Respondents in marketing organizations are more confident than those in advertising or PR. People who work in large companies are less confident than those in small or medium ones. And confidence declines as people get older – only 18% (top two box) of 45-54-year-old respondents say they’re confident in the industry – which illustrates the universal impact (at least the perception) of ageism.

Larger, more traditional agencies and organizations with more experienced employees should take note and consider how they can reassure their staff.

What is attractive is the same, but the who is shifting. 

Not surprisingly, employees are most passionate about creative expression. It’s why most went into advertising. Yet, many feel their current organization and/or client(s) do not allow them to fully express their creativity – especially in today’s more risk-averse climate. According to one respondent, We have a lot of old ways of thinking we need to shed to be true innovators.”

As “agency of record” status at big holding companies continues to wane and shift toward project work, modern day ad executives are seeking employment with smaller, nimbler, specialty shops and in-house agencies that allow them more personal freedom in expressing creativity. 

Again, bigger and more traditional agencies and organizations will need to play defense to retain top talent and, ideally, be willing to change their approach moving forward.

There’s a long way to go to address diversity and inequality issues.

While select firms have made strides in recent years, issues of inequality and lack of diversity are still pervasive according to most respondents. When it comes to things that concern them most within their company, top issues include racism, sexism and ageism. This won’t come as a surprise to most agency leaders.

Gender, ethnicity and age inequality are blatantly apparent in the ad industry. Of the Top 550 agencies based in the U.S., the most senior employee is a man 80% of the time. And 30% of agencies do not have a single woman in upper management. The situation with Black, Asian or other minority executives is even more bleak. 

The one bright spot is that 85% (top two box) believe their organization is respectful of sexual orientation. But the industry has a long way to go in most other areas. 

Organizations need to evolve more quickly to meet shifting employee needs.

The majority of respondents (60%) don’t believe their company is “evolving with the times to meet employee needs” fast enough. As one respondent puts it, “The current agency model is broken.”

C-suite execs believe they’re doing much better at evolving to meet employee needs (50% believe their agency is “at the forefront”) than their own employees – where only 24% of respondents feel their company is “at the forefront.” And ad agencies are even further behind, where only 18% believe their firm is “at the forefront.”

Ad executives top pain points

Top concerns include work/life balance, job security, ageism and fair pay. Even if they are not easy to change right away, at least these are pretty straightforward issues. The other issues are a bit more complex.

Most execs (75%) feel their organization “encourages teamwork/collaboration” and “operates with integrity,” but do not feel their company “minimizes politics/bureaucracy” enough or “supports and empowers all employees” enough. This juxtaposition is likely creating tension. In fact, some of the emotions of how they feel working at their current company – including “demoralized” and “anxious” – are alarming. And more than a quarter of respondents (27%) express they’re not personally fulfilled in their role.

Many believe their company is not doing enough to help them in their careers. Barely half report they received “regular performance reviews” and a whopping 44% did not feel their company “provides a clear path to raise/promotion.” This is likely contributing to them not feeling supported or personally fulfilled and also adding to their anxiousness. 

While these are complicated issues, it would benefit every organization to know how their own employees feel working there – knowledge is power – then consider how to address it.

Focus on employee morale 

Employees want to feel like their company cares about them on a personal level. In order to do this, management should invest more time and energy into developing rapport with employees, having direct conversations about what’s going on in their lives and who they are as a people outside of work. Get curious. Be vulnerable. Connect. 

Create time and space for open communication about career advancement. Agencies should make the most of their employee relationships by openly communicating needs, expectations, paths to promotion and raises, ultimately helping people become the best versions of themselves. Employees don’t mind being challenged or pushed out of their comfort zones to grow. But they want to know what their path to growth is within the organization without having to ask. Don’t let new business pitches or existing client demands delay or, worse yet, scrub annual reviews. It sends the wrong message to your most important asset – your people.

Finally, many advertising executives want to grow both professionally and personally. Consider how your firm can support their personal evolution. It will come back to benefit the agency.

Change is necessary 

Agencies can be as slow to change, if not even slower, as their clients. If agencies and the advertising industry as a whole wants to stay competitive and abreast, attracting top talent and high-valued clientele, they’ll need to address top employee concerns, including: the lack of care for employee morale; necessary improvement and communication regarding paths to growth and raises; and the reputation of being slow to grow and unwilling to change with the times. 

For more details on the study, e-mail Tim Anderson at andersontims@gmail.com.