Getting back to basics: how successful agencies cope with change




It’s a well known fact that employee turnover is a persistent threat to the survival and growth of advertising and marketing agencies. With estimates of up to 30% churn each year, employee turnover in the agency world is the second highest on record—only the tourism industry is higher.

What’s an agency without its people?
Every agency leader lives with the worry of losing talent and failing to create a culture that harmoniously integrates diverse talents to serve their clients with the best possible end product. And with good reason: for an agency, this can be an existential threat.

The truth is, it’s hard to create the kind of culture that not only fosters harmony and provides a fertile environment for great work, but also keeps top talent from leaving for greener pastures. It’s damn hard. But definitely not impossible.

Between us, Rob and I spent over 40 years as advertising and marketing professionals. We saw first hand the extraordinary opportunity to integrate diverse talents and passion to create highly effective marketing programs and advertising campaigns. We experienced the impact of technological change and acted on the changing profile of talent required to deliver outstanding results. We also witnessed an unusually high shortfall in leadership talent and the negative effects from perceived layoff risk on individual and team behavior. Weak leadership and the stressors created by the fear of becoming a layoff casualty limited organizational performance at every level.

Yet, we’d be hard pressed to find an industry whose survival and performance depends so heavily on talent. Recruit, retain and nurture talent, and your agency will flourish. After all, clients pay for ideas and creativity, all of which depends on an agency’s people and their ability to positively combine a variety of skills.

Of course, turnover is both voluntary and involuntary. Voluntary because some employees learn they don’t like the frenetic pace, long hours or culture of an agency. Involuntary because the industry is highly competitive and most agencies can’t afford to retain staff when revenue is lost. The cyclical, boom-bust nature of the agency world and the high dependence on a cross section of talent and skills makes managing advertising and marketing agencies particularly challenging.

What kind of leadership drives an agency’s success?
In our experience, successful, sustainable advertising and marketing agencies all have two things in common: they value skilled leadership and they have their employees’ backs. In other words, they demonstrate on a daily basis that they care about their employees’ fulfillment, growth and development.

Skilled leadership is not just about annual reviews and weekly one-on-ones. It’s also about motivating people to unify around a purpose that resonates, improving emotional intelligence skills, and listening to what drives their teams and what is holding them back from their potential contributions. It’s about embracing a role as a catalyst for fostering a culture that values individual and collective potential and encourages employees to recognize their blind spots and pursue a path of continuous growth.

The hidden effects of layoffs. And what you can do about it.
Awareness of high layoff-risk is also something that works against harnessing the potential of agency professionals. A post-layoff survey conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management found that remaining employees report:

Decreased morale (58%)
Increased negative gossip (54%)
Diminished loyalty toward their employer (41%)

Additionally, resignations among remaining employees were shown to jump 27% following a round of layoffs. So every time you lay off an employee, you’re at risk of eroding morale and losing talent.

But you can cushion some of the most harmful effects of layoffs with skilled support from the right career services partner. What does this mean? You can assist individuals you’ve asked to leave make faster, smoother transitions to the next stage in their careers. This can help stanch negative gossip and reduce fear of being cast out without a safety net.

Amid all the clamor about technology, artificial intelligence and the decline in the need for human contributions, it’s time for advertising and marketing agencies to get back to basics. That means harnessing the power of human creativity, individual and collective, to drive your business forward.

About Mach10 Career & Leadership Coaching
Mach10 Career & Leadership Coaching works with advertising and marketing organizations to enhance leadership performance, maximize employee talent and responsibly support laid off employees. David Ehrenthal and Rob Vlock, both Principals with a combined over 40 years’ experience as advertising and marketing professionals, left their corporate marketing and agency careers to help leaders and employees improve their performance in ways that are genuinely meaningful to their everyday jobs.

To speak with Rob or David, visit and schedule a conversation.

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