The Baloney Dilemma
There’s a severe lack of very senior, very experienced talent left in agencies. There’s a rush to try and hire young and cheap creative talent. If these two ends of the advertising career represent slices of bread, then all that’s left is the baloney in the middle.
We meet lots of baloney in mediocre agencies, or inside mediocre brands, because the middle always survives longer. Some people thrive inside sausage factories, but these are probably not the right people to be tasked with inspiring and training new talent.
You’ve heard of the bullshit sandwich before, I think we are witnessing the creation of the baloney doorstop at the moment, because agencies are heavily leveraging towards large, cheap talent and a mediocre leader.
Where is the next Rosie Arnold, Steve Henry, Graham Fink, MT Rainey or Dave Trott? Why aren’t these fabulous five working in agencies a couple of days a week, along with many others of their generation. What can we do about it? What’s going to happen if we don’t?
Before answering these questions, it’s worth remembering that we didn’t get here overnight. The UK advertising industry was awash with confidence from the golden age of CDP and BMP all the way through to the mid 90s.
Things started to go wrong in the early 90s, when creative and media buying were separated, ending the business model that rewarded great work with ongoing media commissions and beginning the rise of procurement.
In 1995, the internet bubble started to blow up, and a lot of very smart talent left the ad industry to become dot-com millionaires. I was one of them. Creative people with a penchant for commercial communications could think-up an idea that they found intellectually rewarding and earn a fortune whilst owning the creative process.
What this means is that from the mid 90’s the advertising industry has been competing with digital for the best talent, and this ‘battle for talent’ has grown exponentially in the intervening 30 years.
I remember speaking at conferences in the late 90s and early 00s, reflecting upon how lucky I was to be learning from creative visionaries who saw the emerging channels of internet, mobile and smart televisions as new canvases for their art.
I remember stories of the agency CDP in the 1970s and 80s, with John Hegarty, Alan Parker, Charles Saatchi and David Puttnam sharing ideas, collaborating, and inspiring each other.
There are significantly fewer superstar creative leaders from my generation (X) than those that came before me, partly because my generation was the first to benefit from the rise of the internet. A lot of my contemporaries who studied the communication arts had new, binary choices.
But at least those who stayed in advertising had legends to learn from. Hegarty’s agency was flying, as was Saatchi’s. In fact, London was still awash with senior, experienced talent to learn from.
Then came the financial crash of 2008, which was a catalyst for record level redundancies, particularly in expensive jobs, held by the very people responsible for training and inspiring the next generation of talent.
Have you ever seen a tree that has been hollowed out by termites? That’s what our industry is starting to look like, because of the defenestration of experienced creative talent that has been happening ever since.
A few years ago, our students made documentaries of people from the industry that I considered it important that they should learn from (e.g. Tony Brignull, MT Rainey, Alexandra Taylor, John Webster, Sir John Hegarty) and in doing so, they interviewed people who had worked alongside my chosen subjects.
What struck me was how so much of the magic of my subjects had rubbed off on the people my students interviewed.
They say that you are the average of the company you keep, which goes some way towards explaining why CDP produced so many superstars.
We don’t have to settle for just baloney. The whole sandwich is more delicious with a pinch of seasoning, a touch of spice and splash of sauce.
There is a way to increase the average of your company, which is to introduce outliers. Some of our faculty also work two or three days a week in agencies, inspiring and educating wherever they go. I speak to many more, who would relish the same opportunity if given the chance.
If I was a client and my agency was banging on about diversity, I would ask to see their numbers and I would include age amongst the signals to track, alongside gender, colour, neurodiversity, disability and regional diversity. Most agencies would fail on close inspection of any diversity test, but age, colour and gender are the easiest to recognise at a glance.
It’s easy to spot tokenism in agencies when they ‘hire’ cheap placement teams to show diversity in gender and colour, but there’s absolutely no diversity in age on show. After all, older people cost too much for tokenism.
It’s self-defeating, because a top quality Boomer, serving two or three days a week, would benefit most Millennials and Gen-Zeds in ways that are too obvious to spill out here.
If the industry wants to avoid too much baloney in the future, it needs to hire a bit of old spice to give these young placement teams the best opportunity to mature into tasty future superstars.
It’s true that it takes a village to raise a child, which is why we need our elders.