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Why are creative agencies struggling to retain their rising stars?

The advertising industry is seeing a higher attrition rate at the mid-senior level. Employees nurtured to take up more responsibility and leadership roles are leaving for other agencies. Is it a case of personal aspirations or are agencies unable to give their star performers a broader horizon? BestMediaInfo.com explores

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Creative agencies are people-driven organisations that constantly need a ready pipeline of resources willing to take up larger roles and responsibilities, and who are hence nurtured by the leadership.

In recent times, however, the industry is seeing a higher attrition rate at the mid-senior level. Employees nurtured to take up larger responsibility and possible leadership roles are quitting and moving to rival set-ups.

What's causing this shift and why are agencies struggling to retain their rising stars?

Vivek Srivastava

Vivek Srivastava, Joint MD at Innocean Worldwide, said talent mobility and turnover in agencies has been a long-standing issue and many a time the employee turnover is the result of cultural toxicity. He said Innocean ensures such dysfunctional elements don’t enter their culture.

“It’s always taken a lot of effort on part of the agency and client to bring key people in creatives, account planning, account management and even digital up to speed with the nuances, consumer behaviour-driven insights and category peculiarities. Stability of people lends continuity and enables well-thought disruptive ideas too,” he said.

According to Srivastava, the millennial generation seeks flexibility along with defined roles and a modicum of respect for the quality of life. Zero politicking, career growth, upskill, recognition of achievements and fair rewards policy are the key to retention in this new age. “Agencies are fast realising the propensity and comfort of the younger lot with gig style of working. The challenge would be to enmesh the gig feel with career continuity. A tough ask but worth making it happen,” he added.

While many reasons lie behind a person moving from an organisation, sometimes it could be a personal decision to take on tougher challenges. Employees should be given a fair chance to practise changes and their choices must be respected, industry leaders said.

Kapil Arora

“If the move is in line with a shift in life priority or a different capability that your organisation cannot fulfil, then it is understandable. But if the shift is primarily due to an incremental remuneration bracket or position, then there is some introspection to do,” said Kapil Arora, Co-Chairman and CEO at 82.5 Communications.

He said employees must be treated with respect for what they get to the table and be given disproportionate opportunities, rewards, freedom and recognition in line with their capability and contributions. Arora said employees need love expressed by genuinely caring for them as individuals, not just for their professional development. Talking to them often, and really listening to their thoughts, suggestions, fears, and angst helps, he said.

“If there comes a time you genuinely feel that a planned move outside your organisation is better for them, support their decision because they will respect you for it. At worst, you will have another positive spokesperson in the industry. At best, that person will come back to work with you at some point,” Arora said.

Nisha Singhania

Nisha Singhania, Co-founder and Director, Infectious Advertising, said whether an employee stays or moves on, depends on the environment at the agency. She said while one always expects a long-term relationship, chances are people are on the lookout for better opportunities.

Singhania said this is a two-way stream as agencies hire people who are nurtured and trained by other agencies. “I think one needs to be open to the fact that people will want to try to explore. I think you need to have a very open and collaborative culture. We have a very open culture and if they get a good career opportunity, they come and discuss with us and we do guide them. This year, we had 7-8 ex-employees who went and came back to us after seeing the culture at other places. I think it's a part and parcel of how we function. Everyone needs to be open to that and give people the freedom and flexibility.”

“No agency hires people only at the junior level. I'm hiring someone at a mid- and senior-level; somebody else would have trained them and nurtured them. I think all you can do is provide a great working environment, growth, and learning to people. You can't hold grudges against people because they choose to go. They are not bonded labour,” she explains.

Azazul Haque

Azazul Haque, Chief Creative Officer (CCO) at MullenLowe Lintas Group, is of the view that moving on is a difficult decision because you have to go to an unknown place after building equity with people over several years. He said no employee would leave if the circumstances are perfect and many reasons are associated with such decisions.

He said while he left Ogilvy due to personal reasons, the agency is very good at retaining employees and making sure a talented person does not go and be an asset to another agency.

“What has happened in the last few years is that advertising had its heroes and there were many loyalists to a person. Advertising is a very people-led industry and many stay back because of the people there. Despite remuneration and salaries, they might just like the people. When they leave, many other people also leave after them. When Ajay Gahlaut left Ogilvy Delhi, many people left because they were in love with Ajay. It was not an organisation they were working with but the people there,” Haque explained.

“There comes a point in big organisations where there are many takers and fewer chairs; this where a lot of churns happens. People who have been loyal to an agency for many years might not see an internal growth and think of moving,” he said.

Abhik Santara

According to Abhik Santara, Director and CEO at Atom, while employees invest a lot of time and effort in an agency, the agency also invests a lot in terms of building a team member through emotional investment, efforts to build equity with the client, and a huge cost in training and development. He said if someone wants to leave, they have better prospects in sight and it is a huge setback.

Santara pointed out how there are some flaws with agencies in their interaction. “Throwing away designations, only based on years of service, as a motivation to retain talent is one such mistake. The difference between the role of an AD/CD is no different from that of a VP in a typical ad agency. Only the size of the business changes, the role doesn't. The other mistake we tend to make is by not having a clear distinction between an average one and a good one. The career paths are the same for both. Once the initial high settles down, the good ones leave and what remains with us are only the average ones. We start to realise this mistake once the good one decides to leave.”

However, he said sometimes it is also an organic way to infuse new blood as the industry is in desperate need of that. “Sometimes, it is better for the person to leverage his talent in some other way, in a different culture. So we have to address the void through a judicious balance of meritocracy and emotion. Having said that, we work 12 hours together, colleagues become family and it is hard to let someone go,” he added.

Talking about how agencies can retain talent over a long period, Santara said agencies must have a rigid appraisal process and there should be more rationality and less emotion in the whole process. He said agencies must not hand over promotions freely if there are no designations left.

“Don't make a VP do the role of an AD because he/she needs to be motivated. Invest in training and growth. Even if that person decides to leave at a later stage, that's okay. A good employee would want to progress, whether within or outside the agency. Better, if we can offer it internally. Have a clear career path for people with milestones. Everyone has an ambition. Make them see the goal clearly or make it clear that it will not happen. Just because it took the manager 20 years to reach a certain spot doesn't mean that everyone will take it as a yardstick or have the same ambition. Good people need faster growth.”


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