How to retain top agency talent

For creative agencies, holding on to a client may be easier than holding on to talent. Estimates show that annual turnover rates are upwards of 30%, making advertising the industry with the highest talent turnover rates, second only to tourism. Recent research from LinkedIn and 4A’s also showed a “25 percent net talent loss at ad agencies” compared with other industries, and that the turnover rate had increased by 10% from the year before.

These numbers tell us that for most agencies, many creatives, managers, and other staff won’t be there for long. Instead of focusing on doing good work, agencies are wasting resources hiring people who will not stick around for the long run. Rather than dealing with employee churn as a given part of having an agency, perhaps we should understand why the turnover rates are so high. Then, we can work on lowering them.


Why do great employees leave?

When hiring, keep in mind that most potential hires are looking for a career path rather than a job. According to the same LinkedIn and 4A’s survey, most ad industry professionals (54%) leave because they are “concerned about [their] lack of opportunities for advancement.”

The second most common reason is that [tweet_dis]50% of professionals want more challenging work[/tweet_dis]. Whether you’re a creative or are in management, agency work can seem repetitive if you work in silos, have an assembly line process, or mostly work with clients who are looking for consistency rather than breaking barriers. This is why, if you’re in an agency with a high turnover rate, it isn’t unusual to hear statements like “I want to start my own thing” or “I wish we’d get to explore this new trend or technology with clients.”

46 percent of advertising professionals also say that they leave because they are unsatisfied with senior management. Because of this, management also plays a key role in keeping employees happy. For creatives, they want to work with enthusiastic leaders who inspire them and trust them to do good work, not paper-pushers or micro-managers.

But there are other factors that entice talent to leave. It’s not just about their individual preferences.

Professionals in the ad industry believe that they can easily find another job. The survey found that 96% of ad industry professionals feel this way. This is why it’s not unusual to find people who have moved around from agency to agency every few years.

While the competition is already high with other agencies, there are also other industries competing from the same talent pool. Many creatives are also flocking to tech companies, which can offer more competitive salaries and more creative perks. After all, agencies offer an average first year salary of $45,000 less than companies in the tech sector.

According to a report from the Society of Digital Agencies, [tweet_dis]there is a continuing trend of workers abandoning agencies for in-house advertising and marketing departments[/tweet_dis]. So not only do agencies have to compete with other industries for talent, it’s possible they’re competing with former clients as well.

Given these unmet employee needs and the tough competition for the same talent pool, agencies need to make drastic changes if they want to keep attracting and retaining top talent.


Reducing your turnover rate

Even if a high turnover rate is the norm for the industry, there are a few agencies that buck this trend. By learning from their example, you can work towards getting better at lowering employee churn.

Here are some things you can do to keep talent happy:


Clear paths for career advancement

Since the lack of advancement opportunities is the number one reason why employees leave agencies, it’s best to provide clear paths towards advancement. This is true not just of creatives, but also project managers. Strategies like internal mentorship, access to higher learning, and providing career planning consultation can help your team navigate their next steps.

Metric Theory, a digital marketing agency, has an unusual approach to this. If needed, they help their staff find other jobs. But rather than encouraging them to leave, this perk actually helps retain employees. While they offer other perks like gym memberships and competitive salaries, the transparent relationship with their staff has helped build trust and openness. As a result, they were ranked #1 in AdAge’s 2015 list of Best Places to Work.


Provide purposeful work

This may sound so common and simple, yet most agencies don’t really know what it means to take care of their people. Giving them their paycheck on time doesn’t mean that much if they don’t get to take credit for their work. Offering professional stability pales in comparison to giving them challenging work that fills them with purpose.

One notable example of this is Work & Co., a Brooklyn-based design shop that boasts a 100% retention rate. Employees get to own a stake in the company, and creatives get to focus on hands-on design work. These two factors help the company attract and retain top talent.


Hire proactively

The common hiring model for agencies is to hire only when spots have to be filled or when the agency acquires new business. Instead of doing this, Work & Co. builds their network of expert talent as they meet them, much like giant tech companies like Google do. As co-founder Gene Liebel told Digiday, “If you’re competing against Facebook, they just meet and greet a person and hire them. They recruit just because they know there might be some interesting project next year that they need this genius for.”

While not all agencies can afford this move, being on the lookout for great talent and inspiring leaders can help you easily contact the best candidates when needed. Otherwise, aggressively hiring “good enough” people to fulfill new business can often lead to them bringing down the quality of work for the whole team and affecting the morale of your existing A-players.


Become an incubator for ideas

Many ad professionals are attracted to the tech sector because of the innovation that takes place there and the challenge of the work. Smaller agencies might not be able to offer Silicon Valley salaries, but they can at least offer the opportunity to be an incubator of interesting projects and a source of challenging work.

One way to accomplish this is by rewarding independent work. Fluent, Inc., an ad tech company, has been on Crain’s “Best Places to Work” list for the past four years. Among the perks they offer is that they encourage entrepreneurship, giving out a quarterly award to employees deemed to be the most entrepreneurial.

But if your company prefers a bolder approach, you can make innovation part of the job. Carrot Creative, a digital agency based in Brooklyn and Los Angeles, has an “RnD” program in which “the whole team is invited to submit ideas and immerse themselves in tech developments and platforms (often ahead of public release), fulfilling our curiosities and preparing our clients ahead of the curve.” This is leading to the creation of a variety of novelty apps, blog posts, and marketing tools.


Brand yourself to attract talent

When it comes to branding and marketing, agencies do their job well. But this mostly takes the form of client work or promoting the agency to attract more clients. Most agencies forget about their employer branding, which could make a difference in the potential talent they attract.

Carrot Creative takes their employer branding seriously. A quick look at their hiring page hiring reveals the independent, casual streak of the company. The first perks you see, apart from the usual employee benefits, include unlimited vacation, food, and social events. Do a bit of digging and you’ll see that they address the common concerns that employees have about agencies, including career advancement and doing innovative work. This brand is carried over to their social media accounts and their company blog.

As a result of their strong messaging, Carrot Creative is clearly a good match with the staff they hire, since the company only has a 7% turnover rate.


Happy staff = healthy agency

When you sit down and try to compute the number of working hours, the expenses, and all the effort that comes with hiring, training, and trying to retain talent, it’s easy to see how a high turnover rate could be draining your agency. By ensuring that you hire well and that you keep your staff happy, you’ll be able to direct the agency’s energies towards the important things: growth, acquiring better clients, and producing your best work for them.

Post by Celine Roque

Celine Roque is an independent author and marketer focused on entrepreneurship, marketing, and creative work. Her writing has appeared in Gigaom and The Content Strategist.