A number of top-flight media agency folk have flown the coop. Why are they doing this and what is the impact of their leaving? The Media finds out.
The MediaShop announced in May that its Sandton managing director, 2011 MOST Awards Media Agency Legend, Virginia Hollis, was leaving to go freelance. While no company is one person, as group MD Chris Botha was quick to point out at the time, Hollis – a professional with 30 years’ experience – will surely be missed at her old shop.
To say that agencies are experiencing staff shortages is almost a banality these days and will incur a “tell us what else is new” eye-roll from anyone at an agency who has faced procurement issues and the constant churn of staff moving from shop to shop.
This is true to the extent that last year, freelance consultant Wicus Swanepoel wrote in The Media that the industry is in danger of imploding. This may or may not be an overstatement, but it is certain that deep cracks are showing. Swanepoel went solo after 15 years in agencies when he left Mediaedge as MD. He and others see the defection of senior staff as a worrying symptom of an industry under unsustainable pressure due to the cutting of costs by agencies’ own corporate bosses and by clients.
A vicious cycle develops: experienced people leave because they are being worked too hard. Consequently, juniors lack mentorship and they leave. So, staff shortages ensue and there’s yet more pressure on the seniors.
Swanepoel partly blames the international ownership of agencies for the malaise. “It is the number one reason for the problems we’re facing. Most are listed companies who are only concerned about the bottom line; hence the abuse of staff.”
He adds. “In a world where everything is deadline-driven, stress is a given. (But) the problem nowadays is that clients are adding additional (and unnecessary) pressures – especially from a monetary point of view… Clients want a Cadillac but can only pay for a Citi Golf. Because of this, margins are getting smaller and smaller with agencies therefore having to work harder and harder. Staff have to stay at work later or take work home or work over weekends. And they don’t get paid for it. Some haven’t even had pay increases for three years!”
Tanya Schreuder, joint MD of Vizeum, says she has noticed that staff turnover in agencies has definitely increased. So where does everyone go? Like Hollis, many experienced strategists and planners freelance as their time is their own and they can command a premium for their work. Some move to other agencies. People tend to stay in the industry because it is such a specialised one, says Schreuder. However, Swanepoel notes that some turn to entirely different sorts of careers: “What I call ‘mushroom farming’: a calmer, simpler life, free from deadlines!” he says. Some go to media owners or to work for clients.
Freelancers often consult for the very agencies they left. Hollis’s first client? The MediaShop. “There aren’t enough senior people to fill the gaps, so in most instances the agency you’re leaving then has to employ your services on a freelance basis. Crazy really,” says Swanepoel. Many freelancers experience another irony: when they start charging for their time, they are more likely to be respected by the client, who is less likely to keep you in meetings for hours, says Hollis.
Hollis had considered flying solo for a while, she says, and left for many reasons, not just that she was doing too much. But she concedes that there is terrible pressure on everyone. “One of the things that has happened to media agencies is that the big ones are now largely owned by overseas companies. The rules that come with that are daunting. They keep adding on more and more work. I understand that they need to keep headcount down, but still. If you’re going to work 15 hours a day, at least do it for yourself.
“When do you get to have a life? It’s the people who are parents I feel most sorry for. When are you supposed to spend time with your kids?” Hollis asks.
The MediaShop said that Hollis was going back to her first love, writing strategies. In her full-time job, she says, she often had to fulfil roles like client services and human resources that took up time she could have used to write strategies. “I had all these ideas for projects that I wanted to do, projects that would make the client go ‘wow!’ but I didn’t have enough time for them. Our currency now is time. No one has time. It’s not a feature of just the media agencies, it’s all business.”
When experienced people like Hollis leave an agency it deprives the company, not only of skills, but also of a potential mentor. Gordon Patterson, chairman of VivaKi SA (the holding company of Starcom MediaVest and Zenith Optimedia), says he predicted the drain of intellectual capital from the industry two years ago. “Tell me of one 60-year-old founder who retired from an agency. They don’t. They move on before they retire. When they leave there’s no succession plan,” he says.
Obviously, if time is such a commodity, it’s difficult to prioritise the training of juniors. And in the shifting, dynamic world of advertising, training has to be prioritised. Janet Watermeyer of Mindshare says: “Reaching consumers is becoming harder and consumers are calling the shots. The art and science of media strategy is changing, becoming more specialised.” It’s expensive and time-consuming to train specialists and many media agencies don’t have the money to spend on up-skilling. It’s getting to the point where some will not hire juniors, she adds.
This is understandable: training and mentoring is a huge investment in a valuable future employee. So, agencies make the investment – only to see their bright young stars snapped up by someone else. “Youngsters are chasing salaries, they tend to jump around,” Watermeyer says.
This has led to a situation where the bar set for new talent isn’t exactly high, says Hollis. “Youngsters now think it’s all about them. They want the rewards, the salary and the accolades, but they are not prepared to work for them. They work a normal day and go home.
“When a little gem comes along, you hold on to them. How do you do this? You constantly stimulate them, train them and pay them. But it’s hard to give them the increases they deserve. How do you justify a 50% increase to a corporate person sitting overseas? They’ll get a 5% increase. This is how we lose them.”
Former Nota Bene MD Ryan Williams is now head of sales at Cinemark. He was at Nota Bene for 10 years, which, he says, “makes me an anachronism”. He didn’t necessarily leave because of the pressure, but rather because he wanted a new challenge. But he says it’s nice to come home to his two dogs and “not have them look at me as if to ask ’Who the hell are you?’”
He agrees that there is too much pressure on agency staff and says the industry is going to have to redefine itself. “Agencies lack an understanding of what clients want. Clients don’t necessarily need research. A good marketer will know what the market looks like. Some clients just want good implementation.” In future, agencies will have built up a better talent pool and high-grade work will go to boutique agencies, he adds.
Williams says that opportunities for diverging into other careers are not as available at agencies as they are at media owners. “(Media owners) are often parts of big groups. Working for Kagiso or Media24, there is lots of scope to play in other sandpits. That lack of scope frustrates seniors in agencies. They get to a stage where they think, ‘Well, now what? There’s no challenge or growth’.”
So, is media an industry spiralling out of control, as Swanepoel has put it? Patterson is more optimistic. He sees these issues as a natural part of the media industry’s growth in South Africa. “The industry is not in crisis. It will always have strong leaders,” he says.
Experienced people like Hollis are leaving because they are at a stage where they can afford to be selfish about their careers, he adds.
Yes, but who will replace them?
This story was first published in the September 2012 issue of The Media magazine.
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