Some home truths on the ad industry's 'talent crunch'

Why the current dearth of talent in adland is less a crunch than it is a crisis.

Paul Burke on adland's 'talent crunch'.
Paul Burke on adland's 'talent crunch'.

In a recent Campaign piece, agency leaders discussed how to solve the industry’s “talent crunch”. It got me wondering... why have they failed to address the elephant in the room?

“Crunch”?

Rather a nice word, isn’t it? I’ve used it many times in commercials to describe Walkers crisps or Sainsbury’s apples. But I wouldn’t describe the dearth of talent in our industry as a “talent crunch” any more than I’d describe the dearth of petrol at our pumps as a “fuel crunch”. The word is “crisis” and euphemising it as “crunch” fails to acknowledge its depth and seriousness.

More on that “failure to acknowledge”

If you look at that piece, not one of its contributors acknowledged what I believe to be the principal cause of the crisis. So let’s remind them, shall we?

In recent years, most agencies have cleared out the majority of their best practitioners. This has left them – in creative departments anyway – with a catastrophic paucity of people with the talent and experience to create great ads and show others how to create them too. It’s a crisis that the industry should have seen coming a mile off and now it’s facing the consequences. Without that time-honoured expertise, clients are unwilling to pay the fees they once did, agencies are unwilling to pay the salaries they once did, so they now find themselves in a calamitous downward spiral.

Why would any business do this?

Cost-cutting is the usual excuse but, for this particular crime, I think the bean counters should be acquitted. The more likely culprits are insecure CCOs fretting about having people in their departments who are more experienced and possibly more talented than they are. Heavens above, they might remember them as juniors and not take them seriously in their swanky new roles. This is why this issue will be never be acknowledged or addressed.

A football analogy

How can anyone be surprised by the talent crisis? It’d be like Manchester United getting rid of all its best players, then being surprised when it got relegated. Then being surprised again to find that the most talented youngsters no longer wanted to sign for the club. Yet that’s what’s exactly happened to advertising. Relegated in the eyes of other industries, it no longer commands the respect it once did. So the most creative graduates who, in years gone by, would have lit up our industry, are now choosing to work elsewhere.

Another one

In 1996, Alan Hansen was proved spectacularly wrong when he infamously said about Manchester United: "You won’t win anything with kids.” But United’s young team was highly trained and prodigiously talented. What’s more, its mentors included Eric Cantona and its “CCO” was Sir Alex Ferguson. The young people entering our business aren’t quite in that league. I’ve mentored at several advertising colleges and, although there are always exceptions, I’ve seldom seen a budding Beckham, a nascent Neville or a gifted Giggs. But I’ll tell you what I have seen…

Too much too young

It’s no good Rob Curran expecting cheap, inexperienced juniors to solve this crisis. How can they? They might one day have acquired the necessary skills but they’d need time and tutelage. Unfortunately, their agencies have sacked the very people who could have helped them. It seems so unfair to deny them the help enjoyed by all their predecessors. For example….

Your humble scribe...

... was once an even humbler dispatch boy at AMV. But over the years, he had transformative assistance from kind and immensely talented people like David Abbott, Chris O’Shea, Leon Jaume, Chris Wilkins, John Webster and Frank Budgen. Thanks to them, he was able to become a professional writer and is now so highfalutin that he refers to himself in the third person.

The folly of early middle age

And yet it’s those insecure CCOs I feel most sorry for. Advertising, as everybody knows but nobody admits, is a viciously ageist industry, so, as their hair starts to feature more salt than pepper, they too will be pushed to the bed nearest the door. If only they’d kept all those good people, they could have improved their agency’s work, strengthened its financial position and ironically, prolonged their own careers. Instead, in a few years’ time, they’ll be facing the inevitable. And facing it without the compensation of a lovely portfolio, filled with fine ads and fond memories.

So now what?

It will probably be down to clients to effect a change in their agencies’ behaviour. But can they be bothered? They tend not to get rid of their most experienced people and they don’t like it when their agencies do. They still need that vital mix of youth, experience and creative intelligence. One out of three won’t do. So increasing numbers of them are now bypassing traditional agencies altogether.

Meanwhile, what should agencies do? To solve the fuel crisis, the government called in the Army. To solve the talent crisis, perhaps agencies should do the same. I doubt very much whether the average soldier’s creative efforts could be any worse than “Together we joy”.

Paul Burke is founder of Paul Burke Creative

This article first appeared in Campaign.

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