Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Loyalty? We don't need no stinkin' loyalty!

I've been doing a lot of on-site research with a particular marketing agency right now and have learned more about the industry than ever before. From all this work, there's one odd quirk which I'm starting to get a better handle on: turnover and employee retention.

Agency culture is very fluid. Employees typically last only 1 1/2 - 2 years in one place before moving on to the next big opportunity. It's like I'm Spiderman and I swing from building to building, each time getting enough momentum to grasp on to a higher floor on the structure.

My old agency was Wunderman and I look back on it fondly. Culturally it was a hoot with lots of Gen Y like me who had a lot to prove and wanted their chance to cut their teeth on big projects. Operationally, the work permitted lots of risk-taking, ownership, and collaboration with diverse teams.

But by the end of my 15 months that I worked with the company, I had more tenure than probably 40% of the employees there. This is not a function of growth. It's a function of immense mobility of employees among agencies, and among agencies like Wunderman and related data-based organizations (the big banks, Air Miles, research houses).

Initially I stacked this churn up to the fact that "it's a marketing agency and this is just what it's like", but as I learn more about the industry I'm realizing that it doesn't have to be this way.

One consequence of churn is that among middle and senior levels in big shops there's a palpable dearth of good talent. The kind of good talent that can't be codified or seen in the effectiveness of MarCom projects. It doesn't matter how skilled you may be as an analytics project manager, senior art director, or digital account director, you still lack valuable abilities as a manager and an employee.

A lot of my coworkers see high turnover and mobility as a cool way to quickly advance and get your name recognition up. You'll leapfrog between roles based on your networking prowess and ability to distinguish yourself as a non-supporter of the team. Your resume will read like a rolodex of advertising agencies because you spent only a few short years at each place.

And what have you gained?
Credentials, a client list, knowledge of different industries, accounts, and agency functions (e.g. digital, retail, CRM, print).

And what have you lost?

Interpersonal and leadership skills because no one worked with you long enough for you to truly help the develop themselves.

So I'm not suggesting that people should remain at shops they hate or in roles which give them no new challenges, opportunities, or satisfaction. I really support the inidividual in deciding what's right for them.

But just temper your optimism for looking elsewhere with a rational assessment of what you'll stand to gain (of lose) by leaving. Never leave for the sake of leaving. Turnover is high in the agency world and has resulted in selfish managers and a general feeling among all levels of gamesmanship. In that environment, culture really can't thrive. Warmth and inclusivity are really only superficial labels attached to the mission statement to form some perceptual distinction in the minds of presumptive new hires.

I'm sorry if any of my Wunderman friends felt evicerated by this rant!

No comments: