The Agency ‘Frogger’ Problem of Jumping Employees

Matt Van Hoven is the former editor of Agency Spy. He worked in advertising agencies for four years until recently. 

Over the course of about seven years, the human body will completely replace each and every cell. After seven years, you’re an entirely different person than you were before.

You could probably say the same for many agencies, where revolving doors seem to be spinning faster than ever. Ask agency staffers how long they’d expect a coworker to stick around, and they’ll likely tell you about two years. The practice of leapfrogging — or rapidly switching companies due to lack of mobility — has been going on long enough to create a downward spiral at agencies.

Think of this in terms of a typical career timeline, from internship to leadership. Let’s create a typical advertising person and call her Jamie. If Jamie started working in 2000 and changed companies every two years on average, by 2014 seven agencies would have come and gone — and potentially hundreds of people with them. Jamie is both part of the problem and a victim of it. By switching jobs, she takes with her knowledge and relationships that aren’t easily replaced. But in switching, she has to not only learn the ways of a new company but reestablish herself within the new structure. In the end, everyone loses: employee, agency and, let’s not forget, client.

Agencies are certainly aware of this. You can’t go longer than 10 minutes at an advertising conference before some CEO pays homage to “talent.” On the ground, to be fair, there’s acknowledgement that this constant churn is self-defeating and unsustainable. The problem is, management doesn’t always have what you need in order to keep you. Leapfrogging wasn’t common before because it looked bad to have lots of companies on your resume. Today, a 30-year-old with four agencies on his resume has more going for him than he would have had seven years ago. Job hopping used to be a black mark; now it’s just the norm.

“Stability is a fleeting thought in the digital industry,” said a global agency vp who asked to remain anonymous. “Especially as platforms evolve so quickly and where clients can leave on a dime for cheaper fees.”

In a market that drops dead weight in a moment’s notice, creating incentives is challenging. At the employee level, that means it’s now commonplace to work toward the next agency and the promotion simultaneously. Doing both will get you ahead faster than just “putting your time in,” as was the norm. Certainly, not everyone deserves to move up, but that may not matter if the behavior is being learned anyway.

Agency executives sometimes decry a lack of loyalty with those pesky millennials. But it’s a two-way street. Think back to the Great Recession of 2007, when agencies began laying off staff in droves. For about two years this went on, leaving many veterans jobless and everyone else distrusting of agency leadership. The era of ultra-independence had begun. Agency leaders would lay you off in a heartbeat if a big client left, so why should young employees show any more loyalty?

The recession, and the culling of the leadership ranks it brought, meant agencies were gutted of experienced managers. The people who replaced the lost industry veterans were often whoever was left: young leapfroggers eager to meet the digital age head on, a change the industry needed to make. Seven years later, the digital ad world looks more like the tech scene than its former self, and the first generation of leapfroggers is at the highest levels of the industry. Others have filled in behind them, and so on down to the youngest in the business. In an industry that feeds on stories of personnel shifts, it’s no wonder the practice is so common.

Despite the momentum it lends the froggers, leapfrogging remains an area of concern for many in management. “It’s not something my clients glance over lightly,” Kimberly Aguilera, a partner in New York based recruiting company, Tangerine, wrote in an email to Digiday. “Everyone has a story and of course there can be a case of moving every year legitimately. I just find it hard to get a good story out of most people that have.”

Striking a balance between longevity and forward momentum is a challenge facing many in the business today. This isn’t an agencies-are-doomed column. The industry has survived and is evolving, but into a system where getting ahead means leaving a lot behind. Leapfrogging has its disadvantages, but it is pervasive — from the top of the ladder down to the bottom.

For Aguilera, experience earned over time is, however accrued, a major commodity. “It’s more about the people you work with and the work you get done — digging in, getting your hands dirty, being a part of something bigger.”

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