‘It’s all in the name of profit’: Confessions of a media buyer on short-staffed burnout during the pandemic

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For agency employees, taking time off this year has been more difficult.

With agencies culling staff to manage the financial difficulties that have come due to the coronavirus crisis, there are fewer people on staff who are presently managing the work of multiple positions. At least, that’s been the case for a media buyer at a holding company agency who says he’s dealing with a severe case of burnout — and that he’s not alone.

In the latest edition of our Confessions series, in which we trade anonymity for candor, we hear from a media buyer about the stress he’s been dealing with, how his job has gotten more difficult due to demands from procurement and why he’s considering leaving the agency business. This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Have you been able to take time off? We’ve heard that it’s been more difficult this year for agency employees to do so. 

It’s been backlogged, effectively. I was too busy earlier in the year, I had too much to do and didn’t have a team. I think a lot of people feel that way. You can’t take time off when there’s work to do and you don’t have people to hand stuff off to. If the work needs to be done it doesn’t really matter, someone has to do it. 

Why don’t you have a team?

We had won lots of new business [before the pandemic] and hadn’t staffed up adequately. Everything is about price and procurement, about margin and profit, about what’s captured on the spreadsheet. That’s how the business works. It’s no secret that procurement is the one [thing] driving this because they get bonuses and KPI’d on saving money. It’s very easy to do that with the agency relationship. But what the spreadsheet does not capture is the toll it takes on a staff member. It’s that simple. 

So clients’ procurement teams are making it harder to staff up?

It’s all about cost versus revenue. Say you get $100,000 in and it costs you $50,000 to staff up a team 100%. [Then procurement might say they] need to show more profit than normal and can force fewer people to do all of the work instead of a full team so then there’s more margin being shown. What that doesn’t capture is that instead of five people doing the work now you have two people or three people. The work is still getting done, but those three people are carrying five people’s worth of work. In some cases, it can be one person doing the work of five people. It’s all in the name of profit. 

What’s the toll been on you?

I’m burnt out. It impacts your mental health in one way or another. It’s just the nature of the beast, unfortunately, it’s become that way. 

Procurement has been in control for a while now. Do you think that’s even more so now because of the coronavirus? 

100%. At the end of the day businesses all have profit and loss to maintain. The easiest way to do that is to control staff. It’s one of the biggest line items on a spreadsheet. Most people are quite disappointed this year because there’s no pay raises, no promotions. That’s across lots of businesses, but in the agency world it takes more of a toll because everything is so procurement driven. 

Is your agency giving out bonuses or raises to make up for people taking less time off this year? 

Not really. There’s some stuff for very junior talent. It’s cheap. Giving someone who’s on $100,000 a raise versus giving someone who’s on $20,000 a raise is going to be cheaper. That’s it. 

How has the lack of time off affected your job performance? 

The quality of the work has completely slipped. We’re in delivery mode now. Everyone in an agency feels like that. We’re effectively flipping burgers — get it out the door and that’s it. If you need five people to do a job and only one person is doing it no matter how good that person is, the work is going to slip eventually. 

What do you wish you could tell procurement about the effect they’re having on your job?

There’s nothing to say. They’re getting a bonus at the end of the year and I’m not. You can’t get between someone and their paycheck. There’s a lot of stuff that the spreadsheet doesn’t capture that they don’t take into account but, quite frankly, I don’t think they care. If you haven’t done the job [of a media buyer] you have no empathy for it. You might have some sympathy, but not really. You’re probably more thankful that you’re not in that position. It’s nasty. That’s how those people think. 

Let’s say they did care, what would you tell them?

You can’t expect great performance at a low rate forever. It doesn’t work. There’s a reason things cost what they do and are valued the way they are valued. If people don’t want [to pay for the valuable media placement] it becomes a price discussion and a race to the bottom and that’s what the agency will deliver. [When it’s all about price] the qualitative stuff —someone’s mental health, someone’s bonus, someone’s career trajectory — that all goes out the window. It doesn’t actually matter. There’s lip service paid, but it doesn’t really matter [to clients]. 

If it doesn’t get better are you thinking of leaving the agency business?

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There’s a big exodus [at agencies] to go to media owners or clients because other places will offer you a better deal — better compensation, fewer hours, lower stress. That is a symptom and an outcome of procurement [putting pressure on agencies]. You hear people in the C-suite at agencies talking about how we’re a talent business, but if that’s really the case then why do so many people leave agencies every day? 

And is that something you’re considering? 

Perhaps. [Agencies] need a better business model. The business model is fundamentally commoditized and eating itself. It’s getting worse and worse every year. The quality of the people in specialist roles at agencies is getting worse and worse. The people who are good quickly figure out they can go elsewhere and get paid better. It’s about the incentives and trade offs. I like working in an agency — the variety of the work is good, it’s not boring, it’s not monotonous, always something new and it’s very tech driven now — but at a certain point it becomes untenable. 

Why haven’t you left?

I’m still here because there aren’t that many opportunities on the market due to Covid. During times of financial stress, CFOs at every company get constipated. They don’t want to spend any money. They can’t predict revenues, margin, they can’t do anything in a predictable way. The only thing they can predict is that they can control their costs — and that’s a very easy lever to pull. 

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