‘At the top nothing seems to change’: Confessions of a mid-level agency exec

This article is part of our Confessions series, in which we trade anonymity for candor to get an unvarnished look at the people, processes and problems inside the industry. More from the series →

Office politics plague the advertising industry. At the big agencies, those not at the top find themselves frustrated with hiring problems, lack of promotions and overall pressure.

In the latest installment of our Confessions series, where we exchange anonymity for honesty, a mid-level exec at a top agency holding group says that executives need to stop hiring their friends and that marketers overall need to be paid more.

The conversation has been edited lightly for clarity and length.

Do you feel like the agency structure is efficient?
It definitely isn’t. All the teams have massive conflicts of interest. Client teams think they’re the client; they are not and they don’t pay the bills. The trading teams all want to maximize fee revenue. In any given campaign, there are so many moving parts, which creates huge potential for human error. You do a media plan. Imagine a client changes their mind, you can end up re-doing that plan 10 times. Nobody knows what media plan is the right one. Maybe someone comes back from vacation or has been in and out of meetings. Multiple changes to media plans, to creatives, to trafficking and this can create overspending. There is likely not a single large agency that has never overspent on a campaign.

How about hiring? Do you find it fair?
Sometimes it’s merit based, but there’s the whole referral culture; everyone wants to re-hire friends as it’s easier and cheaper than taking a risk on someone not known. The biggest media owners in the world are Facebook, Google and Amazon. If those are the three most important media owners, the most strategically important jobs in digital are head of search, head of social and head of programmatic. The people in those roles all look the same and have usually in many cases hired their friends. A quick glance at LinkedIn will show you its the exact same person, profile, look and appearance — does that sound fair? I am always concerned when everyone looks the same. At the junior level, there is a lot more women, a lot more ethnic minorities — it’s just way more diverse. However, at the top, nothing seems to change.

Some argue the only way to really get promoted is to leave. Do you see that, or do people get promoted internally?
Whenever I meet someone who’s been at an agency for five years, there’s only one thing I think and that’s luck or timing. There’s no real difference between me and another person in my position at a different agency. For you to get promoted, there has to be revenue to support the promotion whether it’s brand-new business or existing client expansion for the account you work on. I tell everyone every two years you should be looking to be a) promoted internally or b) looking for new roles. Agencies should be fighting very hard to hold on to talent people. There is not a lot of very good to great digital talent even in the most developed markets

What about the review system? Are you able to provide feedback to the company, and does anything actually change?
The promotion system is 100 percent the most farcical thing I’ve ever seen. I’ve seen extremely talented people just walk out the door because they are doing a great job. I had a really talented person who was three levels below myself. He would do my work when I went on holiday. He hit all his KPIs. Clients loved him, but internally no one would listen to him, so he left for another agency. Seriously talented people like that shouldn’t be allowed to leave if the case is so strong and it’s so obvious how good they are. It’s definitely not merit-based.

Do you want to leave?
I’m waiting for my current agency to win a new piece of business, but I tell people you should interview at least once a year, just to test the market. You should really not stay and expect to be loyal to one of these holding groups.

What would you do if you were CEO?
1) Increase entry-role salaries: A junior buyer especially in a top holding group on a huge client could end up managing $5 to $10 million in digital and you’ll only pay them $25,000 if they are lucky. If you pay better, you’ll get better entry-level talent. This could come out of the senior folks’ pay, to be honest. If you compare that to a trader at a bank, they’ll get $100,000 right out of the gate after graduating.

2) Diversity: Less lip-service, more action. A lot of entry talent is female, minorities; however, the more senior you go everyone is either a white male or female. That doesn’t make sense, and there should be clear paths for women and ethnic minorities to progress based on talent.

3) Retention: Focus on retention, not hiring. The turnover in the industry is nuts. You sometimes will see one person running a large client’s business on their own. That is not sustainable and not proper for a Fortune 500 client especially given the fees being paid to the agency. What’s weird is there are so many great perks to this industry it’s easy to sell someone into staying if people actually cared more about their staff than it is to rehire someone which is an enormous pain.


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