Eugene Lee, COO of CMI/Compas, believes that investing “seven figures” annually in training agency employees has helped keep the agency’s retention rate high with many like Lee celebrating more than a decade at the agency — and encouraged 45 employees or 10% of the 550 current employees to boomerang back.

Focusing on training makes sense for the 30-year-old agency given its health care focus — the team needs to be up to speed on regulations and minute details that are unique to the industry. But the training isn’t solely about health care regulations but also part of a push to keep employees learning and interested in staying at the agency. 

Lee was one of a number of agency execs at Digiday’s Media Buying Summit in Key Biscayne, Florida, last week who said his agency is putting more effort, time, resources and dollars into training new employees. Finding qualified workers is routinely a major issue at agencies but with unemployment rates currently so low — the Bureau of Labor Statistics recently said it was 3.5% in September — and demand for media skills so high agencies are feeling the pressure. And according to a survey by The Creative Group earlier this year, 92% of advertising and marketing leaders say a skilled new hire is difficult to find now. 

“Media traders and platform specialists are in very high demand, similarly to how engineers are in very high demand, so these are individuals who know that and as a result, they can move on quite easily,” said Kait Boulos, vp of marketing at Varick. 

While accepting that people leave is the mantra of many agency execs now, there’s also a sense of unease among some others agency execs who say training can take roughly six months for a new hire and, often, once that’s finished new hires often expect a raise and a promotion that isn’t necessarily available to them. The result is that, without reaching that next level quickly, that new hire will likely leave six months after the agency has trained them, which can be frustrating for agencies. 

While it can be a difficult pill to swallow, some agency execs now believe that agencies need to get used to a new reality where they are allocating more time and resources to employee training even if those employees leave after a year or two.

“It’s OK to spend time and money on people knowing that your staff can be a fleeting workforce,” said Gila Wilensky, svp and head of media activation at Essence. “It’s a big part of my job to give our people the tools and resources they need to successfully do the job, and ensure they are learning while here. If you don’t train them while they’re here, you don’t get the best work output. It’s a win-win.”

Training for many media agencies can be six months or more. It encompasses how the agency approaches media, getting up to date on platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other in-demand technical skills as well as soft skills like teaching new employees how to be a manager.  

Being OK with being a stepping stone for employees rather than their long-term professional home isn’t a new reality for execs. But the shortened tenure and rising demand for promotions after a few months can be difficult to grapple with. 

People are even looking outside the box, especially at agencies not in big markets. One buyer who asked to be anonymous said his agency hires former insurance brokers, food service employees and finance types: “We have to look outside traditional paths.” (The problem then becomes that they’re less likely to be “forgiving” for clients, said another buyer who has done the same. “They get fed up easily. They have to be trained in patience.”)

Another issue for media agencies, in particular, is that it’s harder now to suss out what skills employees say they have and what skills they actually have. For example, candidates often have experience with organic social but need to be trained on how to run campaigns on various platforms. Building up an employee’s skills takes time and resources that agencies have to dedicate, but it doesn’t mean the employees those agencies train will be loyal or stick around. 

“There’s not a ton of room to grow up at a fast pace,” said one media agency exec who asked for anonymity. “There’s a lot more lateral moves. We’re trying to combat that with projects internally for people who are hungry. What are they passionate about? How can we grow that passion point horizontally if there are not openings vertically?” 

For Metric Digital co-founder and president John Pellinghelli, accepting that people will leave after a year or two has become just part of doing business. While the agency works to retain top staffers by finding ways to keep them engaged and learning, people who advance quickly often get opportunities that he doesn’t fault them for taking. 

“They get recruited by our clients, which are high-growth direct-to-consumer brands,” said Pellinghelli. “If you’ve developed this skill set, that’s a really cool opportunity. Maybe you just accept that people will only be there for a year or two years. We’ve come to recognize that may be the case and our job is to be gracious about that and be happy for the people we develop.” 

Using agencies as a training ground could be a new norm for agency employees who see the lure of being client-side, especially as more clients are eyeing in-housing. One media agency employee who has also been client-side and spoke on the condition of anonymity said that part of the reason employees jump ship is that they have a demanding job, with little room for growth and low salaries.  

“My friends that work in-house at brands. Occasionally they’ll work late or on weekends, but I work every night late and on weekends, but they get compensated more than I do,” the employee said. “Once you have the experience working at an agency and have that under your belt, I don’t see the value in staying there unless they change the model. A lot of agencies care more about the bottom dollar than their employees, and that needs to change if you want to keep employees.” 

One change that could help agencies keep staff around longer would be the ability to properly staff as needed for the clients they have, according to one exec. But with agencies strapped due to more project work and longer payment windows, it can be hard to accomplish. 

“It’s a little tougher now, but there will always be a talent crisis,” said one media agency executive who asked for anonymity.

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