Media Buying Briefing: ‘There’s a real strain’ on media agencies as they try to staff up after mediapalooza gains

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This Media Buying Briefing covers the latest in agency news and media buying for Digiday+ members and is distributed over email every Monday at 10 a.m. ET. More from the series →

As the dust settles on 2021’s mediapalooza, in which several massive advertisers chose new agencies to handle their media duties, it’s time for those winning agencies to figure out how to deliver the agreed-upon KPIs and results. 

Arguably the most important element of those plans is the need to staff up. And in the age of The Great Resignation, during which thousands of media agency staffers are being lured away by marketers, adtech and martech firms — or simply fed up with insanely long hours and insufficient compensation — that is proving to be harder than ever. 

It’s clear the media agency giants face major staffing issues when one scans the clients they’ve landed. Arguably, Publicis emerged the biggest winner of all the holding companies, landing all or significant chunks of Facebook, Walmart, Stellantis, Inspire Brands, L’Oréal and most recently Eli Lilly. But WPP also scored with the lion’s share of Coca-Cola’s media, and Omnicom secured Mercedes-Benz’s media business. The other giant media account in mediapalooza ’21 was Unilever, which was split among WPP, Omnicom, Havas and IPG. 

So what are they to do? Talent search firms are seeing desperation in their dealings with media agencies.

“We have a lot of holding companies calling us with the pressure of, ‘Can you guarantee us 50 to 100 new hires by the end of Q1? And if you can’t guarantee it, we’re not going to secure the business. We will have an even bigger exit of our existing talent that are going to get burned out’,” said Camille Fetter, founder/CEO of Talentfoot, which works with all the major holding companies as well as independents to help with staffing needs. “It does make me nervous with these holding companies taking on such significant additional work without a significant talent pipeline in place.”

To Fetter’s thinking, the combination of burnout-if-I-stay and the lure of bigger paychecks at brands looking to set up in-house media operations has put more power in the hands of existing talent in those media agencies. “Agency talent is starting to realize, ‘I can actually go [to the] brand side more easily than I may have in the past.’ So that’s a general trend — the business landscape has changed and digital media talent is at the forefront of helping these businesses scale.”

To make matters even worse, many of these clients are looking for digital-first solutions in their marketing efforts, said Brian Dolan, CEO of WorkReduce, a remote staffing platform that specializes in outsourcing for both holding companies and independents. Agencies’ “digital [workload] has gotten bigger than ever,” said Dolan. “In addition to the churn and the accounts moving, there is more money in digital both from legacy analog budgets and investment moving into digital that wasn’t there before. So the the amount of work has increased at the same time there’s a real strain in the traditional agency model.”

For its part, Publicis is turning to its internal, AI-driven Marcel connective tissue to connect employees across agencies, disciplines, timezones and countries to recruit and retain from within, according to a Publicis Media representative. The rep added that recruitment team sizes have doubled and undergone training with an eye toward more diverse hiring. She also noted that agencies including Digitas are using social media to recruit

That bears out with what WorkReduce’s Dolan is seeing. “Nearly every agency holding company is pursuing some sort of central services model,” he noted.

Though the size and breadth of holding company media agencies prevents them from being more nimble, one digital performance agency CEO believes they can slow the tide of attrition by changing their comp models. Zach Morrison, CEO of Tinuiti, said the agency has consistently enjoyed lower employee churn rates than the average agency, which hovers around 30 percent. Talent sits atop Tinuiti’s operating philosophy, he said. 

“Treat everybody like owners — that means everyone gets equity and merit-based pay, not tenure-based pay,” said  Morrison. “If you take on another client and you do great for a client and they grow, you benefit from it and get recognized more. That has been in some respects part of our secret sauce from the beginning.”

Morrison’s is only one of many potential solutions for the holding company media agencies. What’s safe to say is if they stick with the same game plan, we’re likely to see the next mediapalooza manifest itself in less than the next two years — and the strain, burnout and talent exodus cycle begins anew.

Color by numbers

Advertiser Perceptions dug into retailers’ holiday ad spending plans, and found 47 percent plan to increase their digital spending, which isn’t a huge surprise in and of itself. But where they’re spending is — notably live-streamed shopping. According to its latest Digital Advertising for Retail report, where 11 percent of respondents said they are already using live-streamed shopping, another 17 percent said they will incorporate it into their holiday media plans, and another 44 percent said they plan to explore it. 

Takeoff & landing

  • Published reports have Amazon’s Audible audiobook putting out the call for a media review of its $500 million account; media agencies across several holding companies currently work on the business.
  • IPG’s Mediabrands unit said it’s expanding its work with news content watchdog NewsGuard to also evaluate TV news programs and networks — beyond existing work to rate and monitor content on news websites. 
  • In personnel moves, Angela Steele is returning to Publicis in an undisclosed global role from Dentsu, where she was most recently U.S. CEO of Carat; Dentsu promoted Mike Law to replace her, while Cara Lewis was promoted to chief investment officer for Dentsu Media … Havas Media Group named consultant Sarah Ivey its North American chief strategy officer, replacing Meghan Grant who was recently promoted to U.S. president … Matt Brown was promoted to managing director of WPP’s SYZYGY U.K., expanding on his m.d. duties here in the U.S.; the move is the result of SYZYGY U.K. CEO Ita Murphy’s planned departure from the business at the end of the year. 

Direct quote

“With brands like Patagonia doubling down on their decision to stop all paid advertising on Facebook (Meta), we will start to see more marketers taking a thoughtful and intentional approach to how and where they invest their marketing budgets. Recognizing that their spend supports and sustains the voices and viewpoints that directly impact billions of people around the world, we will see increased scrutiny of precisely what that spend is funding and who benefits from it, with an increased focus on investing in businesses that align with corporate values and societal issues. This will see more brands tapping into the open internet to reach the diverse audiences it enriches and being intentional in aligning with publishers that represent diverse backgrounds.”

—One of Quantcast CEO Konrad Feldman’s predictions for 2022.

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