Are we facing a talent exodus from creative agencies?

10 February 2017 Jo Gobbo


There was a lot of commentary around 2016 being a challenging year for many in the creative agency space and 2017 is already shaping up to be an interesting one. 

So what’s the challenge I think will impact us more in 2017? An Industry Exodus!

Over the last 5 years of recruiting for creative agencies in Sydney, I have seen a huge increase in the number of people who are looking to shift out of the creative agency industry. During 2016 we had a candidate shortage for many months and a large number of people I spoke to were exploring a change in career – this pattern has continued into early 2017.

Where do they want to go?


I would estimate 5 years ago about 5 – 10% of creative agency account management talent would talk to us at iknowho about options for moving to an in-house marketing role; to the ‘client-side’.

Over the last 6 – 12 months I’d estimate at the mid-to senior-levels (Account Director and above), that around 80% of candidates I speak with are exploring options outside of creative agencies. That’s a scary statistic.

This is extending to the junior to mid levels as well; we are often having conversations with Account Managers and Senior Account Managers who are considering moving to the client-side. Now don’t get me wrong, there has always been a ‘grass is greener’ mentality with people wanting to explore their options. What is concerning at the moment is the additional lengths these people are going to. At iknowho we recruit across the marketing industry, agency and client-side and our client-side recruitment team is seeing an increase in agency background candidates.

What’s scary about this? These guys and girls are the industry’s rising stars, mid-management, future leaders. If they are jumping the fence what does that mean for the leadership of the industry? What does it mean for the training of our juniors who rely on the mid-levels to pass on their knowledge and mentor them through their growth?

The people we are talking to are often some of the industry’s best and strongest talent, so it’s not people who have dabbled in agency and are looking for an easier option. It’s 5-star talent who are looking for something – so what are they looking for?

This probably isn’t new news, but here’s a top line, and it’s time for the industry to get serious about making changes in line with this:

  • Full-on working environmentlack of flexible work hours or part-time options - crazy hours, burning out….candidates are looking for that elusive ‘balance’, or more accurately work / life integration. They look at management levels in agencies pulling the crazy hours and not seeing their families and think ‘I don’t want that life’. As the line between work and life blurs the move is towards finding opportunities where flexibility / ‘give and take’ becomes a reality.
  • Lack of job security - agencies are running so lean that as soon as a client cuts spend or moves on, redundancies are around the corner. Years ago redundancies were rare in agency land, it is now not uncommon for candidates to have experienced a number of rounds of redundancies, which can affect people directly (knocks the confidence) and indirectly (loss of team members, managers).
  • Lack of management training - something the industry has always struggled with is training – agencies either crack it or it’s non-existent. We are finding that many of the junior- to mid-level candidates we are meeting with have limited opportunity to be trained or mentored in effective management skills. This manifests as employees looking outside their employer or industry for growth and development options. Two or three strikes for a candidate and they lose faith that they will find great advancement options, so start to look further afield.
  • Loss of vision - if employees don’t know what a business stands for, how can they believe in and carry forward that business’s vision? There is a greater need for employees to feel connected to the business and understand how they add value than ever before. Excluding them from the vision or not being clear on it yourself is a slippery slope to a revolving door.
  • Lack of investment in culture, people & development – All of the above funnels into culture, people & development. There has been a drive for culture to be recognised as something more than ping pong and Friday afternoon drinks. How a business treats its employees through communication, development and opportunity is critical to growing a great team and retaining it.

So how does this impact talent and recruitment for your business?  It’s simple; think about that next Account Director you need to come in and build a team. You might want to meet 5 superstars and have the pick of the bunch. The only problem is, they don’t all want to meet you, either because they are thinking about the grass on the other side of the fence or don’t believe that creative agencies can offer them what they are looking for in their careers.

The talent pool is decreasing and currently the industry is not attracting rafts of fresh new talent. So this is really a nudge to creative agency leadership teams to look inside their exposed brick walls and reflect on what the plan is for 2017, and beyond, to keep their talent and show them there is a great career ahead.

iknowho is the founding sponsor for the AdNews Agency of the Year NEW People & Culture award. We're excited to see what agencies do in 2017 in people and culture management to reduce the numbers of top talent wanting to leave agencies.


Jo Gobbo is a Senior Talent Consultant at iknowho, a specialist recruitment consultancy in the creative agency and marketing space.