Why The Ad Industry Is In A Talent Rut And A Prescription For Change

Allison Kent-Smith says the advertising industry has failed to develop and educate talent. Here, she outlines the training-centric steps agencies can take to build a real digital workforce.

The advertising industry is in transition. This is the most auspicious period in recent history, yet it’s also the most disruptive. An agency either has the right 21st-century talent, or it doesn’t. Employees either understand digital, or they are actively pretending that they do. Agency talent stays far too long or turns over within the predictable 18-month cycle.

The current transitional time has shifted the spotlight from what we know to what we need to know. Tinkering and agile processes are valued. The prototype gets more attention than the brief. Big-idea people are no longer the singular hot commodity. Employees who understand platforms, media, technology, trends, data, and "how to generate and make ideas" are the new model for talent.

It’s no longer just about great ideas. It’s about great ideas that get made.

Understanding technology, embracing new talent, making things and not just imagining things, evolving traditional agency practices, and leveraging new ways of working are redefining 21st-century agencies’ competitive advantage. Yet many agencies remain stuck facing big questions: Where do you start? Where do you invest? The industry struggles to evolve, react, and fully embrace the new rules for retaining (and attracting) the brightest minds.

On the subject of "Gen Flux," a recent Fast Company article reminds us that "The vast bulk of our institutions—educational, corporate, political–-are not built for flux. Few traditional career tactics train us for an era where the most important skill is the ability to acquire new skills." Or as Alvin Toffler says, "The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn."[ii] For many years, agencies have under-invested in reeducation in the workplace.

We expect talent to leave, and that’s okay. But is it really?

Many agencies share common symptoms. We continue to trade and exchange the same group of digital leadership. Managers invest in a revolving door of the same types of people, who have all-too-familiar titles, but fail to develop the employees who show up each and every day. We continue to highlight acquisitions, awards, senior hires, and big client wins, yet when do we highlight agencies’ practices for employee education?

The advertising industry has failed to develop and educate talent. We now feel the effects of this neglect more than ever.

Walk a few steps down Madison Avenue, from one agency to another, and you’ll hear similar comments: "There’s no vision for digital at the agency," "I’m faking it [with digital]," "Let’s just hire another social media expert," "The client would like a top 10 app…in three weeks," "We always bring in producers at the very last minute," or "Digital is an agency priority (yet there is not a single UX designer or developer in-house)." Shared confessions across the profession point to serious issues with digital talent, process, and structure that prevent agency evolution.

The money lost on talent attrition, figurehead recruitment, and poorly executed digital projects should shift to the education and development of current employees.

There are a few largely agreed-upon steps that can make an immediate impact. If you’re part of an agency or brand that is stuck, then march into your boss’s office or raise your hand at the next town hall and suggest the following changes. By the way, this will not necessarily make you popular, but it will make you right.


How many UX experts do you have at your agency, and how are they utilized? An agency must have user experience, interaction design, and information architecture front and center. UX experts are not easy to find, but heavy hitters in this area will transform ideas that are impossible to ideas that are reality. A good UX professional solves for both business and user needs. Don’t hire just one UX lead and expect an impact. Ask your established strategy or planning department to "major" in UX and watch what happens.


Are there just a few digital experts at your agency who act as consultants internally? A couple of digital experts are not going to change an agency. Stop hiring one or two recycled digital leaders and expect to get results. A few individuals will not create sustainable digital change. Think of your pool of experts not as a separate department or a "call in the experts when needed" group. Require that every single employee have working knowledge of digital. Map out the village and invest in them.


Does your agency outsource most of your programming? If so, then an integrated understanding of how to build or make an idea remains external. You’re paying your partners to get smarter, but what about your employees? All departments (not just digital producers) need to tap on the shoulder of a developer and ask questions. This is how we learn. These interactions will create a noticeable change in digital understanding.


Are the departments and titles at your agency the same as those at every other agency? Bring in "experts" who are not experts. The industry needs to embrace a new type of talent. Hire a group of high school students, start an agency incubator, begin an academic fellowship program, organize talent by competencies (not title), and ask leaders at the agency to actively teach. Ask your hiring manager or HR person if they have ever hired someone without a title in mind. Nordstrom Innovation Lab provides a great example of a shift in how to think about talent categories and competencies.


Do you struggle with where to learn more about digital? A lot of agency leaders talk about the value of education, yet very few act on it. Start by establishing an agency school. Design learning experiences and opportunities for employees to teach each other. Invite external industry leaders to teach classes. Set up digital experiments. Take field trips and get out of your office. Create digital installations and foster play. Invite your clients to attend the school. Establish expectations for continual learning and integrate participation into annual reviews.


Is your education budget a conference budget? Going to a single conference or workshop is not going to make a difference in employee digital understanding. Your employees will return a bit more motivated or curious, but will they be more educated? Set aside a budget for learning and call the SXSW and Cannes investment something else entirely. Don’t expect a change in digital understanding after a few days of lectures.

Although traditional practices are still in place and continue to be rewarded, agencies cannot ignore the shifts in tools, thinking, and culture that digital has created. We’ll look back at this transitional time in advertising and realize that successful agencies shaped talent through creative and unconventional approaches.

With these common symptoms of digital neglect across the entire profession, it’s time to move beyond problem-identification stage and courageously invest in guiding and teaching employees.

Go on…fix what you recognize is broken.

Allison Kent-Smith is founder of smith & beta, a new digital education company launching in fall 2012, and also director of digital development at Goodby Silverstein & Partners in San Francisco. She can be reached on Twitter @smithandbeta

[Images: Staircase via Shutterstock; Flickr users: Mikko Saari, Cmichel67, and Bob Bradburn]

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  • In an industry filled with smart, creative, competitive people...the smartest, most creative and most competitive don't rely on the industry to train them. It's nice, and it'd be helpful. But those who have managed to bridge the gaps + erase their silos have done it because they just went ahead and did it on their own. Strategy? Creative? UX? Those aren't titles. They're skills. They're only titles when the work needs a sign-off...or often, a mark-up.

    But that talent is then no longer bound to most agency models. And its bleeding to other models, and also direct to clients. Because a competent 3-person strategic creative director, strategically-minded programmer, director and/ or producer – maybe even rolled into one person – is not only more efficient, but much faster + more accountable than a 12 person team of planners + "idea people."

    By the time team B is out of meetings, team A is already prototyping. That's the model agencies need. I wrote that article 5 years ago though.

  • Spectacular article that goes to the core of much of the malaise and marginalization of agencies. The commitment to talent has been eroded by agencies finding the "soft" areas to cut - like training - in search of higher quarterly returns. That story has become all too familiar.

    Personally I've found my redemption in attaching change management skills to my digital and agency experience. As you rightly say, thinking up ideas isn't the issue, executing against them is. My belief is that the inability to execute is because we're creatures of habit - either as employees or as consumers - and that change is hard. Inertia is preferable for most people.

    Change is the only constant may be a cliche but its never been truer. I concur with many of the solutions you state above. My own solution is perhaps simpler. If you don't understand how to affect the "human side of change" in a measured, methodical way there's no way you're going to fix your department, your company, your audience.

  • omarkenobi

    Hi Allison.

    I work in "Digital" Company and also feel the same.  “Digital is an agency priority (yet there is not a single UX designer or developer in-house).” I couldn't agree more with that. Many big agencies just haven't addressed or at least realized how to really get digital. The one that start realized, starts looking on "quick fix" workshop or training about digital. 

    Btw, nice article. . Hope that big agencies start to train their employees about digital and start implement it..

  • Gus

    First off, this is one of the most relevant and interesting posts I have read on Co.Create for a while ( being in advertising I may be a little bias ) But regardless a great read.

    On point 3 -  a perspective from the southern hemisphere... 

    What if... Instead of creating a model that requires you to have "digital" (dev design etc) internally, agencies began to work closer with their partners and promoted cross pollination of tallent? - Yes creatives could go and hang out in a Studio for a couple of days a week.. It could happen!

    Working with "outsourcers" in a collaborative way, will actually lead to an even greater understanding of digital technology. That way you are working with tallent that creates a more diverse range of content and more regularly...

    My thoughts.. What do you think?

  • smith & beta

    I think it depends on the collaboration potential of partners. You really need to be able to walk over, tap on a developer's shoulder, and ask questions. Daily up close and personal interaction with technical talent is super important for understanding as well as exploration. 


    When the media reports on any societal "crisis" u can trust there really is no crisis for you. Ad Agencies are an insular beast of pure capitalism - where clients pay to play. No agency owes you a career. The next time you  venture to work for a reputable firm, think about that fact and show up with a plan to help them continue 2 #win. 

  • asaf

    This is a good provocative article. However,

    "It’s no longer just about great ideas. It’s about great ideas that get made."

    When was it about not making things? Hasn't that been the job of Interbrand all along?

  • smith & beta

    Great question. Making things is often not part of what agencies do - when it comes to technology. Ex. ideas are presented to clients that have no possibility of ever seeing the light of day. (I recently heard someone pitching a change in the search functionality for YouTube. And they wanted it complete in 3 weeks). So the idea is to make sure ideas get made by educating employees about real possibilities. 

  • Bill Peterson

    The Ad Agencies don't live in the real world..they're into some type of hybrid pseudo-intellectual, techno-babble, Ivory Tower mist of eliteism..I talk to people all over the world every day... they're not that concerned with phony ad images and computer-generated social platforms... they just want the truth.......  and, I give it to them, with a little music and a lot of style...!

  • Deborah Morrison

    Brilliant! Universities and the subsequent portfolio program fixes generally fail the industry. As Allison offers, it's the difficulty in evolving nimbly -- higher ed has a rough time with that -- and in the fast-paced hybridization of the last few years that stops most entrenched programs, making them irrelevant. Agencies and orgs that figure it out will be shaping smart culture-based programs that drive problem-solving. Make it based on critical, creative, conceptual skills that solve problems. Bam.

  • Asit Gupta

    I think this prescription is also needed by the patient-the clients. Agencies end of the day plan around what they hear from the clients. How many big clients have their marketing people trained in basics of SEO and SEM? Only 10% have even heard of gamification (we drop that term from our creds deck when we present to clients). The new world is scary for them and they retreat to the known and familiar- 4A agencies and Leadership training- when what they need is a domain knowledge turbocharge.

  • Markandeya Sendan

    As an interactive art director who's put in multiple years in traditional and hybrid agencies and has been freelancing for both full on digital and traditional places recently... I agree with all points with some exception to 4. It's good to know people's competenties but that should not become their title. Just because I'm good with banners, microsites, wordpress... agency holiday cards or whatever, I don't want to be titled the banner AD. I still just want to be an AD where I'm know for my ability to creatively solve a problem.

    Also from my perspective a lot of places don't seem to think point 1 is important. Which it is. And I don't know if point 5 is realistic for most places but do love the idea of some sort of loosely structured internal school with senior people teaching juniors. A lot of places talk about mentorship but few practice it, a structure would help. Even something simple as having a lunch and learn is a great start.

  • smith & beta


    My point about look at competencies is an attempt to get us out of the title specific functions within agencies. Meaning, someone might be very talented - but not fit within a traditional role or function. Or we aren't flexible enough to hire those who won't work within the current department structure. I've seen this happen a lot. Those hybrids that we seek are not always embraced by agencies because we have no "place" to put them. Maybe we shouldn't "put them" within any role-specific or title-specific structure. I hope this adds a little clarity. 

  • Part of the problem isn't so much the agency model / role though – but the client model and what they come to an 'ad agency' for. Some ad agencies have come to promise the world and clients have found out that they were indeed winging it, so 'ad agency' becomes an albatross when it comes to anything but needing copywriters, planners, etc. But some agencies have educated and attracted a client base while evolving their own skills and models, and those few are already several leaps ahead of the rest it seems.

  • Breean

    "Allison Kent-Smith says the advertising industry has failed to develop and educate talent." 

    I think there is also a disconnect with the education system in general failing to produce a workforce of creative people capable of critical thinking. This definitely leads to a gaping hole of talent for the creative industries.