Digiday carried a piece recently on how many unhappy people there are in agencies. They quote Havas Media’s Global CEO Andrew Benett pointing out how poor they (he means agencies in general I imagine as opposed to this being a condition exclusive to Havas) are at looking after their people: “For organizations whose biggest capital is people, agencies don’t spend a lot of time thinking about how to make people happy.”

The Digiday piece doesn’t distinguish between different types of agencies but certainly the points made are relevant within the media agency community, if my experiences are anything to go by. I’m sometimes asked to see and talk to young media people, something I’m always happy to do, as I well remember how much I appreciated anyone prepared to spend time with me. What I see and hear today is indeed in line with the Digiday article -- there are it seems many disillusioned people within the media agency business (although to be fair those I see are less likely to be those deliriously happy to be doing what they do).

This is despite there being some good people initiatives around: Some agencies sponsor staff to pursue external interests; some promote “leave your phone at work” schemes designed to persuade people not to take their phones on holiday; there are away days, team building exercises, internal competitions, motivational talks and the rest.

And yet agency people are still grumpy (as Digiday puts it).

Some of those quoted (entirely predictably) blame client procurement teams -- presumably on the basis that many in agencies have it drummed into them that client procurement teams are responsible for all things bad, from grumpy staff in their agencies to global warming.

Others say that clients just don’t take risks anymore. (Did they ever?) However, few quoted seemed prepared to look internally, as of course to do so may well lead to the grumpy staff member being given something to be really grumpy about.

It is, though, internal issues that I hear aired more than any other.

The most common sentiment I hear is, “This is not what I signed up to.” Most people join agencies because the work is varied and fascinating, the opportunity exists to bring you close to clients and their problems, and because agencies reward (or so the message on the tin says) creativity and originality in helping to solve these problems. Add these heady ingredients to the chance to work with and interact with interesting sparky people and the whole thing sounds alluring.

What they didn’t “sign up to” is being instructed to commit XYZ budget to the agency’s trading desk, or to particular media vehicles regardless of whether such an action is in the best interests of their client, in order to improve the margin on the business. Nor did they “sign up to” the feeling of mistrust that exists between client and agency. And they certainly didn’t “sign up to” being kept well away from the creative process going on within their partner advertising agencies as “we don’t have time for all that.”

Finally, they certainly didn’t “sign up to” having to justify the actions of their trading colleagues (who so often take on a really quite remarkable aura of invisibility whenever client meetings roll around) to their client, even though they know full well that the final buy bears little resemblance to the ideal plan.

Furthermore, the interesting sparky people turn out to be more interested in their computer screens than in anything else; would rather send an email to the guy at the next desk than get up to talk to him; and never answer the phone in case someone puts them on the spot and asks them something difficult.

It’s all a terrible shame; we are living through a period of major change in the way in which media is planned, bought, sold and evaluated. It should be an invigorating, thrilling time to be in the agency business. I’m sure for those towards the top of the tree it is. But for many making their way it is long hours, stress, little thanks and a client who thinks (not without reason, let’s be honest) that the agency is up to no good financially. Is it any wonder that so many jump ship to go to technology businesses or publishers?

Yes, it was always long hours and stressful in agencies, but it was also exhilarating and above all fun. I’m glad I was part of it all when I was.

Brian Jacobs spent over 35 years in advertising, media and research agencies including spells at Brian JacobsLeo Burnett (UK, EMEA, International Media Director), Carat International (Managing Director), Universal McCann (EMEA Director) and Millward Brown (EVP, Global Media). He has worked in the UK, EMEA and globally out of the USA. His experience covers shifts from full-service ad agencies to media agencies; from traditional single-commercial-channel TV to multi-faceted digital channels; and from media planning to multi-disciplinary communication planning. Brian can be reached at brian@bjanda.com.

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