When top talent walks out the agency door, it stings. We say it’s the client’s fault. We blame the internet. We say it’s a Millennial thing or a Mom thing or a Big City thing. But the one thing we don’t say is that it’s our thing.
But what if it is?
In my own experience and that of my colleagues who have lived the big agency life from manic start to feeble finish, we’ve seen the problem. It’s us. We are the reason we leave.
Here’s what’s broken:
Agency eccentricity gets headlines, but behind the funky furniture and special services is the true, often toxic culture. The dangerous presumption is that work comes before—and sometimes instead of—everything else.
The expectation to work evenings and weekends is based around a young, responsibility-free demo with few boundaries between personal and professional lives. Leaving to meet a friend for dinner, taking a photography class, scooping up your kid from daycare before it closes, or just have an evening at home can feel like the walk of shame as you pass the desks of peers settled in with a hot bag of carry-out.
“I felt with one kid you’re still able to sort of play along. You can bring your baby to the office and all the 22 year olds are like “Oh my God.” The second baby, people don’t know what to do with you. I felt like a freak.” – 12 year production veteran
Feeling like a part of the group is a prerequisite for agency life, where personal connections are key to relevancy. People who don’t follow the norms become outsiders and feel intense isolation, a death knell for making it at an agency. Nothing will change as long as agency leadership continues to praise employees for their sacrifice of personal time rather than for successes like earning results for clients, delivering value to target audiences, and elevating their colleagues.
Agencies love to tout how their policies reflect their progressive thinking and make for happy employees; but seemingly cushy benefits and flexible hours come at a cost. Sure, leave at 4 to pick up the baby, but you won’t stay on premier accounts. Sure, work from home on Fridays, but expect that promotion to be delayed.
No one expects clients to sit and wait while they go have a baby, take care of a sick parent, or take a sanity sabbatical, but there should be an expectation that agencies help employees reintegrate after a major life event. With a little support and flexibility, they can still do their job just as effectively.
Beyond the rigidity in many policies is the stigma attached to using them. People start wondering out loud about these employees’ “commitment” to the work. Soon they’re not even asked to go on that trip or stay for that meeting, because “they’ll probably say no.”
“Why does being a good dad have to be incompatible with being a creative director?” – 20 year creative veteran.
Without agency support to help stay engaged, it’s not long until they’re on the outside of their own project, then confidence and stability erode, creating a vulnerability that points to the door.
We get into this business because it’s creative, collaborative, exciting, and often fun. We move to the big city with large ambitions, small apartments, limited funds, and late nights of “cranking” because we’re told it’s the path to the opportunities and career we seek.
But from Millennials to Moms and beyond, many quickly realize there is something missing, something more important than the statues, happy hours and press profiles that our industry covets.
It’s the meaning that speaks to your humanity and reassures you that you’re working for more than just a paycheck. You’re working for both an agency and clients with missions you believe in and that actually follow through in delivering meaningful value to the world and the people they serve. You’re working for kids you can actually see before they go to bed. You’re working for that moment when you “hand in your spoon” knowing you have lived life right and spent what time you had on things that actually mattered.
“I like working. Work is meaningful. My life outside of work is meaningful too. But in this industry, there’s an assumption that you have to pick one.” – 17 year experience design veteran.
For some, this awakening is gradual as interests evolve, responsibilities grow, and priorities shift. For others—especially Millennials—it’s a quicker aha! moment because the next generations don’t want to be defined by their jobs or even their careers. Corporate inflexibility and binary career paths that don’t care about who they are simply doesn’t make sense to them. Money is nice. It can be a decent distraction, but only for so long.
The hope for personal and professional growth keeps many in place longer than is comfortable. They wait for directors to provide mentorship or reframe purpose, but when they’re neglected by these award-chasing, rosé-sipping egos, dropping everything can seem like the only option for self-preservation.
As long as agencies continue to hire 20-somethings who put in 14-hour days and prioritize work, this unsustainable culture will persist, and people will more frequently age-out and walk out. Hiring a range of people is one place to start, as it opens up the possibility of a range of acceptable behaviors, reducing the pressure to behave in a certain way. The agencies that create environments that adapt to all people as they grow, and change will be the real winners. They’ll attract and retain the best of the best. These people will make the agency stronger through their experience and tenure, sustaining long-term client relationships, developing young talent, and delivering great work.