Navigating the Talent Crunch
Is there a different way to think about how you grow your team?
In December 2021, the Office of National Statistics reported a new record of 1.21m job vacancies in the UK. It’s not surprising. I feel like most of those are in my LinkedIn feed.
As the marketing industry enters a new year, it certainly feels like there are more open roles than ever across the industry. I regularly hear of vacancy rates anything between 10% and 50% of headcount. Whilst it’s great to see some careers experience some well-deserved acceleration as a result, there’s no doubt this is a huge management issue that threatens to choke growth and innovation.
Some element of this issue is purely short-term. In an industry in which salaries are frequently 80% of the cost base (or, agency-side, 60%+ of total revenue) there is a breathless and frequently unsuccessful mission to match people hours on the books with demand. It’s a constant battle.
When marketing spends drop, it’s a question of removing open hires, regardless of whether those hires were really directed at acquiring necessary new expertise. If spends surge back, the gaps are felt intensely. Whilst the short-term demand surge may not last, there’s no way around it – you need more people, and it’s going to cost you more than you can afford.
But beyond the surge, there is an underlying swell of pressure in marketing communications talent, and it’s not going away.
The range of skills required to deliver comprehensive marketing solutions is going to continue to extend, split and mutate. The pool of potential full-time employees is pretty small, partly owing to long-term disinvestment in diversifying, growing and enriching it. And the pool is shrinking, not growing, as more workers than ever seek new independent working models, new industries, or portfolio careers.
If you’re experiencing this problem right now, maybe it’s time to go back to first principles.
WHAT IF YOU THOUGHT IN NETWORKS, NOT ARMIES?
“Our people are our greatest asset”
I’ve heard this truism in agency management circles more than almost any other. It’s well-intentioned, and true to the extent that agency product is about creativity, service and chemistry.
However, in encompasses a doctrine of talent ownership that feels increasingly out of date. Marketing communications has pursued a mental model of army-building: the massed ranks of well-drilled client service infantry, the flair of the creative and strategic cavalry, the artillery of proprietary data and tech. It has intensified across many years of consolidation, bundling and synergy-seeking. It’s a mindset that assumes that talent is a zero-sum game and that clients are choosing from rival, exclusive armies.
But in truth, an agency’s key asset is its ability to activate talent effectively. To provide an ethos, a development process, a culture, a commercial environment, that enables people to do great work together, regardless of whether the terms of their employment contract.
Great talent is still abundant. In fact, as the independent talent market gathers pace, the pool you can draw on is greater than ever. It’s just less and less likely that all the skills you need sit solely under your own roof. As we all get used to working under different roofs, this is less and less of a problem. There’s no reason why your team can’t include all manner of independents, partners and other regular collaborators alongside your own FTEs. The crucial ingredient isn’t your exclusive contractual ownership over their time, but your ability to activate them in a way that is distinctive and empowering.
A well-developed network is both richer and more scalable than a traditional army.
WHAT IF YOU GOT BETTER AT SAYING GOODBYE?
“I think you’re making a big mistake.”
A corollary of the military mental model is an occasional desertion – and the enduring tendency to be flabbergasted, confounded, almost betrayed by the sense that anyone would leave. We hear the alternative offer (similar company at 25% salary increase; irresistible offer from tech giant; compulsion towards self-employment) and construct a narrative in which it’s the wrong thing to do.
It’s never nice to be left behind – even if we should be a little less surprised by it in an industry where an annual employee of churn of 25% is an aspirational target, unachievable for most. But having been involved at least a hundred attempted ‘save’ conversations over the years (sometimes successfully…and sometimes they really are making a big mistake…) the thing I’ve really learnt is that most of the value in these conversations is in ending them the right way.
As we move into a world of increasing worker independence and diverse careers, these conversations are becoming more important. The leaver isn’t a deserter, they are an alumnus. They are potential future management, or the best freelancer you ever worked with.
It’s always been extraordinary to me how few agencies capture the potential of alumnus networks – it’s always been a key part of my success in building teams. As more and more people leave for portfolio careers or independent working, this isn’t just a long-term investment…it could be the key to a crisis just a couple of months down the road.
Leaving shouldn’t be goodbye – but the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
WHAT IF YOUR OWN HISTORY ISN’T THE FUTURE?
“Where is the next generation of us?”
There’s a bald economic truth under-pinning agencies – the rate at which an individual’s salary needs to increase is always going to be a lot more than the rate at which clients are happy to pay more for the same service.
To make it all add up, careers need to move fast. My own experience, in another time and place, was going from remedial email coaching to management in seven years. There’s an ongoing process of renewal, a pyramid constantly being destroyed near the top, and rebuilt at the bottom. Most of the people at the top have climbed most or all of the levels.
This creates a prevailing narrative of personal progression, of rags (or grads) to riches, which is compelling, but maybe not always helpful.
In reality, everyone’s employment journey is different. And the traditional linear narrative is an ever-smaller part of the picture. I see people looking to enter the industry that come from new contexts, skillsets and backgrounds; people returning to the workplace later in their careers in response to changed contexts and looking to find a place to make an impact; people looking to leverage their skills as a practitioner whilst giving half their focus to something else entirely.
These people don’t necessarily always look or feel like an easily placed ‘next generation’, following in your footsteps in the same way that you walked them. But thinking about those paths more laterally may significantly increase your potential talent pool.
WHAT IF MORE PEOPLE ISN’T THE ONLY ANSWER?
“It was a stellar year, in which our headcount grew by 20%”
These RFPs and award entries have a lot to answer for. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen an agency evaluation of any kind that didn’t ask how many people we had, in how many places, how many of them ‘digital’ (eh?); or a remuneration model that didn’t incentivise the respondent to get as many FTEs onto a client contract as possible. Bigger, apparently, is better.
Apart from that in every other way of course, smaller is better. Smaller is easier to manage, less office space, better culture, greater intimacy. And, back to the point at the start of this piece, smaller is more flexible and resilient if you have the ability to scale up through your network as required. But along the way, our aspirations or our group approval processes or our client demands have sucked us deeper and deeper into a morass of always wanting more.
Now I’m not so far out of touch with agency life as to forget that pretty much every team, everywhere currently feels over-worked and over-stressed, so I’m not suggesting you don’t need the people you want to hire.
But I would suggest that a mentality of less is sometimes helpful. These are extreme times of involuntary under-resource. Every people-hour that can be saved in terms of efficient process, prioritised initiatives, choiceful pitching, simplified bureaucracy, will take the burden off your people and reduce your exposure to the talent crunch.
ONE PATH FORWARD
The talent crunch in marketing communication FTEs may be a short-term crisis, but it’s a long-term issue. But in reality, talent is abundant, if we think about things differently.
In particular, the world of independent talent is exploding, as more and more people reach a new junction in their careers (read more here https://hookstrategy.com/should-i-declare-independence/).
Maybe the future is a business with a smaller core, but a much stronger network – of alumni, independents, partners, and people on different career trajectories.
If you’d like to discuss any of the thoughts in this piece, please get in contact at email@example.com