Over the past few months it seems like I keep having the same conversation over and over again with friends in dozens of agencies around London, it usually starts off like this:
“Who do you think is the best agency is at the moment? Is anyone doing good work?”
And ends with them explaining why they are thinking of moving on. The reasons why are always the same:
“I want to work on an actual product people want to use”
“I want to build my own thing”
“I want to explore more new technology and ideas not gimmicks”
“We never do any interesting work”
“We only care about hitting targets”
“I don’t feel like I’m learning”
“We never push back and tell the client their ideas are shit”
The exodus of talent we’ve been hearing so much about at executive/director level is now filtering down to smart young digital/mobile creatives, planners and account managers.
And can you blame them?
The people who generate all the ideas and work are evolving and realising that they themselves could be reaping the rewards rather than the agency.
Agencies on the other hand are happy to keep trying to live in a world which is ceasing to exist. Clinging onto the same ideas, tools, and ways of working with CEOs who are either oblivious to the current mindset or too frightened to instigate change.
It’s the perfect storm of increasing entrepreneurialism, decreasing loyalty and an industry reveling in mediocrity.
Startups are offering equal or better salaries than agencies with more perks and chances to get equity, brands are taking design and development in-house after realising they’ve been spending a fuck-load of money on sub-standard work, pure play product and design studios are quickly emerging with young and talented leaders, and of course technology is lowering the barrier to starting your own business, in both time and cost with the freelance market also booming.
Many agencies are offering whatever trend makes them seem relevant to existing and potential clients (who sadly lap this shit up). Whether that’s UX (which never goes beyond wireframes), User Centred Design, MVP, incubators or the current shiny thing – innovation labs.
While many people will shout “Well agencies aren’t about innovation or hacker-like creativity, it’s just about billable hours”, the sad truth is that whether they are or not, this is what agencies sell, not only to clients but to staff, and that’s the problem.
Promises are made in job descriptions and interviews that aren’t kept.
You never get an agency intro that says “We pride ourselves on creating branded apps that no one wants and churning out banners that no one clicks on, we say yes to all our clients daft suggestions because we know it’s the easiest way to make money. Oh and you’re gonna leave here with nothing worth putting in your portfolio, fancy joining us?”
The talent is there, as is the desire, agencies can try to stop the bleeding and try create places where talented people want to use their skills to build great things for clients and users, or they’ll take their passion and curiosity somewhere else and be left with the deadwood.
So here’s a small but potent list, a view from the ground for the agency execs and CEOs. My own thoughts and those of my peoples, collected from designers and creatives (and a few PMs/devs/planners too) in agencies around London.
1) You won’t stop taking on shit work
We understand, you’re an agency, you need to keep the lights on and pay people. We get that. Everyone gets that.
But at the same time we expect you to have ambitions just like we do.
In the beginning it was cool to take the low-hanging fruit of animated GIF mobile banners and cookie-cutter augmented reality apps, just like we thought making nightclub flyers at uni was cool when we first got into design, but after a while that shit has to stop and you need to start aiming higher.
It’s your job to get the best brands and companies doing interesting projects that push our boundaries. If you’re not winning these projects then that’s something you need to address, it’s down to you.
Look we’re happy to polish a turd or two, it goes with the job, sometimes it can even be a welcome break from intense projects.
But months and months of the same old, soul-destroying, pointless shit for brands and clients who have no desire to do good work is toxic, not just for creatives (and our portfolios) but your entire staff.
I’ve no doubt when you decided to start your agency you dreamt of creating amazing work and pushing the industry forward, not apps that superimpose wigs onto photos.
I love this quote from Moneyball:
“I’m not asking you for ten, twenty, thirty million dollars. I’m just asking for a little bit of help. Just get me a little bit closer and I will get you that championship team. I mean, this is why I’m here. This is why you hired me. And I gotta ask you what are we doin’ here?”
If it’s not to do great work, what are you doing?
Just wanna make money doing any old crap regardless in the hope of selling to Martin Sorrell one day? Good for you, but tell us that at the interview.
2) You don’t innovate
One of the worst feelings as a creative in the digital or mobile space is when it feels like the industry is just passing you by.
In the time it takes to finish one or two mediocre projects the industry takes another leap forward with new software, frameworks, services, devices, APIs, design patterns and interactions, and we take a step back.
The place where you spend 8+ hours a day should be teaching you new skills and giving you hands-on experience and progressing you as a designer.
Clients are often reactive and risk-adverse, they want something after everyone else has done it to death. By the time they give you a brief , it’s old news.
If on some rare occasion they do want something new, it’s never detached from the brand, it’s always got to try and peddle something to someone. It’ll come with so many caveats that it’s no longer useful or interesting – “oh the legal team said take out that awesome thing that makes the whole project worthwhile”.
It’s understandable that clients have this approach. Brands may not be comfortable with putting experiments and prototypes into the wild, but there’s no reason why you can’t explore this stuff without them.
If you sell ‘innovation’ as one of your agencies capabilities (who doesn’t these days?) then you should be making experiments and prototypes with technology plain and simple.
It’s amazing that so many agencies get away with saying they’re innovative but have nothing to show. Oh so you love being innovative so much that you never create anything internally? You’re creativity stops at client work does it? Do us a favour, stop the bullshit.
There seems to be this misconception that to do anything interesting with technology takes too much time and money if a client isn’t paying for it. This is total and utter bollocks.
In the last few months I’ve attended two different hackdays where individuals and small teams made stuff in hours, not weeks or months. These guys were armed with nothing more than a passion and desire for what they do.
Pure, undiluted autonomy can produce amazing things for your business if you provide the right environment for it to happen and just get out of the way for a bit .
3) You keep hiring shit (and not doing anything about it)
Passion and engagement are contagious. But so is negativity and mediocrity.
There’s nothing more brutal than watching C players bring down A players. And when your A players leave, who’s going to attract your future talent?
Agencies are fast paced places to work and it’s common for teams can scale up in the blink of an eye.
It’s inevitable mistakes in hiring are going to be made whilst under pressure, but the problem is that you don’t have the guts to correct them until it’s too late.
Bad hires are like a cancer, they bring down morale, work and confidence in the business.
Stephanie Travis wrote a great post recently about hiring:
You owe it to the team members who are getting it right. Don’t drag them down with a personality that doesn’t fit or skills that are below awesome.
So if you’re trying to scale your team be focused on quality. Don’t sacrifice. Don’t hire too quickly just because you raised money or because you feel pressure to make things happen. The minute you compromise on quality you’ve already begun the descent.
So how do you fix it? Advice from Mark Suster:
“One of the “tells” for me of a management team that will not be extra-ordinarily successful is that they’re not always recruiting. I’ve seen it before – I send a talented member to a team and they say to me, “we don’t really have a role for that person.”
Really? I always have a role for talented people. I may not have a BUDGET for talented people – but I always have a role for them. What role? Who the F knows. But let me at least have a coffee and feel out their enthusiasm, talent and ambitions.
I might choose to do an upgrade on my existing team. I might be grooming them for when I have more money or more revenue. I might not be able to persuade them now but I want them to know my company so that when I’m ready to step on the gas I have a list of A players I want.”
Ahhh working til 9pm several days a week, it’s just the agency way of life right? Wrong, it’s bad management.
Tell your account managers (or yourself) to stop selling things that can’t be completed unless we work ourselves to death.
I’ve seen people strain their health, relationships and family lives for what? So a deodorant can get more brand awareness? So that we can meet the unrealistic deadline you promised whilst trying to win a pitch? Or so a client can get dozens of mockups before they go on holiday?
This is advertising we’re talking about, not some higher calling. Everything we make is forgotten about in 6 months. Who gives a shit?
Matt Steel puts it in perspective in a brilliant, must-read blog post:
Before his work as a business coach, Peleg ran a successful design firm in LA. He once told me that in the 18 years he owned Top Design, he never encountered a true design emergency. That simple truth resonated deeply with me. At Peleg’s firm, they weren’t saving lives or fighting wars. It was a service firm, and they lived accordingly. His team was in the office from 9–6 Monday through Thursday, and 9–2 on Fridays. They set realistic expectations for their clients and met deadlines. The business thrived. But they didn’t answer the phone at night, and were unavailable on weekends. Peleg’s team had clear boundaries, made them known, and their clients were happy. They worked when they were rested and present. The quality of their output spoke for itself.
As Matt says later on in his post, sometimes you have to stay late because you’ve created a problem or need learn a new tool but too many unrealistic deadlines means that you stop creating because you love what you do. You begin working out of fear.
“When fear rules our lives, even the most amazing calling in life can be downgraded to a career. On the trajectory of fear, careers wane through the grey purgatory of jobs, and jobs break down in quivering heaps at the fiery gates of slavery.”
Fear becomes the driving force, the fear of missing a deadline, disappointing a client or wasting time trying to find inspiration. You begin churning out work and forget the reason why you wanted to be a creative in the first place.
The rewards for creatives are often minimal, we’re happy for a pat on a back and to be included in a ‘thanks for your effort’ all staff email but the chances of getting money, shares (LOLZ) , or even getting your name dropped into the press release for all that hard work are slim to zero.
Which brings us to the next point:
5) You don’t give staff any credit
I really don’t understand why more agencies don’t give exposure to the people who do the actual work.
Instead of putting yet another fucking generic CEO/Creative Director quote into a PR piece, why not grab a line from some of the people who actually worked on the project and busted their arse meeting its deadline?
The Junior Creative who stayed late for 2 weeks getting the project out of the door, the account manager who endured weekend calls from the client asking to make a logo bigger, these guys are the agency heroes.
‘Thank you’ emails are great but they don’t come up in Google and you can’t link to them on blog or CV.
Do the right thing.
Jules hits the nail on the head:
“ Ad agencies hide the people actually solving the client’s needs, the creatives, behind bloated layers of account management to ensure maximum billing whilst everyone plays agency snakes and ladders, to the client’s detriment.”
Another way to give staff exposure is to start a blog and everyone contribute. Agencies are full of engaged people with ideas and passions, why not let them have dedicated time to blog?
Each post makes it easy to find out about the author and their role in the agency. The authors are clearly passionate about the stuff they write about, sharing work processes, personal interests, tips and ideas.
The agency provides the platform and benefits from the content, the contributors build their reputation and presence in the industry, everyone wins.
6) You don’t buy us decent equipment
This is a no brainer. Get your designers some big fucking screens.
Have you ever had to toggle between designing in Photoshop, a PDF containing wireframes, a email from a client with amendments, Facebook and Twitter all on one poxy 15-inch TFT Dell monitor that the last finance director left behind?
This quote from an agency exec on Digiday sums it up:
“My one recent anecdote is when one of our new hires sent me an email requesting dual monitors and that one of them be a large one. I simply forwarded the email to that girl’s manager suggesting that she come check out my dinky 15-inch monitor that I’m rocking.”
Wow I bet this guy is fun at salary reviews.
I’m sure 15-inches is fine for reading emails and renewing your golf club membership but for something slightly more critical to the business, like, you know, the actual work that brings in money, it’s gonna need to be bigger.
Quite simply, we produce better work with better equipment and software. If it takes 10 seconds to move a Retina graphic across my canvas in Photoshop on my crusty machine you can be damn sure pixel-perfection won’t be my priority when deadline approaches.
Our job is to create, not worry about the ancient equipment you dragged out the cupboard. No designer wants to play ‘Guess whether Photoshop has crashed’ for half of the day.
Pressed for cash? Apple do finance plans and HotUKDeals do daily emails. Oh and eBay.
So there you have it.
I know people will say that agencies have always had high-turnover of staff and that these reasons have always existed, but I’ve been doing this for just over 7 years and it just feels different this time.
There’s so many more options now that weren’t around 3-4 years ago, the way people are talking and the general mood has completely changed.
Whilst working at Isobar, every talented graduate or young UI designer I tried to recruit wanted to get experience working on products. They didn’t care about the type of work the agency produced. The brands were no big draw either. iPhone app for a beer brand? Mobile site for moisturising cream? So what?
When one of the designers told me “I want to look after users, not brands”, I had no reply, he was right. That’s all that you ever really do in a place like that.
I stayed in touch with a few of them, they work in tech companies or startups now.
Once they get a taste of real problems and caring for the end user, it’ll be near impossible to go back to doing marketing fluff.
Dustin Curtis wrote in his recent post
“Learning how to think like this is like discovering halfway through your life as a flightless bird that you have wings and can fly. And once you discover it, there is no going back. It’s addictive and powerful. It ruins your ability to be a worker bee, because you’ve tasted blood: you become a killer bee, intent on understanding why things are the way they are, finding their flaws, and pushing the universe forward by fixing them.”
This feeling is the one that is rarely understood by the execs but it’s critical to realising the future of the industry. Maybe when the hackers and makers are running the show, things will change.
Time to wrap this up, thanks to everyone who contributed!
The great illustrations are from The Awesome World Of Advertising
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