Is your agency becoming a talent farm for bigger shops?

During the holidays, I read Maurice Rinaldi’s thoughts on the flow of employees going from boutique agencies to larger shops (note that I use the term boutique agency, as the term small agency is often used in a derogatory way by some, and imposes a “think small” mindset on many). It was part of a lengthy message covering many aspects of our industry, but this part struck a singular note for me.

I would like to offer my own two cents on the subject.

Maurice raises some very valid points and makes relevant observations. He clearly states that this exodus phenomenon applies mostly to the notorious millennials (the root of all evil according to many employers). He is absolutely right about that one, and it’s true for all types of companies, not just advertising agencies.

However, there is also another trend, albeit one not as obvious. There is a significant number of senior creatives leaving the big shops for boutique agencies. I can only speak about creatives in Quebec and when it comes to other parts of the country, I might be dead wrong. But I have a feeling that we are not alone seeing this. When I look at agencies in Montreal, I see rather senior people now leading smaller organisations. People with decades of experience saying “Ciao!” to big shops and embracing simpler structures.

The reasons for this are numerous, but here are the most common and valid ones.

It’s not about the money.

True, when you are early in your career, switching agencies is a sure way to increase the value of your paycheck. However, at some point, you hit a salary level that cannot be tremendously improved by switching agencies. The classic 10-20k raise when you move no longer applies, as you are now at your cruising speed in terms of skill level, and those skills correspond to a relatively stable pay grade.

It’s not about the accounts (up to a point).

At a certain seniority level, you had your shot at the Big Ones. You soon realize that very few people actually do truly original work for these clients, as they are often tied to the campaign roadmap coming from some skyscraper in New York, Chicago or Paris. Smaller clients give you much more creative freedom and are more responsive to opportunities when they arise (an example that comes to mind is the great “Brad is single” airfare ad from Norwegian Air when Brad and Angelina split up).

It’s not about the glamour.

After a while, you’ve done it all. The parties, the awards, the schmoozing, the “waking up in Tijuana with a new tattoo and no memory of the past week.” You get to the point where you just want to do good work, help people become better at their job and mentor juniors. The bigger shops are often removing the human factor of the equation in order to push for more work, but work that is often unsatisfying and average, at best. Hence the desire to go back to boutique agencies.

Many senior creatives are coming back to lighter, nimbler structures. They come with all the knowledge acquired in the big shops and use it to make their new agency better. They also carry around a list of reliable suppliers with whom they worked before and who are able to help in a heartbeat. They have great contacts in the industry when it comes to hiring talents and you can bet they know how to handle difficult clients. Moreover, they love the proximity with clients that only smaller structures can provide.

So, yeah, the big shops are plundering your junior staff. It will continue to happen, no matter what. But go ahead, steal their senior creatives. They are just waiting for you to call them.

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