EXCLUSIVE - Media agency talent jumping to indies from the big players

Chris Pash
By Chris Pash | 7 June 2021

Independent media agencies are seeing a spike in staff from the big agencies making contact and seeking new roles, according to industry players.

When the multinationals were shedding people in the depths of the economic fallout from COVID-19 in 2020, the independent agencies were hiring, setting themselves up for growth when the crisis ended.

And now many of those who kept their jobs at the big advertising groups are looking for opportunities. 

AdNews has been told the reasons given for the shift include job security, to get away from strangling red tape and rigid hierarchical structures, and seeking relief from increasing workloads at business units slimmed by pandemic cuts.

Australia's media agencies cut jobs by 5.1% -- about 180 positions -- as bookings fell 15% in 2020, according to the Media Federation of Australia (MFA).

Now there is a shortage of talent in some areas as brands pour money back into the market, fuelling an explosive growth curve.

Many agency staff, after experiencing the restrictions and the job uncertainties of the pandemic, are reassessing their view of their world and what they want from a career.

And it’s not just about money. Recruiters and industry analysts are seeing people move for reasons other than pay.

Jasmine Wiklander, talent manager at consultancy Fulcrum, says more network agency people are interested in moving to independents.

“They are seen as more like a family, and I think perceived as a better/safer place to be at this current time,” says Wiklander.

“They value their employees more and people can make much more of an impact at a smaller company.”

She says endless video calls and a lack of in-person interaction have squeezed a lot of the fun out of work. 

Add to that, the always on mindset working from home can bring has pushed people to the had-enough point.

“I think remote working has made it easier for people to quit because there are fewer bonds keeping them tied to their employer,” Wiklander says.

“They haven’t been going into the office and there is less camaraderie with colleagues in a virtual world. It has also been much easier for recruiters to engage with talent and interview them for roles when done remotely.”

She says company culture, built on goodwill and shared experiences that build up over time, has come under pressure in the last 12 months.

“What we saw when COVID-19 first hit, the independent agencies were much quicker to make the necessary changes to their business operations (due to their size),” she says.

“The majority of our partners did not make any staff redundant (in some cases not one hour was lost).

“On the other hand, the network agencies were a lot slower (again due to their size) and had to make tough decisions to let staff go.

"Redundancies and reduction of work hours clearly had an impact on morale. What’s more, many employees from under-staffed agencies have been expected to work harder.

“We have always talked a lot about the importance of wellbeing to attract and retain new staff. In our Post COVID Report, we saw that 86% agreed or strongly agreed that they are now more conscious about their health. Employees are more conscious about this than ever before and I think overall the appeal of independent agencies and the way they look after staff wellbeing has never been stronger.”

Angela Smith, managing director at MediaSmiths, says some of the movement to independents is down to job losses in 2020 during the depths of the economic impact from COVID-19.

But she has also detected a change in attitude with many seeing the benefits of working with indies who understand the importance of holding onto and retaining quality talent.

“We’re not at the mercy of shareholders,” she told AdNews.

“The feedback I’ve been getting is that they like the agility of a smaller independent agency, the fact they have access to the management team and don’t feel like a number.

“They feel they have greater flexibility and understanding when it comes to their life not just their work.

“Also, the fact that there is real care for what we do for our clients rather than just about meeting bottom line commitments.”

Corey Eyre, senior account planner, ex Carat who joined MediaSmiths in September last year, says independent agencies work with smaller advertisers who tend to view their agency partner as an extension of their business, rather than a “supplier” who just happened to win the pitch.

“Work-life balance is talked about, but rarely delivered when you’ve got big agency and client teams, whereas indie clients tend to have much smaller staffing levels which means we can align service requirements more easily, thereby affording staff greater flexibility," says Eyre. 

“Indie agencies not only offer comparable salaries as the multinationals, but they are not as exposed to the changing market conditions that can see entire teams lose their job on the loss of one piece of business.”

BCM has had half a dozen join from multinational agencies in the last six months, across the media, digital and PR disciplines, and two of them in director level positions.

“The consistent themes are being more in control of their own destiny and being able to get on with the job and keep life a bit more in balance,” says partner and managing director Phil McDonald.

“Having come from running a regional network within a holding company, I know more than anyone that the amount of effort that gets put in doesn’t always benefit the agency’s people or their clients, because those structures have too many agendas and distractions running through them.

“From the people that have moved to us from a multi, it really is about having less internal distractions and politics to deal with on a daily basis. At BCM we only answer to our clients and ourselves. It makes a more focused job role and a more focused agency.

“Time is a valuable currency and at BCM not wasting it is a big priority. The ease with which we can get our senior people together to solve client problems quickly is a big attraction for these guys. In a bigger organisation that is harder to do. Not only that, turf wars around revenue never come up either and no one really enjoys those discussions.”

Half Dome, launched in 2017 and now with a staff of 32, recruits mostly from multinationals.

Tom Frazer, managing partner and general manager: “Over the course of our journey, we have recruited approximately 35 people (a few have left) from multinational agencies, this is through a combination of approaching candidates directly, and them applying with Half Dome.

“This is still the best hunting ground, as access to training is still unquestionably superior at this stage, however multinationals have an overall approach that leaves employees disillusioned.

“There are no guessing games here. Just curious people, with curious minds, asking the right questions so we can dive deeper into your biggest problems and unearth your biggest opportunities.

“We love coming to work because we actually love what we do. And when you pair that unbridled joy with unparalleled ambition, you get some pretty unbelievable results.

“Egos can get messy. So we leave ours at the door. Because there is only one thing that matters more than our work; respect. That’s true for clients, for the work, and for the people who we sit alongside every day. It’s simple, just be kind.”

Pivotus added senior staff in February this year, including account director Ruther Chan who came from Dentsu Aegis Network where he was senior investment manager for DentsuX and has also worked at Xaxis and Mediacom.

Pivtous also last year hired ex-Mediacom Vietnam MD Lam Le and has appointed another 14 staff in the last 12 months. The agency has been fully remote since late 2014.

Ruther Chan has friends who moved from holding companies to independent agencies mainly because of the culture and the pay.

And then there’s the honesty and transparency, Ruther says. They feel having a direct line and open conversation with owners make them more involved and more understanding of how the business works.

Chan says independents also have a better work/life balance. They have time to really focus on their job well and creative innovative ideas, as opposed to just ticking boxes because of the long list of tasks.

“In independent agencies, you feel more connected with each other because it’s smaller,” says Chan.

“The sense of support amongst peers and colleagues creates better camaraderie, and it’s easier for your manager to be your mentor.

“After all, we all know an employee stays with a company because of the people they work with – that means they feel more valuable, heard, recognised, and appreciated. These simple acts make a huge difference in the long-term overall health of someone working in media. Let’s face it, media demands long working hours; so, isn’t it nice to come to the office with people who you know can support you?

“I also know other people move to independent agencies because there is better pay. Because there are less layers, no regions involved, and/or no multiple shareholders, it’s easy to reap the rewards for the hard work you put in.

“However, on the flip side, there are also few people who come from independent agencies who are trying to get into the ‘big four’ holding companies. The reason mainly is the clout and the more structured training they could get.”

Loan Morris, iNC Digital Media’s CEO, started to hire multinational employees in 2018 to build scale and growth.

“I wanted to ensure we could provide depth of expertise to cater for larger clients and more complex digital campaigns and we haven’t looked back,” says Morris.

Stephanie Hasouros, ad operations team leader at iNC, says she didn’t apply to work at a smaller agency because she needed a job.

“I was on my way to getting promoted and my holding group did a lot to try and keep me,” she says.

“I was sick of the red tape. I wanted to work somewhere where we could be agile, we could think outside the box, we could make things happen, we could really move with the times.

“Holding groups are incredibly hierarchical with a plethora of approval layers both locally and overseas. The companies are also often driven by traditional advertising teams with very little attention and support provided to digital teams, particularly PPC (Search and Social)

“I wanted to feel more meaning and connection to the output of my role. Whilst my clients were excellent, always willing to work together with me, take my advice, test and trial new things, they were all brands who had strong awareness, consideration and conversion without me needing to work too hard. Arguably these brands would have 'performed well' without my expertise.

“Coming back to a smaller agency meant I could work on smaller, national businesses instead of international brands.

“These smaller companies have a tighter hold of their budgets, but their results are significantly more meaningful to them. You need to work harder with smaller budgets and clients who are putting their personal credit cards on the line – success here provides me much more motivation and satisfaction in my own role.

“I feel the most well-rounded employees are those that have had experience in both types of agencies. Working with larger brands exposes employees to large scale strategy planning, top-down alignment of business objectives to media objectives – whilst working with smaller brands really pushes you to be the best digital marketer you possibly could be to drive the highest return for your client.”

Craig Sue, ad operations manager at iNC Digital: “From what I experienced, holding companies churn through staff at an alarming rate. They are always understaffed as a result, and they overload portfolios and FTEs so they can be profitable despite low margins.

“They are terribly managed and care little for their staff – it’s all about the prestige of big accounts.

“The biggest reasons for my shift were: To work for a business that cares about its people and their development; To work in an environment where our expertise and skills are challenged and make a real difference to our clients; To work with colleagues who are driven, engaged and who I can learn from.”

Joel Trethowan, managing director at Alchemy One, says five out of nine hires over the last 12 months have come from large holding companies. 

“The talent we are also seeing through our interview process is largely from holding companies who are wanting a change, and they are often specifically quoting that they are looking to move to an independent agency,” he says.

The candidates are moving for a myriad of reasons. 

“These include seeking a better work life balance and larger opportunities for growth which is in juxtaposition to the expectation of working 10-12+ hour days, and in very siloed capacities in the big holding companies, often in one single discipline which is a regressive model for an industry that continues to evolve at such a rapid pace,” Trethowan says.

“On top of this, the bureaucracy of the political hierarchical model that operates in big holding companies is dated compared to what partners are looking for in this new age. Partners want people, quality people that can go on a journey with them and form a true partnership. 

“At Alchemy One we pride ourselves on investing in developing long-term, T-shaped talent who may have deep discipline expertise in one area but we grow them to be cross disciplined across the agency, so they can deliver holistic experiences for our partners, and form partnerships that unlock opportunities that traditional agencies would miss.”

Huong Nguyen, former business director of MediaCom UK, joined Alchemy One in January this year.

“To be able to help build something that you believe in, and the opportunity to have more control of your own destiny was a huge attraction,” he says 

“It can be daunting at times, but there's massive scope for experimentation and entrepreneurship in terms of the agency vision as well as how we work with clients, so every day really is like a new learning experience.

“In my specific case, I get to work in an incredibly inclusive space that actively encourages and nurtures everyone's uniqueness and contribution which is an incredibly validating experience.”

Sam Buchanan, General Manager, IMAA: "What indies can offer staff that multinationals can't is higher levels of agility and not being tied to any group deals or global directives. This breeds creativity and gives staff the ability to make a real difference.  

"Culture is one of the key reasons staff see indies as so attractive. They have a reputation for caring more about their staff and this has become more and more important in the post-pandemic world."

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