Why Low Morale At Agencies Is Also A Marketer Problem

You may have heard about the study that shows that morale at agencies is at an all-time low. Here is the leading paragraph from the study, conducted and published by Campaign US: “Forty-seven percent of industry employees rated their morale as either ‘low’ (31%) or ‘dangerously low’ (16%), according to the survey. That number is up a whopping 36% from 2015, when just 34% of employees said their morale was either ‘low’ (26%) or ‘dangerously low’(8%).”

Where morale is low, the chances of having mediocre talent working on clients’ business is high, since there will be a real challenge to attract and retain top talent, with all the consequences you can imagine (or have experienced). It sounds as bad as it is.

To make matters worse, it appears that the unhappiest group of people at the agencies is the group on which clients rely the most. It is not the young entry-level people whose morale is the most challenged (even though they make very little money and are working incredibly hard — so hard, in fact, that in Japan there are two documented cases of work-pressure-related suicide at Dentsu!).



It is in fact the whole middle segment of managers, who earn a more-than-decent salary and who lead teams and client assignments. These are the senior people whom clients interact with on a daily basis, and whom clients rely on for their daily guidance, counsel and ideas.

What is interesting is that the top executives are apparently less low on morale, but they are the main reason why the middle group is so down. The vast majority of people with low morale attributed “leadership” or lack thereof as the main reason. And two-thirds admitted they were actively job hunting.

None of this is good, especially if you as a marketer rely on your agencies for anything from creation to strategy, planning, buying and a lot more. “But what can I do as an advertiser?” I hear you ask.

Well, there are several things that clients can do to foster a healthy relationship with their agencies. When the relationship between client and agency is good, you stand a higher chance of happy, motivated people at least working on your teams, as compared to the (dreadful) average.

First, make sure your agency ecosystem is designed for purpose. Many marketers have ecosystems that have organically grown into what they are today. If you ask marketers to design their ideal agency ecosystem, chances are it will look very different from what they actually have.

Once you have the right partners, ensure there is a process in place that motivates and stimulates all team members in an integrated way (i.e. both internally in your marketing department and at your agencies). People who feel they are part of something tend to be much more inclined to deliver over and above expectations, versus people who are constantly wondering about their roles and responsibilities.

Finally, set up an incentive program that is fair but challenging, and that offers real rewards. If team members know there is something to be won collectively from performing well, they tend to perform well (funny, that!).

The rewards do not just have to be financial: a combination of financial and intangible rewards is usually very effective. And do not underestimate the power of a simple appreciative gesture. These pay as much dividend as a paycheck. Just try it!

4 comments about "Why Low Morale At Agencies Is Also A Marketer Problem".
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  1. Charlie Tarzian from The Big Willow, October 31, 2016 at 12:35 p.m.


    this whole negative downward spiral reminds me of many Trump voters:

    globalization - as a business model is over 30 years old (even if it is 25 years) and yes - companies reorganized by shipping jobs out of the US because they found cheaper sources of labor

    so back to what we hear about Trumpians - many feel left behind by the knowledge economy and the rise of a new digital transformation in industry

    my take:  you had 30 years to figure out what you could do to retool yourself to participate in the new economy - so all you are now is a sad case of false victimization

    the average salary of a self taught programmer is $95K per annum

    likewise - agencies have seen the writing on the wall for at least 10 -15 years and have done very little to innovate their way into the new world of data driven intelligence and strategy

    if I am a young marketing professional looking for a place to hand my hat - it is not in an agency - that ship has sailed

  2. Jonathan Hutter from Northern Light Health, November 1, 2016 at 10:48 a.m.

    Since when is the onus on the client to mend the agency function?

    Here's advice for agencies looking to improve (having just moved to the client side); spend some real time with your clients, not just the time you usually spend together. You'll find you have precious little understanding of their business needs, or their customers. You might lose a little of your hubris, and work more towards collaborating towards solving client business issues. Otherwise, Charlie Tarzian pretty much nailed it in his last thought. 

  3. James Smith from J. R. Smith Group, November 1, 2016 at 10:53 a.m.

    Maarten:  Another great and relevant piece...and good advice too. Why are these middle managers so unhappy with leadership (per article you provided link)? Generational issue?  Failure of their ideas to gain traction with upper agency leaders? Related: Why are the top and bottom level employees so happy? Such unrest can't be totally attributed to diversity issues? Problem I find with the study is that the sample size is comparatively small and that limits generalizability, particularly with brand and media shop cohorts ...though some of the percentages seemed beyond error levels.

  4. marlene mrakovcic from Independent Consultant, November 2, 2016 at 9:48 a.m.

    Thanks, Maarten. As a former middle manager I fully agree with the need to redesign agencies. A reason why many middle managers are miserable is that they often lack the big picture and the freedom to make decisions. They get vague directions at the start but are then micromanaged on how to deliver. Could we turn this around? Could we start with loads of context and then let the experts handle their work? Developing more collaborative working partnerhips internally would surely translate into how agenies work with clients (who might start taking agencies more seriously as partners). I also believe that more information sharing and collaboration across all levels would help agencies attract strong talent, while reducing the need for additional motivational and incentive programs.

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