Free Agent: Getting Our Sexy Back

Here's a dilemma: Everywhere I go, I hear about the dearth of new talent available for hire in this industry. Agency executives across the country complain about the quantity and especially the quality of applicants. In fact, if I listened only to these executives, I would have to conclude we have a near-crisis on our hands when it comes to sourcing new talent for agencies.

Yet at the same time, I am contacted regularly by bright, informed, creative young people who genuinely want to commit to a career in this business. These are truly impressive candidates I would jump to hire; I have to believe that there must be many more out there for every one who contacts me.

So why are these best-in-class candidates not being scooped up by the agencies? Because, my friends, these young people of whom I speak who really want to work in advertising, either aren't even applying to agencies or decided in their first year or two in the business that they no longer want to be agency side. Their view of the marketplace, their experience, or both have given rise to doubts about the opportunities agencies can offer - especially the big, well-known shops which traditionally receive piles of resumes from young talent.

At this point, as much as this pains me to say, I'm not sure I blame them.

Remember, these are people with natural curiosity and great talent for critical thought (which, of course, is what makes them such strong recruiting material in the first place). Living in this world of constant change in marketing and media, they seek out the companies doing the most inspired, original work - the stuff that energizes and inspires. And guess what? It's not agencies. Many of the exciting new developments today aren't being led by traditional creative or media agencies but rather by media owners (think Google, YouTube and the impressive multi-platform programs at Discovery Channel) or by tiny digital or new-media specialty shops. Life in an ad agency isn't exactly looking cutting-edge as a result. And to many who are attracted to advertising as a career, cutting-edge matters.

Just last week, I heard from a young woman who interned a couple years ago in Fallon's media department, which I then was overseeing. Scheduled to graduate this spring, she is more convinced than ever that she wants to work in the ad field, and she's very interested in media. But guess what? She's informed enough and, thanks to various internships, experienced enough to know what she needs for career satisfaction. She's also confident enough to hold out for the right job rather than jump at her first offer. No. 1 on her list of requirements? The opportunity to contribute to the creative development process.

Imagine my dismay when this candidate asked for my thoughts about which agencies would offer her the chance to collaborate in creative idea generation from the position of media planner. First of all, I'm hardly in a position to know how each individual shop conducts its work. Second, of those agencies I do know, almost none would give her this experience consistently. I struggled with how to respond. I could advise her to follow my path and invest energy over the next 20 years insisting on working collaboratively, but I don't feel right telling her to fight my fight. She shouldn't have to, in this day and age.

Seen from this perspective, it's apparent that agencies are creating their own talent shortage by not offering what's always been the advertising career's appeal: sexiness. Agencies say they want conceptual thinkers who can generate new solutions. Yet the positions offered and the kind of work truly allowed from media planners and buyers are too often old-school and, from the candidates' perspective, not at all motivating. They're the anti-sexy.

Some agencies and job-seekers are concluding the answer lies in connection planning. I agree this is a good career option for conceptual thinkers. But if it's the only one - if there isn't a way to get more creative people working in media planning - we will have achieved the equivalent of a shop with brilliant account planning but a lousy creative department. (What good is a juicy insight if you don't have the idea generators to do something with it?)

No one would argue that media today should be about eyeballs. Yet judging by the experiences agencies offer their media employees, spreadsheets trump ideas. Keep it up, and there may not be any hiring to do at all.

Lisa Seward is the founder of Mod Communications, a strategic media consultancy. She can be reached at

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