Why talented creatives are leaving your agency

Fed up with life at the agency coalface? Sick of working all weekend and not getting any credit for it? Murat Mutlu feels your pain. His heartfelt rant sums up the frustrations of many a creative today

Cartoon from The Awesome World of Advertising

 

Fed up with life at the agency coalface? Sick of working all weekend and not getting any credit for it? Murat Mutlu feels your pain. His heartfelt rant sums up the frustrations of many a creative today

 

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 revelling 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, 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 made in job descriptions and interviews 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 to 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.

So here’s a small but potent list of reasons why talented creatives are leaving your shitty agency. It’s a view from the ground for the agency execs and CEOs. My own thoughts and those 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 club 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.

 

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. 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 agency’s capabilities (who doesn’t these days?) then you should be making experiments and prototypes with technology, plain and simple.

 

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 to 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.

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.”

4) You don’t stop taking on projects that can’t be delivered unless we work 12 hour days
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.”

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 the 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 two 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.

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?

 

6) You don’t buy us decent equipment
This is a no brainer.

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.

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?

Get your designers some big fucking screens.

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.

 


The cartoons in this piece are reproduced with permission from The Awesome World Of Advertising. See more here

Murat Mutlu is a product designer and co-founder of Marvel App. This post was first published on Mutlu’s site Mobile Inc. Follow him on Twitter @mutlu82

 

  • A fantastic insight into the struggles designers face in the agency world every day. Opinions such as this can come across as idealistic and of the ‘starving artist wants to retain integrity’ camp, however many people would do well to sit up and take note of some of these issues.

    Battling against budgets and juggling timelines are a constant struggle, finding the balance between these is what allows designers to get on with doing what they love, actually designing.

    A real game plan needs to be set out client by client and project by project to get the most out of everyone involved. Going back to the ‘cookie cutter’ dynamic drains ideas from even some of the best creatives.

    In-house design and build is key, it gives designers a break both mentally and physically from the fast lane of agency work and gives them time to develop their own thoughts into a meaningful product.

  • Bingo

    As much as this article makes many valid points, it’s not only designers that work in the creative industry. Copywriters and creatives suffer just as many frustrations with clients, management, briefs and all the other hullabaloo that comes with working in this industry. Will it ever change? I doubt it.

  • M

    Thanks for this, great read, glad i’m not the only one.

  • All these points come apparent to me at a recent work placement, it was highly off putting. I couldn’t believe what they were doing and especially what they weren’t doing most of the time, little to no help, no breaks or lunch and no management in general, it was all over the place.

  • Hi guys,

    Well written piece – and really important.

    One of the main issues to do with so many creative businesses is that their assets are the people they employ – who are talented, inventive, endlessly curious, but fundamentally creative. And they walk out of the building every evening/morning taking their brilliance with them.

    Few creative companies work with their creative contributors/teams to help the agency itself develop and build its own creative IP (aimed at generating own revenue) to make them more robust as businesses so they don’t have to jump at a moment’s notice, can say ‘no’ to shit work and have an income stream to fund invention, innovation, npd of their own – outside of client work. Although often this will feed into client work too. So everyone gains.

    Yes some companies do this and have got the message but so many don’t see this as a genuine way to build their companies with the talented people who are already sitting in their building. (And astoundingly once this creative trait is allowed free rein and encouraged within a company it’s amazing how readily young, support, admin, accounts staff want to take part in it too.)

    I think part of the problem is that many creative companies only understand their own business model/way of working, yet the creative industries have myriad ways of generating revenues in different ways. But if you become silo-ed in one way of working – you can’t see how many other ways there are of working with your talent, developing new ideas that you own, finding new revenue models to bring into your company so reducing reliance on having to work in crazy ways.

    Yet the people are there already to help this to happen….. (And would love to be acknowledged and share in the kudos & profitability of a good project.)

    I work with digital, graphic & product design agencies, tv production, animation, event companies – all creative to help them get off the hamster wheel and build their own IP with attached incomes… because I was there too and suspected it didn’t have to be that way…

  • Dan Mason

    Brilliant, brilliant article. It rings true in so many places.

  • joe baglow

    Those drawing are funny

  • I really enjoyed this, dead funny and insightful.

    ‘Who gives a shit’… Indeed.

  • Ted

    “…he never encountered a true design emergency. […] At Peleg’s firm, they weren’t saving lives or fighting wars.”

    This really rings true with me. The desperate fight to create a beautiful, creative presentation in minimum time, just so the client boss can see if before their summer break in Tuscany.

  • Tumi M

    Great article thank you for this. I work at a media agency and people here I think would rather be busy than bored. Very strange. But yes your article is well written and maybe shouldn’t be read by undergrads who are going to only now step into the game.

    I’m currently working as a media planner. At a media agency as I said, I would like to know how different is it to being a strategic planner at a brand/ad agency. Please help.

    Thank you

  • humm, nice post.. interesting!

  • Brilliant Article!

    As a designer that has always worked client side rather than agency, when I tried working agency, i crashed and burned. The timescales that you guys are under ludicrous and I always say to recruitment consultants, the reason I don’t work agency is because for the extra two hours that the account manager could give you, you could end up knocking the brief out of the ball park, but because the account manager has given the client an unrealistic time frame, it means that you end up sending over work that ends up taking up three times the original time, because of all the amendments that you end up doing because of that initial lack of the couple of hours in the first place.

    As a client side designer, I honestly salute agency designers. We bitch in our every day jobs about the inane crap that marketing asks us to do, but least we have time on our side, where as you guys have to deal with pathetic requests all the time, usually by very inexperienced account managers that are no better than glorified lap dogs to the client promising things that are just mental, leave you feeling exhausted and totally mentally depleted.

  • I’m a journalist (supposed to be, anyway, but there were no jobs after I graduated) and I did lots of intern work where I was unpaid. It’s soul destroying after 4 years of studying and hard work – oh, there’s nothing for you. You have to try and get some other work, but no one will take you on. This article rings very true for me – thanks, very well written. The comics were cool, too.

  • Lisa Taylor

    Shut up and do as you’re told. It’s 2013.

  • Dp

    All true. Great article

  • Maria

    CR are the only ones to bring things like this up concerning creatives. It’s so nice to know I’m not the only one feeling like this and don’t have to take on my agency’s shame of being so backward! Thank you!

  • It’s a good thing, a natural progression for the creative ego. Better to be a big fish in a small pond than a little fish in an ocean. It’s the reason why so many copywriters and art directors have teamed up with account executives to start their own shops and flex their gills. Jeff Goodby is a great example. Not saying he’s breathing any easier these days now John Gallegos is swimming in his pool.

  • Ying

    Great article!I believe it or not it’s exactly the same situation here is Shanghai!

  • Rei

    I’m 26 and have been working as a Designer for 5 years. Whatever that was taught in school, about end user being the focus and reason of your existence, a lie. Your boss doesn’t care about that. All those struggles that I had been through, you’ve listed them all. Also, the reason why I stopped being a worker bee. Where are the people who actually care? I’d like to join them.

  • When the Internet was a new-ish idea back in the late 80s, I thought it might change the world

    In the 90s I did some cool stuff on the Internet and got paid for it. It was amazing the way that you could do stuff that was fun and get paid for it. I still thought it might change the world, the way people related and in a positive way

    When I ran an ISP around the time of the Internet crash a lot of media types started to dominate the business. They didn’t know how anything worked but they could draw pretty pictures and talk crap. Well, that’s the way the Internet has been since then. It’s just one giant vacuous shopping mall. It has changed the way people relate to each other, often for the worse

    “Where are the people who actually care?” Not in digital media. There is no astroturf carpeted fun palace any more and no revolution on the Internet. I had a while unemployed and then I worked programming medical equipment.

    Now I am back doing Internet stuff. The people I work with are nice apart from saying “awesome” too much and reminding me how old I am. I earned enough money back in the day to pay off the mortgage so I can always quit if it gets shit. I believe this bourgeois advantage gives me a psychological edge for dealing with the nonsense.

  • Natalie

    Brilliant, spot on – sums it all up.

  • A Fantastic article,

  • nick

    Creatives have been moaning that the client is an idiot since Leonardo was in short pants.

    If there was no envelope creatives would turn out any old crap that suited them.

    The system does work, you just have to be a bit older to get the big picture. If you want total creative freedom, work for yourself and then you can tell the client to shove it personally, rather than expect some poor bastard drone in a suit to do it for you and get himself sacked.

    I’ve been a copywriter 30 years and I’ve been young and angry and cocky and intolerant too.

  • Great article and so true. I am a photographer and I see so many great creative talents leaving big agencies constantly and the response is always that they were worked to the bone and never appreciated and never given the time to reap the rewards of their great work. While on the other hand it seems that boutique small advertising agencies are thriving for the exact opposite! They get to choose clients that wants to work with them and appreciate great work, They reward their staff on a daily basis and gets them involved with almost everything! They are small enough to be manageable!!

  • John

    I’ve worked at big and small agencies. The big ones in the networks are the least good, and often appallingly incompetent. The top holding company execs couldn’t care less and the best performing offices have to break their balls to subsidize the others, at the expense of their own well being and the best interests of their own clients. Why do you think they buy the small independents? To eliminate and or abuse and milk them dry. That’s why.

  • Very interesting article, however why do you blame agencies for making crap for their clients? “Because it was client idea and I must agree with that as that’s the easiest way of making money”? Why don’t you blame lazy designers who spend hours on browsing through social sites rather than improving things for the agency?

  • rob

    First World problems…

    +1 Martin
    +1 Nick

  • Great read (and cartoons : ) as a designer ive always felt I was “supposed” to work for agencies to be more legit, actually im glad i never have or needed to!!!

  • Tom Davis

    Jamie speaks the truth.

    You can chart a person’s progress through an ad agency and they all fit the same model. In your 20’s you think you can change the world, you’re glad to get hired, you’re excited and try to fit in. In your 30’s you’re glancing over your shoulder at the new ’20’s’ coming in, and you seem to be working harder than ever.

    In your 30’s-40’s you pretend to be interested.

    Advertising is responsible for most that is bad in this world.

  • Tom Davis

    Jamie speaks the truth.

    You can chart a person’s progress through an ad agency and they all fit the same model. In your 20’s you think you can change the world, you’re glad to get hired, you’re excited and try to fit in. In your 30’s you’re glancing over your shoulder at the new ’20’s’ coming in, and you seem to be working harder than ever.

    In your 30’s-40’s you pretend to be interested.

    Advertising is responsible for most that is bad in this world.

  • Anon

    Great article! Thanks for posting. There is not enough talk about this on the net, although I certainly am and know a lot of people working in the industry that have to put up with such things!!

    I’m really interested in hearing if anyone has any experience dealing with this special brand that I had the misfortune of dealing with recently: Digital Design Agencies who simply know nothing about digital and nothing about design.

    I recently had to work with an agency like this, the MD of the agency very transparently knew nothing about design, design culture, digital, UI, UX. He had worked as MD for several large companies nothing to do with design or digital work. He was a great salesman basically, but had just thought a digital design agency could be a money making ploy rather than having any experience or passion for the subject whatsoever.

    In a scheme to make an easy buck he hired interns, first jobbers, juniors and underpaid staff to keep his out goings low. There was nobody working there over the age of 27, I’s say probably an average age of 24. So there was a lot of inexperience and insecurities in one room of people. Very talented creatives who were not only cheap to hire but were afraid to speak up about the mis-management of the place

    The MD promised clients totally unrealistic deadlines and also unacheivable promises, as he would tell a client that a certain function was possible without listen to the advice of his (extremely talented, extremely underpaid and overworked) developers.

    Yep, typically as in your acticle he had got second hand ancient computers. Mine personally would completely freeze and shut down on an average of 5 times a day, some days up to 12 or 13 times. The computer did not like opening photoshop files. And of course if work couldnt be rurned around quickly enough management were angry, even though the computer could not turn on

    I was a designer there. But I was also expected to do their project management, negotiate with clients, design large complex UX builds by my self, code, write php and javascript, and expected to make their company website.

    These are all things that I’m mostly capable of doing, however it is not my job!?- and there simply was not enough time in the day to be all these people. I could only be one at a time. The project manager would shout at me in front of the whole office wanting several things to be done at the same time. I would put my foot down and say, no that is not possible, tell me the order of priority and I will get through them when I can. This 24 year old would role her eyes at me and say I just just do one hour of each task, on a sort of rotation business. Exasperated I would tell her repeatedly that that is just not how it works and she didnt know what she was talking about!!

    These extra jobs- that were in no way my job were not tasks that I was even asked to do. Simply when somebody else had not done it/ could not do it, I was expected to do it. No one asked me to do it I was just shouted at when it hadnt been done

    Basically, they were the worst agency I have ever worked with. Total joke really! I was shocked that an agency could be allowed to be so completely clueless and badly managed. I felt bad for the clients whos money they had taken and bad for me agreeing to work for them!!

    Following working for this agency I heard a few other nightmare stories from friends!! who’ve worked for similar cowboy agencies. I was so surprised to hear the stories flooding in. One friend told me about how an MD that she’d worked for had over promised so amazingly badly, and been so ignorant of the processes necessary to build a certain project for a client. That they had still actually been weeks and weeks behind schedule the day before the deadline.

    The project was to be show live somewhere abroad, in the US somewhere- the MD in his panic to try and get it done- even though there was no possible way to finish 4weeks work in one day, paid developers to come over to the US on a plane with him- to all frantically code on the actual plane journey!?!?

    Total madness!!

    So my question is; has anyone had similar experiences??

    And is there a name for this particular type of Digital-Design-Agency-Cowboy? These people that have jumped on the band wagon in order to make money but who havent the slightest idea what they are doing, and who just underpay and suck the life out of talented yound creatives in order to get into what they must have heard is a lucrative business?

    And is there a way of out-ing this total nonsense?? I’m not sure how actually. But I can read more reviews and get a clear understanding about ebay sellers I purchasse from, far more than I can find out about the real credentials of a company I might work for.

    I wish so much someone had warned me about this cowboy agency I worked for and would like to warn others.

    -Also cowboy agencies such as this just make a total mockery of our profession don’t they? How can companies like this exsist?

    I’d be really interested to hear anyones thoughts. I have been scouring the internet for a discussion on the subject but so far found nothing..

  • Great insights. Agencies stopped being relevant quite some time ago. To creatives and business. Talents goes where it is appreciated, valued and rewarded, which agencies have not done for a long long time. Designers, in particular, are much better off venturing out on their own. Controlling one’s own destiny is preferable to executing substandard work for others. Ultimately, it’s much more rewarding on all counts.

  • Eric

    Anon, sounds like one agency i work in uk. I finally left this fuckin mess. I worked there as web php developer, but same as u i was exoected to do all shit. Nobody know what to do, managers have no clue about work. But we are a team we must work as team, all this crap bulshit jargon which in fact is curtain of their lack of knowledge and ignoracpnce. Iwas the longest working person in this mess, but nobody listen my opinions, suggestions, which in every fuckin case resulted that procect was not done on time. They hire juniors 17-20 yrs old, no experience and thy treat them as experts. Pathetic. No responsobilities for anything, and in fact i was supposed to do dirty work cos ppl not did their part properly. Fuck i hate this job so much. Im so happy i left finally. Over last 2 years there was huge staff rotation, around 20 ppl. Today at 5pm i was told that some work needs to be done at monday morning. Which means obviously work over weekend. I told them to fuck off and leaved. Fuck fuck fukc. What a bunch of assholes.