Advertising doesn’t have to be a blood sport

The ad industry relies on a regular supply of new blood. Often. Are the industry demands risking that supply? Many young ad people think so, writes Unthink's John Halpin.

Let’s be honest. The money at the lower levels of advertising has never been great. Late nights and weekends are ingrained in advertising culture. Pitching that requires people to do additional work after hours on top of their normal workload is effectively unpaid labour. The remuneration has never matched the effort.

But no one used to speak up, because the supply of cheap, young talent was always greater than demand. It’s what economists call Tournament Theory, and it works really well in professional sports where you have a large ‘workforce’ trying to get a small number of well paid positions. Advertising use to be able to treat people like dirt because there was always another idiot (like me) around the corner trying to get in.

But times change.

Photo by James Pond on Unsplash

A couple of recent articles suggest there won’t be anyone left to switch the lights off if things keep going the way they are. Both articles are anonymous of course, one by a recent media agency exec, the other by ‘Roy Morgan’, the satirical face of the media industry. Roy normally laughs at the industry’s ridiculousness, but in this case he (or she) pleads for its leaders to do something about it. What was once seen as earning your stripes, now appears to be more like a flogging.

Nine months ago I wrote an opinion piece called ‘Advertising needs to stop behaving like it’s still the hottest job in town’. It touched a nerve. The advertising tournament model is broken. Your best athletes are leaving to play a more desirable code. Advertising is like Rugby Union; people are realising it’s both a physically and mentally damaging game to play, so why not do something else?

Agency leaders are in a bind. The price undercutting employed to win business has resulted in a situation where they have effectively backed themselves into a corner. It was encouraging to see Willie Pang’s quick response to Roy, but with the recent hit to holding company share prices, it’s going to be difficult for business leaders to change the game on their own.

And I hate to say it, but they also know there won’t be as many ‘Roys’ in the future. They’ll be replaced by programmatic solutions that happily work not just on the weekends, but 24/7. The problem will be where the thinking comes from to program the Roybots? Who will be left to find the humanity in the machine?

Truth is, clients need to take the lead.

If they want to have the best talent on their team, they need to reset the model. I’m not just talking about the CMO here. I’m talking about CEOs, procurement and finance treating marketing and media, one of the largest parts of that marketing investment, with the respect that investment deserves – as a growth engine, not a cost centre. A stone that refuses to yield any more budget blood.

Then it’s up to the CMOs and the marketing teams to rethink their agency engagement model. To learn, really learn, how the modern media market works. What they need from their agency. What their agency needs from them. Understand the effort they need to put in to get their business and hold it. And then pay accordingly.

Data and technology are changing the media market so quickly. Yet, the predominant engagement structures are still based on a 20th century business model. It’s time to change the game. Rewrite the rules. Put the players’ welfare first.

Don’t hate the player. Hate the game.

John Halpin is senior partner at strategic advisory Unthink.


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