The 80/20 View: When it comes to advertising talent, right now it’s a seller’s market

In his regular column for Mumbrella, Thinkerbell's general manager Ben Shepherd assesses the post-COVID fallout of skills and demand.

If someone told me 12 months ago that in 2021 we’d come out of a pandemic and be in the midst of a talent drought in Australian advertising I would have been skeptical.

May 2020 was a month where many of us were in the eye of a storm so severe it frankly scared the shit out of us. The advertising market cratered. We saw a lot of our peers and clients suddenly out of jobs. Many experienced immediate pay cuts. Forced leave. Four day weeks. Nine day fortnights. On top of this, many of us had to tell partners and suppliers that budgets were being cut, as hundreds of millions of dollars exited the advertising market.

COVID wasn’t something that had a manual. At the time, those of us who had a job were happy we did, and if people didn’t like the situation… they really had no alternative.

Let me be clear, I’m not saying these actions weren’t justified or necessary in the environment. For many businesses it was a matter of pure survival. I don’t for a minute think that anyone was doing anything other than what they felt was required in the situation. So, to be in a position where the economy has bounced back, jobs have returned and advertising has regained some sense of normalcy is the best possible outcome anyone could have hoped for.

But the situation in May 2020 has been reversed in May 2021. There’s no job shortage.

Instead there’s a talent shortage.

Pay cuts are gone. Talent have more options than they have in years. Ad budgets are increasing and clients are coming back. So there’s more work than ever to be done and the stakes are high.

Add to this the fact that imported talent has been completely turned off. Australia has always had a 10-20% shortage in terms of advertising talent that has been filled by predominantly imported talent from Europe, Southeast Asia and the US… but given the borders are closed (and likely closed well into 2022), we are stuck with the resource pool that currently exists within Australia.

COVID also demonstrated in plain sight the importance of being able to execute, at speed, in businesses and agencies with complex moving parts. Being able ‘to do’ has become vital.

Importantly, 2020 was a lost year for most workers when it came to salary increases. Therefore 2021 will see a lot of people catch-up as businesses catch-up and, when all is said and done, the average salary inflation over this period will even out to look very much like it has in prior years.

In short, it’s a seller’s market. And this is a good thing if you have these skills and capabilities. These new types of seller that is probably realising the value and are suddenly they are in demand.

And this demand is not defined by tenure. Experience is valuable, but generally only when it can be channelled into output that suits the need of the buyer. Clients are wanting a broader range of skills working on their business, and they are wanting people who can both think and do. Promotions should reward those with consistent positive impact on clients and businesses, regardless of tenure. Dismissing those in high responsibility roles who don’t possess decades of experience is, as a friend of mine put so well, an example of “punching down”.

This is not a cost saving-driven initiative. It’s a market responsive one. Clients rightly demand people who can change their business and contribute every day. Agencies require staff they can allocate in this manner. A lot of the structures we’ve seen over the past two decades are no longer fit for purpose. Siloed departments with multiple heads, chiefs, directors create additional cost and less than commensurate impact. Symbolic or ceremonial roles have become the exception, not the rule. There’s little room for roles that aren’t closely interlinked with the wider agency and clients.

They say you should never waste a good crisis, and for today’s in-demand industry talent, the current shortage is extremely valuable. The events of COVID have shown talent how fleeting job security can be, and many are quite rightly taking a more nuanced view around their future requirements from an employer. It isn’t just about salary. It’s about mentoring and training. Guidance and relationships. Even flexibility. Wanting to work for a business that strives to make their employees better. Managers who understand their responsibility to their teams – to elevate them, inspire them, motivate them.

And for those of us who are employers, in 2021 talent is holding the cards. Reward and inspire them and they’ll deliver in spades, do the opposite and you risk they leave you behind and find someone who does. Sure, it’s a challenge. But it will ultimately make us better and more adaptable to the needs of today’s talent. It will likely make us more attentive to our current talent. And it might even allow the space for cultural change and give us the opportunity to collectively look at the blockers to new talent entering our industry. As a manager this is something I find exciting, and I bet most others in my position do too.

Ben Shepherd is the general manager of Thinkerbell. The 80/20 View is a regular column on Mumbrella.


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