Agency talent is increasingly moving client-side

A new report finds that 40% of senior client-side marketers has a background at an agency as brands look to widen their talent pool.


Brands are increasingly look agency side for top marketing talent as challenges over media and the growing trend for in-housing creative leads companies to widen their search for talent.

According to a report by executive search firm Grace Blue, almost 40% of senior-level marketing talent has a background agency side, up from nearer 25% a few years ago. The top sectors for recruiting marketers with an agency background including media owners and financial brands, while automotive, travel and retail brands are among the least likely.

The move comes as brands look to upskill their marketing departments, widening their talent search to include people with an agency background, as they bring more services in-house. Separate ISBA research last year found that 19% of UK advertisers have in-house agency capabilities, while almost half are considering on-site or in-house capability.

Ian Priest, Grace Blue’s global CEO, explains: “People are increasingly migrating across traditional lines and clients are wanting wider skills. As they in-house agency services, brands are bringing in more skills to make sure they own the whole customer journey.”

The move is also reflective of the changing role of CMOs. Where previously brands wanted people with deep knowledge and experience of their sector, now they are looking for a wider industry perspective.

“Brands that really get consumer centricity want to understand how to get under the skin of consumers and leap ahead. They are looking for that wider perspective. Agency people can bring in their creative and customer centric skills,” adds Priest.

That is why, according to Priest, this is more prevalent in sectors such as financial where the brand is more important than the product, meaning they need their top talent to have broad brand marketing skills, rather than specific product skills.

“In sector where it is the brand that differentiates, rather than the product, we see this happening more often. For example, in the financial sector the banks are all trying to use their brands and customer centricity to drive business results. Think about how Nationwide is bringing really fresh thinking to differentiate Nationwide, or TSB with its ‘local bank’ positioning.”

For agency talent, there a number of clear opportunities in going client-side, according to Priest. The advertising part of a client’s business is often just 5% or 10% of a marketer’s role, with strategy forming the rest. “For those that want it, going client side offers the chance to own more of the customer journey,” he says.

It is not just one-way traffic either; Priest says he also sees agencies recruiting brand talent “more and more”. For example, David Patton was brought on board to turn around Grey London having spent years client-side at Sony and Nintendo.

“Whether brand or agency side, it is hugely beneficial to have diversity of skills. Diversity in gender, age, race are all important but to better understand consumers and represent the customer you need diversity in how people think as well,” he says.

As for whether this trend will continue, Priest says it could get up to 50%, although he would not expect it to go much higher. To help it deal with the changing needs of brands, Grace Blue is appointing Sherilyn Shackell, founder of The Marketing Academy, to its advisory board. It wants to work across the marketing industry to attract leading talent to brand roles, whether as CMO or in roles in customer experience, digital, social or media.