Marketers can add value to agencies, so why aren’t more being hired?

Marketers do not lack the skills needed to work agency side but few make the transition, with loss of control and lower pay cited as two of the main concerns. However, those that make the move have the power to change agency relationships for the better.

Today, it’s not unusual for marketers to have worked agency-side at some point in their career. But while marketers increasingly make the transition from agency to brand, it is less common for them to move in the opposite direction.

Having client-side experience could give agencies the inside track and help them truly understand the challenges facing brands today, but with lower pay, limited opportunities and less brand control cited as some of the barriers for moving, what’s in it for marketers?

The future of agencies was the topic of a recent panel discussion at Advertising Week Europe. Agency luminaries gathered in front of an audience made up almost exclusively of agency staffers to ruminate on what they need to do to meet the needs of clients, now and in the near and long-term future.

One of just a handful of marketers in the room made the perfectly legitimate suggestion that it might have been a good idea to get a client perspective on the panel and if agencies want to better serve marketers’ needs, they need to hire more people with first-hand experience of running brands.

The number of people moving from agencies into marketing positions is increasing at a rapid rate, swelling the percentage of marketers who have agency experience on their CV. A recent study by executive search agency Grace Blue found almost 40% of senior-level marketers had an agency background, up by almost 15 percentage points compared to two years ago.

Explanations offered in Grace Blue’s analysis include the need to hire talent that can execute tasks that were previously outsourced and the advantages of having a “wider industry perspective”.

Anecdotal information gathered for this article suggests higher average salaries for marketers, while long hours and ungrateful, ever-more demanding clients were also cited as prompts to switch.

When you’re client side it’s your baby. When you’re agency side you’re at best babysitting.

Roger Hart, Aesop and Fable

Indeed, “the grass is greener” reason was cited by former TBWA chief strategy officer Amelia Torode at the Advertising Week Europe panel.

“The outflux of talent seems to be going from agency to clients. As agencies, we need to be honest about the long hours, nights and weekends. It’s maybe that the grass is always greener but there’s a perception that if you move client side you can regain some the control over the way that you work.”

It would, therefore, not be widely speculative to conclude the converse is the reason the same numbers are not moving from clients to agencies at anything approaching the same rate. That marketers are put off by the Mad Men-esque perception of ‘work hard, play hard’ clients. Of course, the truth is more nuanced.

Stepping out of your comfort zone

The list of senior agency executives that have moved from marketing positions isn’t the longest, with the same names often cited as exceptions that prove the rule. One name that comes up time and again as an example of someone who can boast significant achievements as a senior marketer and agency executive is David Patton, now global director of Young & Rubicam Group but previously senior marketer at Sony, Sony PlayStation and Nintendo.

Marketers do not lack the skills needed to secure a role agency side, he says, the “concerns and considerations are similar”. If there is anything missing it is an unwillingness to step out of their comfort zone.

“When it comes to careers, people don’t tend to chop and change. When you look client side, people tend to stay within their sectors so maybe clients tend to look at [moving agency side] as a switch in their career rather than building their career.”

Master and servant

Movement is also being curtailed by the perception that agencies cannot offer marketers the depth and breadth of opportunities and challenges, it is said.

Marketers in enlightened companies will be involved in everything from strategy through to execution. Scope not historically enjoyed by those working in agencies. According to many people contacted for this article such limitations leave marketers thinking that working for an agency is less of a challenge because of an entrenched view of them as suppliers, executers of strategy and not partners in setting it.

Roger Hart, CEO and founder of Aesop and Fable, was previously global brand director of Martell Cognac. That is one of several senior marketing positions he held before moving agency-side, and he believes it is this disconnect that makes marketers reluctant to make the switch.

“When I was client side I had full control and full responsibility for launches and all aspects of the marketing mix. Agency side we are a service business, we don’t have full sight or control of everything,” he says.

“When you’re client side it’s your baby. When you’re agency side you’re at best babysitting. Depending on the nature of the relationship you’re only seeing a third of the picture.”

It’s true to say that since 2008 the balance may have shifted to a degree, perhaps marketers might look down [on agencies].

Neil Simpson, Publicis London

The relationship between clients and agencies is varyingly described as broken, strained and lacking balance. Some of that concern can be attributed to overreaching commentators but it is widely accepted that advances in measurement and demand for greater accountability has made relationships more transactional and arguably unbalanced.

For Neil Simpson, who held senior marketing positions at Vodafone, Adidas and Coca-Cola before becoming CEO of Publicis London in 2007 and co-founding The Corner London four years later, the shift in power from agency to client in the past 10 years has also left clients viewing agency life as career option differently.

“It’s true to say that since 2008 the balance may have shifted to a degree, perhaps marketers might look down [on agencies]. There is perhaps more of a client-supplier relationship and less of a partnership and in that environment you’re probably looking at the agency world and thinking it looks less attractive than it did a few years ago. We’re not seen as equals, margins have been squeezed.”

Rooted suspicion and ingrained prejudice on both sides is also a factor, according to Richard Robinson, managing partner of Marketing Week’s sister brand Oystercatchers and someone who moved from an agency to clients such as Coca-Cola and McDonald’s before moving to Publicis.

“My sense is that agencies still have a lazy prejudice against making client hires, and don’t yet place value on the skills that ex-clients can bring to their people and their client business. Conversely a number of clients believe that working in agencies is beneath them or a second-rate choice, and rightly these people should never get hired,” he says.

Bridging the divide

Hiring more marketers, especially in senior positions, was offered as a solution to bridging the divide by almost everyone interviewed for this article.

Embedding brand-building experience, commercial capability and empathy with the vagaries of being a highly accountable modern marketer, it was said, enables agencies to understand the needs of their client, while realigning the balance towards parity and partnership.

Gary Booker, former chief marketing officer at Dixons Carphone and Telefonica, has setup a consultancy, Selinon, with the aim of “helping agencies develop deeper, better and more sticky relationships with their clients”. It was a move inspired in part by noting how few marketers there were working at agencies. It is something that needs addressing for the benefit of both parties, he believes.

“Agencies spend a lot of time pitching for new business and a lot of time is wasted because they don’t know what the client is asking. If you’ve been with an agency all your life you can’t help but see things through agency eyes and if you’re client side you see things your way.”

Empathy is key for others but it is also the expertise in budget and project management and an ability to navigate the often very complex operational maze of client organisations that a brand-side marketer can bring.

Daryl Fielding, who now has an archetypal portfolio career, including a non-executive role at advertising agency Isobel, previously held senior marketing roles at Vodafone and Kraft and was a managing partner at Ogilvy & Mather. She says former clients can bring capability to agencies that would not otherwise be possible.

READ MORE: How to master portfolio management

“Agencies might be more focussed on getting their ad out and not understanding that other match. A price change on something is an operation on a military scale in a client organisation and agencies don’t quite grasp that.”

A good career move?

An understanding of the challenges facing both brands and agencies would make for a more productive relationship. The consensus is that movement in both directions reduces friction, creates empathy and potentially serves the greater marketing ecosystem better.

Aside from making a benevolent move for the greater good of marketing ecosystem, should marketers make the switch though for their own wellbeing? Received wisdom on career trajectory has marketers moving into general management roles or above, or taking on broader commercial or customer remits, but still brand side.

There are significant barriers – pay, perception and more demanding clients – but plenty of opportunities at the right agency to work with a breadth of clients on, if the partnership is solid, what they do best – strategy.

More movement, however, will only be possible if we get anywhere close to the utopian vision the panellists on the Advertising Week Europe panel imagined for the agency of the future – collaborative, strategic and end to end. Marketers can get this at a brand. If they can satiate this working across several brands in a number of sectors, that prospect becomes a lot more appealing.