The big talent crunch

At first I thought it was just us. But every agency leader I’ve spoken to in the past month is saying the same – we are all struggling to hire enough talent. A whole series of events has converged to create a perfect storm that makes recruitment more challenging now than at any other time in my 25 years in advertising. The fact is: there simply isn’t enough talent to go round, right now.

The advertising industry isn’t alone here. From logistics to hospitality, employers are facing the worst staff shortages since the 1990s with job vacancies hitting 953,000 in the three months to July, according to the Office for National Statistics.

We’ve all worked so hard to keep our businesses in shape over the past 18 months. So the fact that adland’s phones are suddenly ringing off the hook – as brands remember how critical advertising is to their future growth – is cause for celebration. But there’s a catch – and every agency lucky enough to be growing right now finds itself fishing in a considerably smaller talent pool than it was pre pandemic.

This “talent crunch” is the result of many factors, some – but not all – stemming from the pandemic.

The industry had to make significant staff cuts over the past 18 months, and that’s forced good people out of the industry, whether they wanted to leave or not. Others, who kept their jobs, reassessed their careers and decided to focus their priorities elsewhere.

In the UK, and especially London, we’ve become used to the steady flow of people from around the world. Take Australia and New Zealand – we took the large pool of well-trained, media-agnostic talent that constantly flooded in from those countries for granted. But Covid travel restrictions have put paid to that for a while.

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And then there’s good-old Brexit. With freedom of movement between the EU and UK now ended, securing a job in the UK is now more onerous, more costly – and consequently much less attractive – to the mass of EU talent from which we could previously draw freely. All of this adds up to a reduced pool of culturally and geographically diverse skills.

Some days, it feels a bit like we’re on the hunt for a hard-to-find property in an oversubscribed seaside town. But, as odd as it may sound, this situation also gives me cause for optimism.

The talent crunch could be just what we need to break out of all the navel-gazing that has been limiting our industry. “If you haven’t worked at ‘the right agency’, you’re not coming in” is a lazy, outdated point of view that still proliferates. And, if you haven’t worked in an agency at all then, too often, you don’t stand a chance.

The good news is that we now have no choice but to go beyond our normal practices; to actively seek out candidates from other backgrounds and industries who can bring new perspectives into our agencies. We would do well to heed a valuable piece of advice: “Hire for attitude, train for skill”. It’s a mantra that’s served me well, helped me find talent others have overlooked and provided me with my own opportunities of a lifetime.

Of course, it’s not simply a case of finding talent elsewhere – we also need to build, develop and nurture the people we already have. They matter. Let’s invest in our people and potential employees by training them to meet the renewed demand for our services.

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Let’s also take note of what other industries are doing. We need to put pressure on the government to relax the post-Brexit immigration policies, making overseas recruitment easier, quicker and more attractive for candidates and agencies alike. Economists say a skills shortage could drive up wage prices and inflation. There have also been calls for a scheme allowing independent professional workers to come to the UK on a project-by-project basis. It’s a model that could work for advertising.

An injection of diverse talent will enable us to reassert Britain as a hotbed for commercial creativity. Diversity in experience, ethnicity, background, skills, ways of thinking and abilities will not just solve our current recruitment problem, it will protect the future of our industry.

At the other end of the crunch spectrum is the seismic shift in mindset that occurred during the pandemic and the resulting effect on employee expectations. Quick fixes to meet the need to adapt, from mental health schemes, to work-life balance initiatives and from learning and development opportunities to remote working have now become the norm and need to be invested in for the future.

For all those who left the industry (willingly or not), we need to make sure that this is a career they want to come back to. For any industry to thrive and attract the very best, it needs to be desirable. Sadly, that’s not necessarily the case for advertising at present (as many more eloquent articles than this have made clear).

However, we should remain confident. Advertising represents commercial creativity at its best. And the UK is one of the industry’s global powerhouses. The pride of making outstanding work, the dopamine rush of solving problems no other sector can crack, and just the energy of a great agency in full swing. These are all rare commodities in the world of business. And momentum is swinging our way; we offer clients a proven driver of growth, at a time when growth is greatly needed. It’s an exciting time to join an industry that’s in demand.

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So while the talent crunch is a phenomenon affecting vast swathes of British and global business, let’s not wait for things to correct themselves naturally. We can and should act now – to accelerate our growth, not our decline.

Xavier Rees is chief executive of Havas London and Havas CX Helia


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