The simple reason why adland is short on wisdom

Ben Willee (General Manager and Media Director) says having an agency with a few grey hairs is actually a good thing.

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With the average tenure of a marketing person now less than two years, adland needs to get to grips with how to integrate both wisdom and youth into its workforce, argues Ben Willee, GM of Spinach.

At the age of 43, I’ve reached an interesting stage of my career. Working for an independent, I’m in the unusual position of working alongside experienced people in their 50s, but I also get the pleasure of mentoring people in their 20s who take me out of my comfort zone every day.

With the majority of agencies owned by one of five listed entities, the people with the most power are often the accountants. Their remit is to worry about getting the profit numbers for the next quarter, not about fulfilling the needs of the agency’s clients. That relentless quarter by quarter pressure can mean replacing experienced hands with younger, cheaper employees so they can turn more margin.

Very few of those agencies have many people left over the age of 45. If they do, they’re exclusively in management positions. There aren’t a lot of diverse, mature people working day to day on a client’s business solving problems.

Of course, the irony is that having inexperienced people servicing client accounts means it will end up costing more in the long run. More experienced people get things done right more often the first time, so over the journey, things happen quicker and more efficiently. Part of the reason agency holding groups and management consultants are buying up independent agencies at a rate of knots is because they’re not populated by 20-year-olds.

It’s important to acknowledge age isn’t the only indicator of experience. You could be a 35-year-old that has worked on some big accounts and has just as many scars on your back as a 50-year-old. You can’t manufacture the knowledge that comes with having seen problems first hand.

What’s important, though, is how close your people have been to where the decisions were made. They might have worked on a big account but been in the engine room where things were more process-driven. You want them to have worked on that piece of business in a position that’s close to where the critical decisions were made.

I reckon that you need to appreciate the experience in the room but also acknowledge and nurture the whizz kids. For independent agencies like ours, this is made possible by the fact that we’re not ruled by accountants asking us to squeeze every last drop out of every salary dollar.

We don’t have to hire less and less experienced people and push them harder and harder. That means we get the best of both worlds with wisdom plus youth and skill.

So how can marketers tell if an agency is prepared to staff their account with the experience required to solve business problems? Ask about depth and variety of experience and the relevance to your business.

People at the agency may not have worked in your category but they may have worked in one that has experienced the same or similar issues. You need fresh perspectives in mature categories but you also need experienced heads, so think laterally about how the agency’s track record can benefit you.

You also want the people at the table to have a breadth of experience. When I say that, I mean experience outside their own discipline because people can be myopic about their own area and lack an understanding of the impact on the big picture.

With the average tenure of a marketing person now less than two years, trusted advisors in your agency team are as valuable as the whiz-bang tech heads or out-there creative people. Most clients value the contributions of both.

Don’t fall for the trick of getting sucked in by the newest, shiniest toy like the rest of adland does. Having an agency with a few grey hairs is actually a good thing.

Ben Willee

Over a 20-year career Ben has worked in some of the biggest media agencies in the UK and Australia. As General Manager and Media Director, Ben optimises our fully integrated, no silo approach.