As the Great Resignation continues, agencies lose workers to brands

“I started to feel a little bit aged out of agency life,” Mimi St. Gelais, who joined Peloton this year as senior director of advertising, told Marketing Brew.
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Photo by Bady Abbas on Unsplash

· 6 min read

You’ve heard of the Great Resignation—the pandemic-era term that loosely describes the cohort of professionals who, lucky enough to work, have found themselves reevaluating their current gigs over the past year, and are looking for something new.

Within marketing, a similar exodus is taking hold; according to a recent survey of more than 400 marketers by We Are Rosie, a firm that connects freelancers with ad agencies and brands, 63% are planning a job change this year.

Some are senior and mid-level employees leaving Madison Avenue for life in-house, whether at a brand’s internal agency or inside its marketing department. Going in-house isn’t a new trend, per se, but the pandemic has accelerated the decision for many in the industry as they find themselves drawn to the perks that the other side can offer.

Take Spice Walker, a senior strategist who left creative and media agency 360i to join AB InBev’s in-house agency, DraftLine, in June 2020 because “going into the beer industry was the safest move I could make,” she told Marketing Brew. “In-house was always at the back of my mind; the pandemic and the opportunity presented propelled it.”

Husani Oakley made the jump to Netflix this summer after serving as chief technology officer at ad agency Deutsch New York. At Netflix, he'll lead creative practices and the company's social content strategy. He told Marketing Brew the pandemic pushed him to make the move.

“We never knew that the past year and a half was possible. Now, anything's possible. Why not take a leap that perhaps two years ago would have made me uncomfortable?” Oakley said.

“I used to have seven clients—now I have 200 million,” he said, referring to the streamer’s subscriber base. “Everyone’s going in-house.”

As Jay Haines, founder of Grace Blue, an executive search firm that recruits for both agencies and brands, puts it, these professionals want to be “closer to the commercial reality of a company as opposed to the execution of a communications plan. It’s a real trend.”

“Growth mode”

The trend partly stems from the fact that opportunities at in-house shops are growing; 44% of 150 B2C marketing executives surveyed by Forrester said they plan on moving more agency work to their in-house teams in 2022.

The In-House Agency Forum said nearly half of its members recently reported that their companies were in “growth mode” and are taking on new “revenue opportunities.” According to the organization, 48% of its members saw an increase in team size over the past 14–16 months.

There are also the new norms of remote working, as many gigs don’t require employees to work in person. Pre-pandemic, one of the toughest sells for brand recruiters was geographic location.

“A lot of places where brands are founded are often not as appealing as the places where agencies live,” said Haines. “Suddenly, the single principal reason not to do something has been taken away, opening up huge opportunities.”

Change of scenery

WPP, one of advertising’s largest holding companies, revealed last year that 73% of its workforce was under the age of 40. And over the past few years, agencies including Doner and TBWA have been sued for age discrimination.

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“The harsh reality of agency culture is that ageism exists,” Forrester research director and VP Mike Proulx told Marketing Brew. “Seasoned creative directors command a high salary which is often at odds with the increasing margin pressures of agencies, which was only exacerbated by the pandemic. This perfect storm results in a huge upside for brands looking to bolster their in-house talent.”

Mimi St. Gelais, 44, spent around 15 years in the agency world, working for shops like Wieden+Kennedy and 72andSunny before joining Peloton in March as senior director of advertising. “I started to feel a little bit aged out of agency life,” she told Marketing Brew. She’d considered going client-side for a few years, but was afraid of losing the diversity of work that agencies can provide.

Mapping out the rest of her career, it didn’t feel fulfilling to continually solve “similar problems, shaped differently,” for various clients.

Looking for more family time, Todd Miller joined Experian in 2016 to become the brand’s chief creative director after spending roughly 20 years at various agencies. At the time, there was a bit of a stigma attached to going in-house. “When I changed my LinkedIn, everyone gave me a lot of shit. ‘Oh, you sold out, you care more about your family,’ and uh, yeah, I do,” he told Marketing Brew.

“In-house teams are increasingly attracting solid agency creative directors who are looking for more ‘work-life balance,’” Proulx told us.

$$ > avocados

Agencies are known for offering perks—think sleek offices, beer kegs, avocados, and unlimited vacation days—to offset long hours and back-to-back pitches. But many of those benefits have been stripped away in today’s WFH environment, giving agency employees another reason to reconsider what’s next.

Steve Peck joined financial startup Current as head of brand creative in July after a career spent freelancing for both agencies and brands. He told Marketing Brew that though brands may offer a lower salary, “in-house jobs tend to reward business performance in a way agencies don’t...performance bonuses, stock options that actually reward real business growth.”

Grace Blue’s Haines, agreed, noting that—at least at the senior level—a base salary may be 30% lower, but “you’ll get that straight back in performance plus stock,” he said. “Financially speaking, if you can, if you are willing to invest the time, it is often the case that the compensation is better on the brand side.”

Peck said client demands and uncertainty can also make it difficult for agency employees, specifically creative ones, to do their best work. “If you're running a piece of business, everyone just wants to hold on to that. That doesn’t always make the best environment necessarily for creative work or a general, emotional day-to-day existence,” he said. “Spending four months with no days off burns you out.”

Oakley won’t miss staying up until 4 in the morning for a pitch meeting, or spending the entirety of a 10-hour flight on a pitch deck. So far, St. Gelais has had to work some weekends, but she finds the work to be rewarding.

Of course, the door is never closed, she said. “If I hate it, I can always go back. You’re not stuck brand-side forever.”

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Marketing Brew informs marketing pros of the latest on brand strategy, social media, and ad tech via our weekday newsletter, virtual events, marketing conferences, and digital guides.