Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Ad Agencies Often Fire Their Best Employees

Not long ago, a director of human resources sent me a person she called a star.  I asked why she would be sending me such a high quality employee.  Her response was startling.  She said that this person’s account was leaving the agency and she was so good that she wanted to help her find new work quickly. The person she sent me was an account supervisor; she was at a large agency where there were actually many, many people at her level. Surely she was better than others with her same level and title. When I asked why a star would not be placed on another account, I was told that that kind of move required too much effort.  Ouch.

About two weeks ago the same thing happened with a much more senior person.  He had been with his agency, one of the top ten, for about twelve years.  He was promoted about every two years and was responsible for running several major accounts and had been rotated to run a new business pitch; the assumption was that if the agency won the account, he would be running it.  The agency won the account.  Several months after winning it, the agency was told by the client that they wanted the account moved to another city where the agency had an office. Unfortunately, this person's personal situation preclude his relocation.  Consequently, he was terminated (in fairness to the agency, he was given six months’ notice).  This is another case of "too much trouble"; surely there is an account where someone with his stellar credentials could have been moved on to.  Stars like this person should not have to worry about their jobs.

Part of the problem is the way accounts operate under the current fee system.  Before fees, rotations were common at every level, from juniors all the way to the most senior account, creative, media and strategic leaders.  Many agencies were proud of their rotation system and it was often brought up in initial client staffing meetings.  Rotations helped employee retention and were generally good for business.  Consequently, all an agency had to do was go to the client and tell them that it was time to rotate even their most senior account people (who were moved less often than the more junior employees.  Now, under fees, the client is actually in charge of his/her own business and can fight back:  “We are quite happy with so-and-so- and we are paying for him/her”.  Difficult under these circumstances to make changes. It means that agency management, including human resources, must commit to spending time and effort to make personnel changes happen. Consequently, it is easier and requires less time and administration to let the status be quo.  

As a result of this procedure, there are some very good people out of work in advertising.

The irony is that as recruiters, we still get assignments where the client company tells us that they would prefer candidates who are currently working.  In this day and age of the "rent and employee" attitude, this policy makes no sense.  That is why I always balk when we get a job assignment and the agency tells me that they don’t want someone out of work.  Often, an out of work person may be better than those who are working.  It is a great incongruity in the business now.


  1. Half of me applauds an agency "Director of Human Resources" who takes the initiative to rescue the career of an account supervisor. The other half of me chastises a "Director of Human Resources" who apparently can't do her job very well yet continues to cash her paychecks.

  2. Hey Paul … Talk about injustices and really good agency people losing their jobs through no fault of their own, here’s a story I know you’ll remember.
    In 2003 John Dooner, Jr. moves up from his job as worldwide Chairman & CEO of McCann-Erickson to become Chairman & CEO of holding company parent IPG. Dooner promotes Jim Heekin, a much beloved and highly respected exec at McCann and within the industry, to replace him in that role at M-E. Fast-forward … Dooner is soon fired as Chm. & CEO of IPG by its Board of Directors. Dooner cuts a deal to get his old job back heading up M-E and, in that process, Dooner summarily fires Heekin to make room for himself and Jim’s out of work. Happily, Jim soon lands as head of Euro RSCG but …
    The really happy ending to this particular story is that in 2005 Ed Meyer, Chairman & CEO of Grey Global Group at the time, handpicks Jim Heekin from among ALL the top agency execs in the world to succeed him as Chm. & CEO of Grey Worldwide; and then as Chairman & CEO of Grey Global Group in 2006 – the position and title Jim still deservedly retains today (Grey Global named 2015 “Agency of the Year”.)
    Of course things don’t usually work out this way for most, but … “Hey! You never know.”

    1. I have always wanted to now why the IPG board allowed this.

  3. Fix your second sentence -- I think you meant she instead of should.

    1. So petty Steven. Paul captured how the ad agency biz has changed and communicated it very well.

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  5. This scenario does not only apply to advert agencies but to most organization .Where they are seen as threat to both colleagues and the organization. On one afraid of losing their roles to them or the organization that their demands may become too much for them to meet. I will also want to paint the scenario where the pressure to perform becomes too much for the star employees.In order to meet the demands they may engage in some underhand practices and get fired.There is also the scenario where given their constant high peak performance and expectations, people become intolerant of any shortfall in performance and show them the way.


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