Falling quality of advertising talent

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Ashish Bhasin, Chairman India & CEO South East Asia, Aegis Media

Ashish Bhasin, Chairman India & CEO South East Asia, Aegis Media

When head honchos of our advertising  and media industry meet, they usually can’t agree on too many things. However the one area of consensus is always that in general, the quality of talent in the advertising and media industry today is far inferior than what we deserve and its quality is consistently  falling. Very soon we go into the “good old days” syndrome and start talking about how we used to recruit from the IIMs and how we now just can’t attract top talent. Having been in this industry for the last 25 years and having been involved in developing talent for our industry  across functions, I can vouch for the declining quality trend but what I cannot understand is why aren’t  we getting to the bottom of the problem and addressing the  cause, rather than attempting to address the symptoms?

Let me attempt to, perhaps for the first time ever in our industry, give a ruthlessly honest analysis of the causes. Once we know what is causing this decline, perhaps in a follow up piece, I will attempt to give some solutions as well. I must caution that some of my views may not be palatable to all, but I feel duty bound to state it as I see it.

If I rewind 25 years to mid to late ‘80s, around the time I joined this industry,  it was a norm that some of us marketing post-graduates from MBA schools would step out into brand management and others into advertising. So, as an example, two equally bright class mates of a top rated management school could well find themselves one in Hindustan Lever (then HLL, a coveted marketing job) and another in Lintas  ( then rated as a coveted advertising agency to work for). The remuneration would be more or less similar, with the former having more hard perks and the latter perhaps more cash, so it more or less evened out. Of course we are talking about princely salaries of approximately Rs. 36000 per annum, but the parity or near parity was the norm. With the result, there were people of equal caliber on both sides of the table, there was mutual respect and the relationship between an account executive and a brand manager was far more equal than it is now. Advertising managers were good servicing people but servitude and servility was neither expected nor was common. This is in absolute contrast to the scenario today, where the brand manager would probably still be from a good management school but the  advertising executive may be a second grade student from a third level ‘management diploma’  course, leading to an obvious hierarchy and its related consequences. This unequal talent flow is the most important reason of this downward spiral.

Since there is a perceived or actual intellectual superiority and inferiority established, it makes the advertising job even harder. As it is advertising is much tougher a business than what it appears but this added inequality based client pressure makes it worse, further driving away good talent.  How and why did this change happen? The key driver of this phenomenon was employee remuneration. When business got more and more competitive, when pressures on productivity increased and return on investment became paramount for agency groups, as an industry we reacted foolishly. It is a known fact that in advertising, like in some other service industries, manpower cost is the single biggest cost component. So when the margin pressures increased, quite foolishly I would say, we decreased the rate of growth of salaries. We made that up by employing more number of lower paid, junior staff to keep up with the growth requirements. We made less trained, poorer quality people work harder and longer and kept adding more and more of them. The “manpower cost to revenue ratio” became a key driving factor for most talent decisions in every agency. With this single obsession, perhaps forever, we vacated the slot of consultants and converted ourselves to vendors, further alienating good quality talent. We are living through the adage that if you pay peanuts you will get monkeys.  Hence the declining talent pool should not really be a surprise to us. It should have been expected.

Parallely, because we were in an industry that was growing at a CAGR of over 15% for most part of the last two decades, we had no time to train. While we paid a lot of lip service in presentations to people development, training etc, the reality is that every single agency is guilty of under-investing in quality training on an ongoing basis. In tough years, the training budgets were the first to be slashed. Our trainers, training techniques and training content did not evolve, as an industry at the pace that it should have. This further compounded the talent quality issue and is an important factor of why we are skewed today, as an industry. We have some of the best talent at the top, quality people, trained well, experienced but old or getting old very quickly. Then we have a big gap, corresponding to the lost decade in terms of talent in the middle. The bottom of the pyramid is large, with high energy, young talent at the base but quite sweat-shop like and underinvested in training.

Of course, in an ostrich like scenario, we have focused more on paying more and poaching from each other to solve the short-term issues, rather than growing and nurturing talent to benefit us in the long run. Thereby, because we pay more and more for poaching average talent, we further  worsen our “manpower cost to revenue” ratios, thereby leaving even lesser for training and growing fresh talent, another perfect example of a downward spiral.

This, while it sounds very negative, is actually the harsh truth and the reason behind the  falling  quality of Indian Advertising Talent over the last 25 years.
However, in my view, not all is lost. I see this situation as easily reversible. In the next part of this article I will pen down some reasons as to how we can turn this weakness into a  strength and how we can ensure that the person representing  the agency is of as good a quality, if not better, than the best of those at the client end.

The author is Chairman India & CEO South East Asia  for Aegis Media and has over 25 years of experience in the advertising and media industry in the Asia Pacific region.

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