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November 3, 2022

Australia’s Not Got Talent

We’ve all been talking for a while about the talent drought in advertising, but ongoing conversations with a friend of mine who runs a small business, plus this recent Four Corners episode, really brought home to me the scale of the problem beyond our sheltered corner of the world.  

It got me thinking about the nature of our industry, particularly in relation to talent retention and development. The fact is, this is something agencies really should be good at given what we produce is pretty reliant on talented people (at least until the robots take over). But the honest truth is most agencies are not. 

A few years back I started to observe a shift in the hiring approach of HoldCo agencies, where the experienced, mid-tier people were being ‘managed out’ and replaced by juniors. (After all, an agency could afford to hire lots of juniors in place of a handful of seniors.) The result was businesses with an increasingly stretched management team at the top, a lot of relatively junior staff at the bottom (all in need of training and support), and years of experience either leaving the industry or getting bitter about it on social media. 

Fast forward to today, and we’ve all heard about the burn out teachers, nurses and the like are going through (the abovementioned Four Corners episode paints a pretty bleak picture of it). And while there’s some government assistance for these essential services, the talent drought in advertising doesn’t rank very highly for similar support.  

So, what’s the solution? I don’t profess to have all the answers, just a few ideas. 

Be flexible in how you hire. AFFINITY was recruiting for a creative role a few months back, and had been looking for a junior-mid level candidate. Our recruiter was pretty frank with us about the dearth of talent at that level, but felt there were some relatively good, affordable senior people out there keen to get back into agency roles. While something like this may require a slight shift in your budget, new opportunities to negotiate around flexible working conditions can provide a good counterbalance. 

Be flexible in how you retain. Recently, I’ve seen multiple posts on LinkedIn from people who’ve taken significant time off (3 months +) to reset and recharge. We know people are reaching breaking point across many industries, and losing good people costs a business plenty through lost IP and the costs of replacing them. The concept of sabbatical leave is a rarity in our industry but not unheard of. Even with my own role, I’ve structured my time to allow me to play a greater role on the NFP boards I sit on, and to develop other creative projects. I know this flexibility makes me much more focused, productive and – above all else – happier. 

Value experience. There’s a post you’ve probably seen as you’ve scrolled LinkedIn that goes something like: “It’s taken me 20 years to learn how to solve your problem in 20 minutes.” And while the procurement team may be keen on driving costs down, it’s all too easy for this to be at the expense of having people on the business who can actually do the work. It’s a by-product of the HoldCo issue I mentioned earlier; sure, you can throw lots of inexperience at a problem and they’ll eventually get to a solution. But in an increasingly time-sensitive world, nothing beats experience in cutting through the noise to arrive at a solid outcome. Independent agencies, AFFINITY amongst them, lean towards a slightly higher average age than industry norms. In my opinion, this higher degree of concentrated experience is a big part of why Indies are becoming increasingly successful. It’s also something we’re hearing from candidates in the recruitment process – they want to know who will be there to help mentor and develop them as part of their own leadership goals. 

Look outside the box. It’s easy to rely on your default options when it comes to recruitment. But when everyone’s fishing in the same pond, the chances of getting a bite are even slimmer. AFFINITY’s in the process of launching a program to try and identify talent from outside our industry – and in particular from within communities under-represented in agency-land. It’s a long-term approach, and it may not always work, but it’s indicative of the challenges we’re facing. It’s also a really positive way to challenge the biases that we have (whether conscious or unconscious). 

We’re people not ‘resources.’ How often does your best thinking come at the time you’re scheduled to do it? Giving people space and time to think runs a little counter to timesheeting and resource schedules, but they don’t need to be mutually exclusive. And finding this balance is an important way to avoid the burnout that sees people walk. It’s why we’ve implemented tactics like Library Hour and Thinking Thursday at AFFINITY. 

Culture is key. We’ve realised more and more over the past few years how important a strong culture is in the recruitment and retention process. What used to be a throw away comment in an interview now tends to dominate the conversation. And the good news is, Culture is something our industry has generally been pretty good at cultivating – but it needs to go much deeper than an open bar and a ping pong table.  

How have you managed the talent drought and other issues around recruitment and retention? And more importantly, do you have any secrets you’re willing to share? We’d love to hear your thoughts – drop us a line via 


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