Introducing Run by Rosie, a new agency model Learn More

Rosie in the news

Adweek: What Roles Will Be Most—and Least—In-Demand at Agencies in 2021?

by | Jan 5, 2021

Originally posted on Adweek by Minda Smiley & Doug Zanger, December 29, 2020.

Advertising agencies have had a rough year in terms of staffing. Dozens of the industry’s biggest shops were forced to cut staff this year as a result of Covid-19 and its impact on business.

A recent Forrester report attempted to quantify the damage, predicting that roughly 35,000 agency jobs will be cut this year in the U.S.—and that 17,000 more will be gone in 2021.

As agencies grapple with the impact of layoffs and recover from 2020, they’re thinking about how to create a workforce that will set them up for future success. Much of this involves reevaluating internal structures and determining which positions will be crucial for growth moving forward.

“I think there is going to be a massive amount of restructuring in the second or third quarter of next year,” said Ashley Jahn, co-founder and creative recruiter at Creative Search Consultants, an executive search and recruiting firm that’s worked with agencies including Droga5 and 72andSunny.

Change is already afoot at Dentsu International, which recently divulged its plans to cut 12.5% percent of its workforce and consolidate its agencies.

While every agency will have a different approach, industry recruiters, analysts and executives are seeing clear trends emerge regarding which roles and areas of expertise agencies are willing to invest in.

Doing more with fewer leaders

Leadership and management roles will be harder to come by in 2021 at agencies.

“Senior management is going to be a lot thinner,” Jahn said, explaining that each layer of management will likely have fewer and fewer people. For instance, an agency that once had seven group creative directors may now only want two.

“Every layer will have less, except for the lower levels,” she said, explaining that agencies will instead prioritize hiring “worker bees,” or those actually doing the work on a day-to-day basis, as clients continue to demand more content.

She said the search for these types of employees, which she categorizes as being at the associate creative director level or below, has been “frenetic” at her firm this year.

That’s not to say that leadership roles are going by the wayside or losing their value. Jahn said she doesn’t foresee titles like “chief creative officer” going away any time soon, as it takes a “very special person and a really amazing leader to weather these times.” But the people who do hold these roles will be expected to take on more as the hierarchy flattens, according to Jahn.

This also means lower-level employees will be tasked with more responsibilities. “The younger folks are going to be more client-facing,” Jahn said.

Laura Bajkowski, principal and founder of marketing consultancy Bajowski & Partners, agreed. “Clients are tired of paying for layers of what they view as waste,” she said, noting that roles with qualifiers like “global chief” in front of them will diminish, but not fully disappear.

Adjusting for AI

Automation and AI will also affect professionals in the industry. A report that Forrester released in October predicts that agencies will automate 11% of their workforce by 2023 thanks to these tools.

“Across the board, all functions are affected in some capacity or another,” said Jay Pattisall, a principal analyst at Forrester who worked on the report. Even so, he said production-related roles will be hit particularly hard.

“Tools and platforms make some of the manual labor of production redundant,” he explained, noting that production jobs are expected to decrease 15% at large creative agencies by 2023, according to Forrester’s forecasts.  

Forrester also predicts that creatively led roles will decrease by 9% at large agencies and 7% at small ones. Pattisall said this is partly due to the consolidation of similar roles that will occur as these technologies begin taking on some of the workload.

As a result, Pattisall said a creative agency might employ fewer art directors, for instance, and will likely opt to keep younger ones on board for cost reasons.  

“It’s not that machines are taking jobs necessarily. They’re just performing tasks,” Pattisall said. “Over time, there’ll be fewer tasks for art directors, collectively, to do. Therefore, you’ll need fewer art directors over time. Consequently, because of a cost savings orientation, [agencies] will keep junior talent.”

Growing Diversity

Agencies will prioritize a few roles in 2021 that traditionally sat in HR but have made their way into the C-suite.

Pattisall said positions such as “chief people officer” or “chief cultural officer” will remain important as agencies maintain their focus on DEI. These roles will become increasingly “strategic” as agencies focus more deeply on developing systemic solutions designed to foster a diverse workforce, rather than simply looking to promote and hire individuals who might appear to satisfy the basic tenets associated with DEI goals.

“In the U.S., we’ve got this outcry for diversity, and clients are starting to make selections and requirements around diversity,” he said, noting that advertisers want to ensure their messages are crafted and managed by agencies that can bring a multiplicity of personal experiences and backgrounds compared to more homogenous agency cultures.

In July, Omnicom announced it plans to hire a diversity director for each of its networks and practice areas, a sign that agencies are beginning to view these roles as must-haves.  

Jay Haines, co-founder of Grace Blue, a marketing executive search firm, echoed Pattisall’s view about the heightened need of chief diversity officers and chief talent officers in 2021, citing the social upheavals of the past several months.

Haines said he expects these roles to be “filled by experienced talent with the muscle memory for solving complex problems.”

Freelance frenzy

Agencies have long relied on freelancers to help out, but it looks like freelance gigs will become even more sought after in a world where people can work remotely.

“We are anticipating high levels of freelance talent being utilized across the board throughout 2021,” said Love Malone, founder of the Gradient Group, a staffing platform for creative industries.

Haines said today’s agencies need the flexibility to contract and expand, especially in these uncertain times, giving them all the more reason to rely on freelancers. He said agency employees of all levels are opting to go freelance and “work in a different way.”

For example, he said agencies might prefer to tap “world class executive level freelance talent” to help solve macro problems, then leave the execution to mid-level full-time staffers.

This flood of freelance talent could potentially give rise to other positions within agencies. Jessie Kernan is head of strategy and insights at We Are Rosie, a network of freelancers who complete assignments for brands and agencies as needed.

Kernan said roles akin to “creative resource manager” will be vital in a world where agencies are constantly bringing freelance talent for various projects. She said she expects these positions to find a home on the brand side too as marketers balance their in-house operations with external partners.

Forrester, too, expects that these positions will be critical in the future. Pattisall said his research found that the “director of creative operations” title is poised for growth within the next few years.

According to Kernan, agencies that adopt what Kernan describes as “fluid” talent model—in other words, one that partly relies on freelancers—will benefit from such roles.

“Having a person to effectively manage and leverage that talent will make it sustainable,” she explained. “On the agency side, they will determine how work is assigned between full-time agency talent and a layer of flexible talent. In all cases, their responsibility will be to strategically organize and activate talent to meet the changing needs of the business with the highest degree of agility, efficiency, and quality.”