“During COVID, people were waiting to see what happened, and now that work is ramping back up, agencies and brands are saying ‘We have to get stuff done again, and we have to go fast,'” said Shannon Denton, co-founder of agency services platform Wripple. “Our clients were saying, ‘We’ve got to do more with less, we’ve got all this work to do. The volume and the complexity is growing and our budgets aren’t going up. We need to find a way to get this agility.”

Those challenges are being felt acutely at agencies, a space that was already expected to lose more than 50,000 jobs over two years amid a migration to in-house and gig economy alternatives, per a 2020 Forrester report. Legacy agencies could be particularly affected: Omnicom’s DDB has faced a “huge swell” of staff leaving amid friction and confusion caused by the agency’s new focus on data and digital, according to a recent Business Insider report.

Losses could increase as the pandemic continues to alter employee expectations about what the future of work will look like. Along with client demands, internal needs have also changed, with 63% of marketing staffers planning a big job or career change in 2021, per a survey that talent marketplace We Are Rosie emailed to Marketing Dive.

“COVID accelerated some of the clients demands, and people started peacing out and leaving the industry. A lot of people looked at it and said, ‘I’m done with this. I don’t like it whether it’s an agency environment or a brand environment, this isn’t what I’m looking for.’ So we have fewer people doing the work,” said Brian Dolan, CEO of ad tech staffing and services platform WorkReduce.

Ad tech outpaces ability

Along with facing a multifront talent crisis, agencies will also increasingly be asked to handle more tasks with fewer workers as artificial intelligence (AI) and automation technologies take on more. Some creative and media agency tasks will be automated by 2023, per a separate Forrester report. Managing technology offers its own challenges for agencies.

“[The agency holding groups] are not really a tech-enabled model, from the core, from the inside out all the way to the client. There are a lot of offices, there are a lot of P&Ls; there’s a bench that you need to hold to have the necessary skills across all these different areas. It’s a real challenge for the big agencies,” Denton said. Before co-founding Wripple, Denton was global CEO of Razorfish, an interactive agency that Publicis acquired in 2009.

The AI being used to execute more effective marketing is only as good as the people operating it, and those people must contend with environments that are often “chaotic,” WorkReduce’s Dolan said.

Prior to founding WorkReduce in 2015, Dolan helped build Dataxu, the demand-side platform that Roku acquired in 2019 and made the center of its ad offering.

“At Dataxu, we were putting overqualified people on boring work. There’s a lot of that throughout media buying: people doing quantitative work when they want to do qualitative stuff — a fundamental tension in the industry,” Dolan explained.

Another fundamental issue is how complicated it is to execute digital ad buys versus traditional media buys. The permutations of strategies, channels and creative continue to become exponentially as the years-long shift to digital continues, yet often backend systems are based on legacy technology that hasn’t grown at the same pace.

“There’s this desire to do the greatest, coolest, most amazing stuff, and really push these tools to the limits, and that runs headlong into this complexity problem,” Dolan said.

The future of work is now

As with many other white-collar industries, the ad world was forced to change habits as the pandemic closed offices and workers went remote — a shift that has persisted as the delta variant upends many employers’ plans for fall reopenings.

“People got very comfortable using Zoom to connect with colleagues that weren’t in the same place with them and get stuff done. That comfort level with remote, tech-enabled work is obviously at an all time high,” Denton said.

The shift to remote work has opened marketers to rethink the idea of workforces to encompass not just full-time employees and agencies on retainer, but also on-demand labor and transient, independent work that can help optimize cost and specialization, he explained. That evolution could also help eliminate presenteeism, the idea that being in the office is what matters.

“There’s a shift towards looking at outcomes and people who can deliver those outcomes, regardless of where they are, who they are or what they look like,” Dolan said.

The trickle down effects of this new approach could help long-standing deficits around diversity and training. Agencies are quickly ramping up diversity efforts that have come to the forefront over the past year, and a focus on outcomes could open the talent pipeline for executives. It could also help agencies that are struggling to train-up junior staffers, among their other client demands, Dolan explained.

​​What staffers want

As agencies rethink their workforces and look to meet the challenges of evolving ad tech, full-time hires will still be necessary. But as people head to the exits and see full-time freelance and similar situations as better fits, agencies will have to get more creative when staffing, explained Lacey Brumfield, talent partner for media at We Are Rosie.

“There isn’t really going to be a choice but to adapt, just because of how in demand media talent is right now, and it’s just so competitive,” she said.

Along with more flexible remote work policies, Brumfield has heard from marketing staffers that have been offered signing and retention bonuses; increased parental leave; unlimited PTO and mandatory time off; and stipends for meals and fitness. Some agencies have turned summer Fridays into year-round “flexible Fridays.” If agencies aren’t offering competitive benefits, they can expect handfuls of other agencies and recruiters to step up their offers.

“It just doesn’t seem like there really is any more loyalty to like any specific agency or holding company or even brand really,” she said.

Like other companies that are moving forward with plans to return to the office, agencies should beware, as staffers have delivered remotely for nearly 18 months and many are still wary of in-person settings. One agency that We Are Rosie worked with began making in-person attendance mandatory and staffers started leaving “by the dozens,” Brumfield said.

Speed and agility — or lack thereof — has continued to dog large agencies, and this could be their biggest issue during the hiring process. Staffing platforms like We Are Rosie, Wripple and WorkReduce can often match freelancers with projects within a few days.

“If agencies are putting people through four rounds of interviews and unpaid assignments, they’re 100% going to take a job somewhere,” she added.