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A Time For Change? Stuart Smith, Rocco Alexander

A career in agency-land can be a difficult ball to juggle. You ultimately try to achieve your career objectives; generally a combination of hierarchical career progression, remuneration and fulfillment, but fully aware that well into the 21st century the average employee doesn’t stay at a company for life. In fact, the average time spent within a healthcare communications agency is around 2.5 years. Is the company you join in 2014 going to be the one you that you finish your career in? The odds say, probably not. This means that going into this sector, you will know that you will embark on a portfolio career; hopefully achieving your goals but knowing that in doing so, over the course of your career, you’ll move employer a good few times. So, why do we move jobs? Is it always because we are unhappy? The answer is no; sometimes happy people move jobs and from my experience, it’s more common for this to happen than you might think…….

I have had many instances of working with people who want to move jobs not because they dislike their agency, their colleagues, their clients or their commute (although I have had a few that do that fall in to this category) but know that in order to achieve their goals of career progression or remuneration, they feel that even though they like their employer, they need to move. Everything on paper and to the employing onlooker says ‘happy’.  So why do happy people move? Because in a market where the hunt for talent is as hot as ever, and a sector that still tends to structure its staffing levels in a reactive way, depending on pitch wins and client spend, they know that sometimes by moving they can make a big leap forward all in one go. I have spoken to many who express the same philosophy  – they ask themselves where will they be 2 years down the line if they move and compare it with where would they be 2 years down the line if they stay? As a case study, in  January 2012, I worked with an established Account Manager. He was happy where he was but had been there 3 years and felt that he needed a nitro injection into his career. He calculated that if he stayed where he was, he’d get two (if he was lucky) modest annual pay rises and follow the reasonably well-trodden path of hierarchical progression. He was on 35k. He felt that if he stayed, he’d be on 41k and a solid SAM in 2 years time. He moved company for an immediate 20% pay rise, job title of SAM and as I type is still working there, on 55k and is a very competent Account Director. A 20k pay rise and two grades higher – not bad in two years. It might have happened where he was, but it’s unlikely.

This raises the question that surely to achieve your goals, don’t you just need to keep moving companies? The answer to this is a resounding no. What happens before will to a certain extent determine what path you can take in moving forward.

It is possible, particularly early in one’s career, and when a market has a number of employers actively recruiting, to make a couple of moves in reasonably quick succession. There are many examples I know of where progressions have occurred from raw AE graduate to Account Manager within 15 months. With this comes a pay rise of on average 13-15k. This is a hard proposition for someone to turn down early in a career. Here’s the problem though, which will have a serious influence on the later parts of a career – these people are now already on their third employer inside 15 months. When there are high numbers of active vacancies in the market, which leads to external and internal recruiters all looking to not get left out and with the usual direct poaching, it’s easy to get carried away with it all as a candidate. I spoke to one CEO of a very well respected healthcare advertising agency and was told:

“We seem to be a common target for staff poaching because of our reputation. All too often I’ve seen our more junior staff leave us because they have been lured by more money and a grander job title. It’s difficult to combat, even though we know that they still need to fully grow into the role that they are currently doing here, there’s little you can do. We’re not going to stand in their way. However, on at least three occasions, around two years after they left us, we’ve met and they’ve expressed an interest in coming back to our agency, and two of these had since moved again after leaving us. We simply couldn’t consider it as they had become short on experience and high on remuneration”

This is exactly the point that must be kept firmly in mind. It is easy, early on in a career to get this very wrong. There is a very real possibility of someone being left exposed and with a CV that looks like it’s been savaged behind enemy lines when the market enters a period of temporary contraction. It is a fact that from time to time this happens.

I spoke to a candidate last year. A Senior Account Manager at a large agency. I was told that they wanted to move on, as they really disliked their job. They’d been there for 6 months. Ordinarily, if someone hates their job it seems nonsensical to advise anything other than to try and find them a new one. However, this was the person’s fourth employer in 40 months. Which agency is going to seriously consider being this person’s 5th home in 41 months? The best advice was that the most important thing to do now is bring stability to their career – to knuckle down, try to work though the tough spell and see where you’re at in a year. Essentially, you’ve made your bed, now you have to lie in it, or perhaps consider a career outside of the sector. If there had been less movement in those first 40 months, this person would have had the real possibility to get out of that role, explain to a new employer that they had been pretty stable in their early career but had simply taken a wrong turn. All would have been well.

It makes sense then to conclude that there are genuine cases whereby to progress you need to move, but it’s generally prudent to set a solid foundation for this by having a stable early career. To achieve the goal of career progression, as stated, even though an employee may love their colleagues, the culture, the client etc, sometimes the path to progression doesn’t look particularly open. Not everyone can be a Group Account Director in the agency. Not all Art Directors in a studio can make it to be Head of Art. Not everyone that’s senior can be the CEO or MD in their employer! Even at the very top levels of our sector, this happens. It is a fact that very few of the current agency CEOs or MDs that aren’t owners of the agency, are working in the same employer now as they were 5 or 6 years ago. One thing these leaders do have in common though is that the early parts of their career were all very stable, which gave them a very springy platform to push off from when they’d become more savvy, more experienced and therefor could use good judgment of when the times were right to make those all important career moves.

Those times do exist, but they must be used wisely and with caution. Get it right and you’ll make a big, yet manageable leap forward. Get it wrong, and you could end up giving yourself a career road-block.

Stuart Smith
Managing Director
Rocco Alexander Ltd

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