Trouble in the advertising world

The South African advertising industry met in Cape Town this past weekend for the annual Loerie advertising awards, where the most outstanding work of the year is recognised and the public gets to see the talent behind the best performing agencies.

For those who may not know, South Africa is the David to the Goliath of the big advertising world, producing some of the most creative adverts. When the best of the best are counted, we are there. We punch way, way above our weight – and we pack a proper punch.

On a visit to Cannes for the advertising awards in France a few years ago, when I mentioned I was from South Africa, people from all over the world would rattle off a list of South African ad agencies. We certainly do more than our fair share, and all in all, we are amazing.

But as great as we may be, there is trouble brewing in the industry. We may soon be approaching the end of the golden era of the South African advertising age and no one seems to be doing anything about it – not the agencies, not the clients. I have identified three issues, based on observations.

Firstly, almost every young person in the advertising industry talks about wanting to get out of it. I am writing this as a former creative who also left the agency life. The question is, why? Why would creative people want to leave this exciting industry? It is, after all, very famous for its glamour, parties and relaxed attitude to dress. Congruently, the people who work in the industry love what they do, coming up with adverts that sell products for clients and win awards. Yet they are unhappy.

Some higher-ups might say it's probably the less-talented who want to leave the ad game. But it's not just them. Some of the most awarded are thinking about doing something else. In fact, after just a few years in advertising many young people are already thinking of an exit strategy. Why? Some feel their pay isn't good enough, and that once you hit your late 20s and 30s you need a job that feels a bit more stable. They want their passion to feed them, and they'd like their awards to do the same.

I have been speaking to a number of executive creative directors about the state of the industry, and I have spoken to a few agency insiders responsible for operations – including managing directors and others in senior positions. All of them tell a very sad tale: they don't have enough skilled people – the second hurdle facing the industry. Small- and medium-sized agencies complain about training people only to have them snatched by larger agencies. Large ad agencies cry about the lack of talent, and how talented creatives leave to become freelancers because it allows them to make more money. Eventually, these free agents are lost to the advertising industry as they look to other industries to satisfy their need to be creative and more financially lucrative.

All agencies seem to have one thing in common though – clients steal their most talented staff.

Sadly, the advertising industry will soon face what the newspapers are beginning to lament: the so-called juniorisation of the newsroom. The quality of work will suffer – and that's not because young people are not talented. They are very talented, and most of the lauded at the Loeries over the weekend were young and up-coming people.

But the consequence of an inexperienced office is clients will spend more time and money before getting the kind of creative that answers their briefs. Or worse, clients will start writing their own ads out of sheer frustration, and agencies will become glorified desktop publishing shops.

The third problem facing the industry is the lack of diversity. I couldn't help but notice how few people of colour were at the Loeries this year. We can't keep avoiding diversity as an industry. The more we try to avoid the issue, the more likely we are to find the industry being hauled before the bully pulpit of Parliament to explain ourselves. We need to change before a politician with cause feels the need to do it for us.

In fact, it is becoming increasingly important for agencies to have creative teams that understand target markets instinctively.

In order for us as an industry to continue to grow and take the world by the scruff of the neck, we have to try to fix the state of the industry, and it's not just up to agencies to find the best way forward, it's up to clients too. Just because we pretend the industry isn't broken, doesn't mean that it's not, and we need to save the industry so we can save our brands.

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