Creative talent is in flux; a long chain of events has barrelled our industry head first into a talent crunch. Not only is the industry crying out for greater diversity and making slow progress, the traditional agency model is having to reinvent itself at unprecedented speed to meet brand demand for quality and volume. What’s more, the pandemic has seen an onslaught of mid to senior level talent leaving agency roles to go freelance.
One such revered creative, who has departed a long and prolific agency tenure to go independent, is Ted Lim. As Dentsu Asia Pacific’s former CCO, Ted was instrumental in transforming the creative network, product and culture across the Asia-Pacific. By transcending borders in terms of how the business found and connected talent, the agency picked up some of the world’s highest profile global accounts including Coca-Cola, Unilever and Adidas - and subsequently a slew of international awards from the likes of Cannes Lions , D&AD, The One Show, Effies, AdFest and Facebook’s Innovation Awards.
Moving on to begin his own creative consultancy in 2020, Ted is now using his expertise to guide business organisations, ad agencies, and media owners across the Asia-Pacific region.
Looking to pick his brains on the current talent crunch, LBB sat down with Ted to find out what he thinks the future of creative teams might look like, the impact of the freelance movement, and why marketers and agencies could learn a thing or two from Hollywood...
Reinvention? It’s not just about data
The advertising industry is grappling with a talent issue. While that’s news to no one in adland, solutions to the problem are continuously debated - but what if the answer has been a hop, skip, and a jump away from the problem all this time?
“Some years before the pandemic, I was having conversations with several advertising executives on the reinvention of the traditional network agency model,” says Ted. “We weren’t speaking about the obvious need to adopt data and digital - this has since become hygiene factors in every industry - it was about the Hollywood model.”
Ted explains what the model is: “As the name suggests, it works the way films are made. Almost everyone – the writer, producer, director, cinematographer, editor, animator, special effects guy, musician, wardrobe designer, makeup artist, actor – works for himself. They get together when there’s a film to be made and disband when it’s made.”
For years, experts in the film industry have worked together, then apart, and ultimately often together again; it’s the accepted model for working creatively, rather than having staff tied to the same companies.
But while the model may be attractive to advertising, is it a finance department’s dream, or a project manager’s nightmare?
The future of network agencies
“The Hollywood model isn’t practical for sizable accounts with considerable and consistent work that requires daily - sometimes hourly - attention from familiar faces with steady hands,” says Ted.
However, he points out that as clients move away from traditional agency retainers to project-based compensation, then perhaps the ‘Hollywood model’ is finally coming in vogue. “Ad agencies have been outsourcing since the beginning of ad agencies. The typical network agency doesn’t usually have the in-house specialist services offered by film directors, editors, music composers, animators, or even web developers,” says Ted.
Perhaps it’s a two-way street: “It’s not uncommon for network agencies to work with independents, but will the network agencies, whose claim to fame is their creative product, work with independent strategists, creative directors, copywriters, and art directors?”
And as Ted says, it often comes back to the brand book as the foundation of purpose and personality for brands, whether in-house or not. “Different people may have different interpretations of brands like Dove, for example, but they are guided by its DNA of "Real Beauty". People, even brand custodians, may come and go, but the Nike spirit of "Just Do It" will continue to be the brand’s north star.”
Freelancers and the ‘Great Resignation’
Talent acquisition - and staff attrition - isn’t a new problem, but while previously agencies and brands alike would have revolving doors, now it is a bit more one-sided. Talent is leaving, but there are fewer replacements; It’s been labeled the ‘Great Resignation,’ and Ted says it might be causing advertisers to move in-house, or making brands turn to independents because their senior creatives have left. There’s no easy solution to it.
Where is the talent going then?
“Some who lost their agency jobs have gone back to work, but not everyone is biting. Some who found salvation in freelance work have chosen not to return to organisations, some have opened their own independent agencies, some have gone in-house, and then there are those who have left the advertising business altogether.”
What’s next for talent?
Nearly 50,000 advertising agency jobs were lost globally to the pandemic in 2020, according to Forrester. So now there’s a flux. And at the same time, content is being consumed at higher rates - Ted points out that the average person scrolls through 300 feet of mobile content every day, according to Facebook, so not only is there the talent problem to contend with, but the attention economy to grapple with too.
“Blending into the clutter is commercial suicide,” says Ted. “While digital media has personalised reach at scale, reach is not engagement.”
And when an ad reaches a potential customer, the power is not on the advertiser’s side. “The customers that advertisers have spent so many marketing dollars to reach are living, thinking human beings who can literally swipe marketing efforts away if they don’t strike the right chord. Creative talent is needed to produce work that resonates with people and gets them to stop, stare and share; Work that’s different and makes a difference, work that moves people and business - that’s what’s needed.”
Ted highlights some good in-house work recently, such as Emirates’ stunt where a cabin crew employee in uniform appeared standing on the top of the Burj Khalifa skyscraper in Dubai. Is this a sign that in-housing can be effective? Talent that mostly worked with network agencies before the pandemic can now be seen working independently or in-house,” Ted says.
In many ways, there is no ‘one-size fits all option for heralding in the next generation of advertising talent and creativity. But the Hollywood model? Ted says: “The ad industry is not quite ready for it, but the pandemic has accelerated the movement in that direction.”