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Honesty, Misery, And Advertising

We asked more than a hundred marketers to weigh in on the state of our industry. Here’s what is keeping them up at night.

You likely don’t need survey results to tell you that our peers in the marketing & advertising industry are unhappy. But how about a deeper understanding of why? Luckily, that’s the sort of thing we live for — whether it’s for our clients, or doing our part to try and make our industry a happier, more productive place to work. The latter is why we undertook an industry-wide survey to accompany the launch of our consultancy back in March. To start a solution-oriented thread on all that we’ve waxed on over the years as we’ve come up through the ranks of agencies and brands.

After pouring over an unsettling amount of misery, it’s no surprise the current state of our industry leaves ample room for both improvement and concern. In fact, when asked about the state of marketing industry overall, over 92% of the comments were negative. Yikes. But there’s also room for excitement. If our survey respondents are consistent with the industry at large, we are collectively far from apathetic. What’s more, everyone seems to like the subject matter of their jobs, just not the environment in which it is conducted. So ITT, we attempt to shed light on some of the sources and nature of our unrest, and venture into the territory of solutions.

Let’s start by looking at who is most unsatisfied.

Brand side marketers are significantly happier than the rest of the industry, by almost 27%. My guess is that this speaks to the unhappiness of agency-side marketers more so than the happiness of brand cohorts. It’s clear the power dynamics between agencies & brands are out of whack for a myriad of reasons outside the scope of this article. Suffice it to say, appreciation of individual contribution has given way to commoditized offerings from agencies with limited true differentiation. The value of the individual, and their unique collection of knowledge and skills acquired over time is de-prioritized in favor of selling the benefits of huge scale (The Power of One) and organizational processes as the path to success. It’s resulted in a race to the bottom (price) and center (differentiation in offerings) that’s had all sorts of unintended consequences on client trust and ability to deliver good work, which in turn drives more upfront pitch work, which in turn drives more creative pricing schemes and resource juggling to accommodate… and so on and so forth.

Middle management appears to be the most unhappy when slicing satisfaction by seniority. While satisfaction is low across the board (2.6 average out of 5), those with 20+ years and 1–5 years of experience in the industry are the most satisfied. Those in the industry 10–15 years being least satisfied. Having one foot in the camp of daily execution, and one planted in responsibility of brand or agency leadership is a front row seat to all levels of dysfunction, without an out-of-sight, out-of-mind group to lay blame against. What’s more, you are faced with a limited ability to turn a slow moving ship in a new direction that’s incentivized to maximize shareholder value. There are, of course, additional factors to consider here, such as compensation, and fresh wells of optimism (perhaps more to come on that in future articles.)

Second, let’s unpack the issues cited as most consistently problematic.

Measuring Success  For all groups — agencies, brands, or consultants; measuring success was uniformly identified as the number one “process element” in need of change at 53% based on a multiple choice prompt. It’s worth noting that all groups view this as a key pain point, but brands are especially sensitive to it with 62% citing it as the top element, compared with 49% of agencies. Without delving deeper into verbatims here, measuring success is assumed to reference success of client / agency engagements overall, and that of specific campaigns or projects. In both cases, it seems a lack of shared ownership and understanding of business goals is missing.

Fundamentals of Strategy Based on the same multiple choice point, about 38% of brand-side respondents think ‘strategy development’ is the number one process element in need of transformation. Interestingly enough, this topic didn’t register in the top 5 for all other groups — further illustrating a lack of alignment on the core issues that plague us. What it does tell us: we must be more disciplined in investing in strategy upfront. We all recognize the pressures of cost, time, and marketing mix complexity can tempt decision-makers to fall back on an attitude of ‘we’ll know it when we see it.’ But as we all know, there’s nothing more inefficient, or arresting to momentum than using the first round of work as a way to align on strategy.

Inability to Cope With Change and Transition This theme popped up in nearly every response in some form or another. When posed with an open-ended question of what first comes to mind about the state of the marketing industry today, almost 50% cited an inability to deal with change and transition as top of mind. No other singular issue was mentioned even half as much. Change is hard so there’s no magic bullet to make it easier on everyone. However, when digesting this, our first reaction was to wonder whether or not hierarchical org structures are really the best way to build a nimble organization nowadays…or are we still relying on a structure that was best suited for factory like production of TV, print, and OOH deliverables. It’s easy to talk about shifting workforce skill sets, and no matter how you slice it, change is a long-term endeavor, but smaller groups of critical thinkers, with broader ownership, and less reliance on any given medium (the downside of resource specialization) as an answer to current marketing challenges seems like a good place to start. At the very least incentives are better aligned with our clients.

Lack of Balance Between Data and Creativity Another topic that showed up in a variety of ways. Over 25% cited this as the #1 pain point causing confusion and inefficiency. A respondent phrased this more eloquently than we ever could, so we’ll get out of their way here.

“We seem to have lost our focus on the fundamentals around building and sustaining brands.  We overlook key truths like:  1. humans really don’t change, technology just enables existing behaviors  2. people don’t regularly talk about their detergent/deodorant/freezer / waffles nor think or care about them as much as brand/marketing folks would have you believe.  We are cycling back to creativity — slowed by the learning curves and distractions that come with new tools and more data.”

In our experience, the allure of “data-based” decision-making is more about safety and less about a new source of insights direct from customers, regardless of original intent. Consider this a call to take a more balanced approach to creativity that relies on expertise and intuition as an equally valid data point in decision making, to be used in concert with customer data insights.

So what the hell are we going to do?

There’s a whole lot to solve for here. And if you feel a little queasy you are not alone. Before we start offering up remedies, it’s worth considering some additional factors that may be contributing to unhappiness in the corporate world. People are more critical of their workplaces, and expectations on the role of a company in one’s life is changing. This isn’t a new idea, but people expect more personal fulfillment out of the companies they work for, and place a great sense of self in their jobs versus previous generations. Whether it’s a replacement for the decreasing presence of religion or a shift in thinking for a what a company should be, we suspect there are larger forces at play here. Knowing that that is compounding the stressors above, there are some solutions worth exploring.

Specialization in our roles and thinking: We’re no longer TV and print factories. Our marketing challenges are much more dynamic and thus require broader thinking and reduced reliance on any given solution. Strategic thinking should set the course, and determine the solution, not the creative skillsets on hand. Subject matter experts should be brought in after the general managers. As the tide continues to turn around receptivity to freelancers, this way of working will become more common, and barriers to entry for different skillsets on demand will be reduced. And we’re already seeing evidence of this with 64% of all respondents being open to bringing on freelancers or independent contractors in the next year.

Continuing Education: By far the best way to combat resistance to change is by investing in building a culture that prioritizes ongoing education. Modeling a “growth mindset” is a start, but investing a slice of those precious billable hours for ongoing education is an actionable commitment. It may sacrifice some short-term profitability, but only at the expense of long-term inefficiency and stagnation.

Culture Pods” as agents of change: We are big fans of Ari Nave and The King’s Indian. He’s developed a model of behavior change that starts with small internal groups to prove out new cultures and then seed key behaviors within the rest of the organization. We’ve been fortunate enough to help bring this model into some of our clients who have been more receptive to taking a proactive approach to culture building.

Reduction in organization size (or at least decision-making groups): All roads lead back to an inability to evolve. We believe that the larger an organization or decision-making body, the more inertia there is to stay put. Ownership and incentive to make a difference is diffused among the group. As organization size increases, so does tunnel vision and therefore entropy.

In closing…

Undoubtedly, we recognize the challenges that face our industry today won’t be solved with a blog post or an industry survey. However, we are doing our part (at Current Forward) to put a business model out into the world that we truly believe helps solve some of these problems and reduces the gap between incentives of brand and agency side groups. We welcome anyone reading this to email us with their ideas or follow-up questions. In practicing what we preach, we’ve dedicated some of our precious hours to ongoing education and we’d love to keep this conversation going.


Scott Bower is a Partner at Current Forward. He is a former agency exec. with over a decade of experience helping clients like Apple, Chase Bank, Whole Foods, and Allstate with strategic brand-building initiatives. In his free time, Scott enjoys affordable art, vinyl, and sports requiring minimal to moderate athleticism.

Survey Respondent Composition N = 109

  • 45% agency

  • 24% brand side

  • 17% freelance

  • 7% media publisher

  • 6% tech platform

  • 6% content creator

  • 60% have been in marketing 10 years or more

  • 40% in marketing less than 10 years

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