‘A hard business’: UK’s illustrious ad industry tainted by burnout and inequality | Advertising

From Nick Kamen in a launderette for Levi’s, Guinness’ fanatical surfer and Cadbury’s drumming gorilla to Christmas tearjerkers from John Lewis, Britain boasts an illustrious and enviable pedigree when it comes to creating world-class advertising.

And yet, last year the UK ad industry recorded the biggest annual rate of staff turnover in more than a decade, as problems including burnout, pay, gender and racial inequality led to advertising losing its edge in the battle to attract and retain creative talent.

“The great resignation is real,” says Jon Williams, founder of the Liberty Guild, an international collective of advertising creatives founded to buck the traditional agency model.

“Take the rose-tinted glasses off, and advertising is in a difficult place. It is hollowing out in the middle. There are lots of well-paid executives and piles of cheaper juniors. It is a hard business, where hours and not ideas can become your master, and the Kool Aid only lasts so long.”

In 2022, UK ad agencies reported a record 32.4% churn rate, according to the industry body the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA), which has data back to 2011, almost certainly the highest level since the redundancy-fuelled ad recession of 2009.

Outwardly, the IPA’s recently published annual census, which covers agencies accounting for more than 80% of employees in advertising, paints a rosy picture.

Employment levels are at an all-time high, up more than 19% on last year and breaking 26,000 for the first time, thanks to a post-pandemic boom among those seeking the excitement of a job in advertising.

However, behind the top line is a worrying undercurrent of a tough working culture, with multiple industry executives describing what almost amounts to “hazing” for newcomers, marked by long hours that are “notoriously brutal”, in particular during pitches for new clients.

The cost of living crisis has also exacerbated the long-running problem of low pay: the £50,000 starting salary offered via supermarket chain Aldi’s graduate programme is at least twice that of a new advertising creative.

NABS, the advertising and media wellbeing charity, has said a 49% increase on 2021 last year in calls for its services revealed “an industry increasingly struggling with emotional and financial worries”.

The top two reasons for calls to the charity’s advice line were for financial or emotional support, with two-thirds of the latter relating to mental health.

Julian Douglas, the former president of the IPA, used Mental Health Awareness week last year to encourage agencies and advertisers to sign a new pledge to act “responsibly” when pitches are being prepared to stop staff being “run into the ground”.

“The alarming churn rate points to a rising burnout issue, exacerbated by an always-on culture that the pandemic and regular working at home days have exacerbated,” says Yasmin Arrigo, the creator of ADventure, an outreach programme that aims to inspire 14-18-year-olds to choose a career in advertising.

Nevertheless, Arrigo says the industry still provides the potential for equal career access for job hunters from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. “The reality is that there are scores of entry-level roles with decent starting salaries that young people – and crucially non-graduates – can apply for without incurring the crippling debt that now accompanies a university degree.”

Chris Kay, the chief executive of Saatchi & Saatchi, feels that the biggest problem is, ironically, advertising itself.

“It feels like there is a creativity crisis in schools,” says Kay, who has partnered with London’s Harris Academy to create a programme to stimulate creative thinking in 11-14-year-olds. “The issue starts before even trying to get people into our industry. It is the creative industries as a whole – music, fashion, advertising – all are coming under threat because we are not making it seen as an occupation and opportunity for a potential career.”

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The power of television advertising began to wane with the onset of the internet-era in the noughties, and some lament the halcyon days when a primetime spot had the power to make a brand – and sometimes the agency behind it – a household name. But not everyone misses those days.

“The idea that advertising used to be a much cooler industry to work in very much depends on your definition of cool,” says Xavier Rees, UK group chief executive at Havas Creative. “If that’s an aggressive, alpha male-dominated, fear-ridden culture powered by presenteeism and untempered egos, you’re right. I’d argue that for the majority of our people, it’s better now than it ever was.”

There are now more women working in the advertising industry than men (54%), and the number of female employees grew by almost a quarter last year, according to the IPA. Conditions have also improved at the top of the industry, with women occupying almost 38% of executive positions – known as C-suite roles – up from a third in 2021.

However, Nishma Robb, a senior director at Google UK and vice-president of the advertising industry gender equality body WACL, says agencies continue to struggle to retain senior female talent. “Female leaders who are jumping ship are motivated to do so because they face micro-aggressions in the workplace, alongside a lack of recognition, and are also often overlooked for new opportunities,” she says.

Ethnic diversity has greatly improved in recent years; the balance of employees from a non-white background is now at almost 24%, up from 18% in 2021 and just 10.6% a decade ago. Although in big cities such as London and Manchester, where most advertising employees work, those from BAME backgrounds represent 46% and almost a third of the overall populations respectively. And in terms of seniority, people from a non-white background account for just 11% of employees in C-suite roles.

“Although we’ve come a long way, evidence suggests we still have a long way to go to close the gender leadership gap, particularly for women of colour,” says Robb.

Kim Lawrie, head of creative technology at ad agency House 337

Kim Lawrie says there is still much work to do on diversity and inclusion.

“Some people like to think of the 80s and 90s as British advertising’s glory years, when the public actually watched and even looked forward to the ad break on the telly. But someone like me would have had little chance to have been working in the industry at a senior level back then. For one thing, I’m a woman, and for another, I’m autistic.

“Like many other sectors, there is still much work to do on diversity and inclusion. There aren’t enough women and people of colour at the top, and ad agencies aren’t doing enough to attract, retain and advance diverse talent.”

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