The Big Quit

How marketers and advertisers are combatting turnover by reimagining the future of work.


This story originally appeared in the Winter 2021 issue of strategy.

Canada’s ad biz is not immune to “The Great Resignation” – the wave of employees who are calling it quits on their jobs in an escape from burnout or simply to pursue something else – but agencies and brands are trying to navigate the labour market sea change by doing what they do best: tapping the powers of creativity to change the narrative and create more engaging experiences for their employees.

According to data from management consultancy McKinsey in September 2021, 40% of workers across the countries it surveyed – which include Canada – are at least somewhat likely to quit their jobs in the next three to six months, with 18% of respondents saying that such a move is likely or almost certain. Professional services firm Deloitte found similar record numbers, specifically at the senior level where just over half are considering leaving or scaling back their roles.

The trend is making itself felt in Canada’s marketing industry, as large networks have seen “very high degrees of turnover,” says Arthur Fleischmann, country manager for WPP. “You’re seeing it at WPP, at Omnicom, IPG – on the client side, too, but in particular, the agency side.”

There are a lot of reasons cited for the Great Resignation, including complaints of burnout and stories of employees feeling more confident about taking a risk or betting on themselves with the worst of the pandemic behind them. Much of the focus is on younger employees, who Adobe reports are driving the trend, with 49% of Millennials and 56% of Gen Z employees planning to pursue new jobs in the coming year.

In advertising, Fleischmann is among many who hold the opinion that changes brought on by the experience of working virtually during the pandemic are the driving force for employees who choose to quit.

“What makes advertising particularly fun is the collaboration and interaction – the space between the notes of work. The connectivity between your colleagues, the after-work conviviality, the little micro-moments during the day when you get to joke around – all of that is gone,” he explains.

Jay Chaney, partner and chief strategy officer at independent agency Broken Heart Love Affair, concurs.

“A lot of people got drawn into this industry because it’s a great job if you’re a creative person. It offers pretty good pay, but they come to a point where the only thing keeping them in the job is the social experience of being around all of these great, crazy, creative people,” he says. “Now they’re by themselves in their home and they no longer have that, and I think there are a lot of people looking to see what’s next and how they can redefine themselves.”

It is also the desire for change that Tracy Little, EVP and GM of FCB Toronto, points to as a driver behind the trend. While the agency’s turnover has held steady this year over the previous one, “my anticipation is that we will probably exceed it a little bit by the end of the year,” she says.

“The people who are leaving [FCB Toronto] have been with the agency for somewhere between three and five years,” Little says. “With some of the stagnation that has come into peoples’ lives during the pandemic, their career is something they have the control to change, and they’re looking for a new challenge – be that a smaller agency, an independent agency or a new client.”

Chaney says BHLA has come to think of the trend as the “Big Steal,” specifically because his agency – which launched at the onset of the pandemic – has been attracting experienced creatives seeking that challenge. BHLA started with a team of nine in March 2020 and had tripled in size by the end of September 2021.

The trend appears to be growing, albeit at a slower pace, on the brand side. At Arterra Wines Canada, “turnover rates remain modest overall,” says CMO Andrea Hunt, but “reasons cited for departure are more wide-reaching than typical.”

Some team members at Arterra have left to run a farm, buy a bed and breakfast, move abroad, write a book or start a business, she says. “The common sentiment seems to be that they have had ambitions set aside leading into the pandemic, and now with the world in flux, are prepared to give another path a try.”

The problem has also reared its head at media agencies, where the onset of the pandemic led to cancellations, pauses, and other shifts, says Devon MacDonald, president of Cairns Oneil.

Those changes “tripled the workload in agencies and caused a lot of specialist teams to be dramatically overwhelmed,” he notes. “As business performance changed globally for brands and agencies, the trickle-down to the Canadian market simply meant fewer roles were opening, putting additional strain on an already exhausted set of professionals.”

At some ad agencies, there has been much more focus on retention strategies to help mitigate a turnover tsunami. For instance, FCB Toronto has placed emphasis on flexibility and making the life of the employee easier, Little says. That has taken many different forms since the onset of the pandemic, but a throughline has been “ensuring we’re creating separation between work and home where we can,” she notes.

Some of these changes at FCB have included encouraging employees not to send emails after 6:30 p.m., and implementing a mandated “you time” policy that gives people an hour each day where they’re discouraged from scheduling meetings. Rethink has also instituted “Bueller Days” where employees are encouraged to play hooky at any moment’s notice, as well as formally put a halt on Monday presentations to relieve weekend anxiety.

Beyond nurturing a work-life balance, Little says FCB is also “embracing the idea of a career less linear” by giving employees in its various departments the option to move to a different area of the business and develop new skill sets – rather than see them leave the agency entirely to pursue that goal elsewhere.

Affording employees a greater deal of freedom and mobility within the organization is also a key part of WPP’s retention strategy, according to Fleischmann. “We’re looking at ways to cut down the barriers between our operating companies, so people can move between them without fear of repercussions,” he says.

Promotions and salary increases within individual companies in the network have also been key points of focus for WPP in Canada, as has investing in training and development – such as in the area of marketing technology.

“We rolled out something called the Martech Academy this year, and we’re the first country where WPP has done this,” explains Fleischmann. “They offered it for global client leaders last year and I went to our chief technology officer and asked if we could modify it for Canada and offer it to our leaders here, and senior strategists and account people. We’re about halfway through rolling that out now.”

At Arterra, Hunt says, leaders have gotten “more creative” in their retention strategies since the traditional methods – the work environment, industry perks, and physical company of peers – have been unavailable or limited during the pandemic months.

“We are finding fresh ways to connect, shoring up our training and development offerings, optimizing key processes with tech to unlock more time for value-added work, and rebalancing assignments to ensure roles are satisfying and enriching,” she says.

jake-espedido-A2U131nRNas-unsplashBut also key to retention, Hunt tells strategy, is ensuring that an employee’s values align with the company itself, and vice versa.

“If the company or the individual finds their value proposition challenged, then turnover might turn out to be positive for both parties, no matter the impetus. I don’t think there is great long term value in enticing team members to stay if their passion for the business or the challenge has faded,” she explains. “I find greater value in doubling down on helping those who have leaned into achieving greater satisfaction and realize even better outcomes.”

Another concern for employers is executing the return to office in a way that is preferable to as many employees as possible. While various approaches are on the table, a hybrid model where employees split time between days at the office and days working from home is the most popular – 44% of Canadian employees prefer hybrid schedules, according to Angus Reid.

Further, of those people and the 29% who would prefer to work from home in perpetuity, nearly half would at least begin looking for another job if ordered back to the office on a full-time basis.

Tech companies like Hootsuite have created a distributed workforce strategy, in which employees will get to choose to work from home, at the office, or both. Offering complete flexibility increases its talent pool and attracts people from different regions. The shift has had the biggest impact on Hootesuite’s leadership: to date, 60% of the company’s senior executive team is based in different markets across the U.S. and Canada.

At FCB Toronto, “we’re trying to figure out what that sweet spot is between in- and out-of-the-office work. We’re rethinking how we’re going to use our space, how and why we want people to come together and when the end product benefits from it,” says Little.

Among the agency’s more creative efforts has been a total recreation of its office space on online social platform Gather Town. In its new digital office, employees can enjoy spontaneous chats with each other in the virtual hallways, interact with coworkers’ pets and play videos of FCB president Bryan Kane’s bell-ringing ritual when the agency wins new business and awards.

As for Hootsuite, and other tech companies like Pinterest, rethinking the office space also helps to address mental health issues that prevent people from staying in the job. To counteract burnout, they’ve instituted initiatives such as offering employees a full week off to completely unplug and have created physical spaces for meditation, relaxation, nursing and prayer.

“Agencies need to support staff and understand that as we live with the pandemic, roles need to be filled faster and in fact more resources are required to complete some tasks,” MacDonald says. “Simply applying the same agency metrics and financial metrics from the pre-pandemic era to the new reality will only exacerbate the problem.”

Helen Galanis, CEO at Initiative, echoes MacDonald’s point, adding that senior leaders at her agency have focused on clear and consistent communication from the get-go. “We’ve worked with our people to develop and share a ‘future of work’ plan that very clearly conveys what peoples’ day-to-day will look like once the health and safety risks are behind us.”

“It’s a move, we believe, that has made people feel part of the process and greatly increased their connection to the company,” she adds.

Even though there remains considerable uncertainty about the future of work, Fleischmann believes the economy is “regaining buoyancy” and that there is a growing number of startups entering the market that will need to build their brands. “If you’re open-minded and willing to embrace different ways of work as a client or an agency, then I believe you have every reason to be optimistic about next year.”

With files from Justin Dallaire