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Can coffee fix the talent crisis?

The Fairtrade coffee movement offered a premium product that reset expectations, and now has people convinced that they can’t live without a $5 latte. Advertising could learn from this, says Des Jones, the Chief Strategy Officer at Juniper Park\TBWA.

In the many discussions about the talent crisis faced by creative agencies, there is lots of talk of how employee values have changed. But this issue isn’t just about the gap between what agencies offer and what employees want, it also relates to the growing gap between what employees want and what clients want. At the heart of the crisis, people are rejecting the poor training, talent management, and lack of purpose that the agency operating model often delivers.

This hasn’t always been the case. When I came into advertising, it was full of creative spirit, optimism, and opportunity – not words widely associated with it today. Since the abolition of media commission, advertising has been on a steady march toward commoditization. Pricing is presented in hours, rates are blended across roles and seniority, “fat” has been trimmed, and the relationship between price and quality has been lost. Today we are a commoditized industry, and current and future employees are rejecting the environment this has created.

With 77% of agencies claiming there is “some” or “high” scarcity of talent in their organizations, we need to do something constructive – and coffee could be the answer.

Breaking out of commoditization

Long before today’s $5 latte market, coffee was a commodity with low price elasticity of demand. This put price pressure into the supply chain from retailers to manufacturers and eventually, to farmers. The result: some farms scaled up and mechanized for cost efficiencies, while smaller, quality-conscious farmers worked harder to break even. Remind you of anything?

In a similar vein, to give some clients the cheaper product they want, many advertising shops are automating, scaling up and reducing their reliance on creativity, while those that rely on human capital are finding it harder and harder to sustain environments where creativity and talent can thrive.

So, can what worked for the coffee industry work for us, can we break out of commoditization and lure a new generation of creative minds into advertising?

The first step in coffee’s journey from commodity to the valued product we know today, was the Fairtrade movement. Fairtrade gave people an option to buy coffee that didn’t exploit anyone in its production. From field to cup, you could be sure that everyone involved was treated properly. This transparency, honesty and awareness put a generation of coffee drinkers on the path to conscious consumption. Fairtrade was the start of real, meaningful differentiation and the beginning of a proper hierarchy of value.

So, could Fairtrade Advertising be our industry’s answer? I believe it could. For years, the industry has embraced demands for leaner pricing and processes while still promising to deliver high quality work. The human and financial pressure this creates has seen expectations and remuneration lose touch with the broader market, to the point where employees are now refusing to work in the system this has created.

Human creativity can prosper

By not standing up when procurement measures first started to put the industry under pressure, the ad industry finds itself where it is today: 57% of marketing procurement professionals and 59% of marketers believe their relationship is “extremely or very healthy” – but only 15% of agencies would agree. Industry-backed, tiered products could be the first step in being able to offer the working conditions and packages that help us to build businesses where human creativity prospers. The tiers could look like this:

Efficient investment tier – Focused on maintaining the status quo and meeting benchmarks. Uses the lowest cost talent, and existing systems and approaches.  Staff only work their contracted hours.

Effective investment tier – Focused on delivering incremental change by getting consumers to behave differently. Agencies invest in building a culture that inspires and nurtures, so talent bring a higher level of dedication and professionalism.

Disruptive investment tier – Focused on redefining commercial outcomes and putting brands into a category of their own. Staffed with inspirational, committed, market leading talent, that is consciously nurtured through growth opportunities, inspiration, and a truly creative culture.

If the industry is transparent about the quality of the talent they can offer, how talent is stimulated, supported, and treated, and the quality of the output that can be delivered, clients can make informed choices. By setting a hierarchy, we can be sure to deliver what we promise, and clients can choose to invest in their brands as the needs of their business and conscience dictate.

The talent crisis provides us with a chance to make a stand. If the industry takes a lesson from the coffee business, we can make talent and quality valued aspects of our offerings. But if commoditization is allowed to continue, the talent crisis will drive us out of business.

It’s time we woke up and smelled…

Juniper Park\TBWA is a member of the Institute of Canadian Agencies. Report on Marketing is where leading Canadian agencies showcase their insights, cutting-edge research and client successes. The Report on Marketing provides a valuable source of thought leadership for Canadian marketers to draw inspiration from. Find more articles like this at the Report on Marketing.

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