Bad Morale in Advertising: How LR Firms Are Coping

“It’s official: Everybody hates advertising.”

The headline is brutal, and not particularly fair or true. “Even most ad men and women hate it now,” the next sentence read.

Those snips from a blog were in reaction to a Campaign US survey of advertising professionals published last month that found a 36 percent decline in morale in a single year.

In all, 47 percent of the advertising workers surveyed rated their morale as low or “dangerously low,” largely blaming management for failing to provide leadership through worrisome times.

Arkansas advertising executives familiar with the survey pointed out that 47 percent isn’t “most,” and that the highlighted problems aren’t seen at every firm. But they generally agreed that morale issues are real, and several said their agencies are confronting them.

The industry faces great challenges in a Netflix age when TV viewers stream their programs, DVRs allow skipping commercials and ad blocking is rife on all devices, said Ross Cranford of the Cranford Co. in Little Rock.

“If you work at an agency with leaders who are out of touch, stuck in a position that restricts your creative freedom, you can definitely feel unhappy and dissatisfied,” said Cranford, whose father, Wayne, co-founded one of Arkansas’ largest ad agencies, now CJRW. Ross and his brothers Jay and Chris started Cranford Co. in 2014.

Some of Cranford’s Little Rock colleagues suggest low morale may simply reflect unease across most sectors of business these days, but they all agree that technological shifts have disrupted the ad industry.

“Even before I read [the Campaign US survey results] I hypothesized that the driver was most likely the rapid, blinding and disorienting pace of change in the industry — driven primarily by these wonderful digital tools we love so much,” said Martin Thoma, the branding specialist and principal at Thoma Thoma.

He cited an Adobe survey of a thousand chief marketing officers that concluded that “the industry had changed more in the previous two years than it had in the preceding 50 as traditional print, television and radio advertising strategies exploded to embrace social media, web video, podcasts, apps and countless other emerging channels.” Advertisers are also demanding far more data to track advertising responses and “prove” marketing results. “Professionals in the ad industry are being buffeted by change, and many of them question their leaders’ ability to fight clear of the noise and confusion,” Thoma said.

He said his firm has years of digital experience and will keep plunging deeper, but it also keeps the staff challenged through weekly sessions of “Thoma Thoma University,” exploring new theories and practices in marketing and communications. The “vital culture-building program,” he said, includes this mantra: “Evolve or die. Every single staffer on this team knows that in a few years we will all be doing jobs that didn’t exist.”

Ross Cranford said that the right office culture can nurture job satisfaction. “The way we’ve built our agency is for everyone to have a voice,” he said. “We cross-pollinate ideas across our different areas of expertise, and the best idea wins. There are no silos here.”

It’s the Economy
While acknowledging technological pressures, Dan Cowling of The Communications Group and Chip Culpepper of Mangan Holcomb Partners also suggested that overall economic fears are at play in the morale equation. Job satisfaction and security in other media-related fields have been downcast for years.

“I have to say, with consumer confidence so low, I’m not sure morale challenges are the special purview of only our industry,” said Cowling, ComGroup’s president and CEO, who has spent more than three decades in the field. “Times they are a changin’ and even good change is disruptive.”

But beyond the “explosion of technology that has challenged traditional approaches to advertising,” Cowling cited the economic collapse of 2008, which he linked to surveys “that indicate unemployment in our industry has increased by as much as 20 percent in some categories.”

Culpepper, another 30-year veteran, said advertising has always been “a really hard way to make a living” and that “every now and then you hear about layoffs, and that’s never good for morale.”

But it’s hard to be too grumpy in Mangan Holcomb’s modern-style offices along the tranquil Arkansas River in Riverdale. “All I know, really, is us, and we’ve been hiring. And the Team SI part of the house has been named a best place to work, based on employee surveys.”

Culpepper, a principal at Mangan Holcomb, was referring to its sister agency, Team SI, which focuses on data and digital marketing and is housed in the same building. The riverside deck, coffee bar and margarita machine probably figured into its ranking as one of Arkansas Business’ Best Places to Work in September.

“I love this business because us old heads are energized by the young people, and we old guys try to keep them out of trouble,” Culpepper said. “The mentoring goes both ways. But there’s no question it’s a stressful industry and always has been. There are two types of people who go into it: those who thrive and those who don’t. Those who don’t do not tend to stick around.”

Interestingly, young employees making smaller salaries were among the most satisfied in the Campaign US survey. Those in the industry for five years or less were twice as likely to say they had high morale.

The result was much the same for those making less than $50,000 a year. But colleagues in midcareer, making between $101,000 and $250,000, were more likely than not to have far lower morale.

“The industry is barely recognizable compared to the way it was 30 years ago, and some older workers have trouble adjusting,” Culpepper said. “You’ve got to be up on the latest things going on in all the channels we use to reach the audience, and you have to know the messaging you’re putting into those channels. But in some ways the challenge is the same as it’s always been. You have to create something new and original, and fill the blank page and get the work out on time.”

The survey found dissatisfaction with creative fulfillment, with 44 percent of low-morale employees citing problems there. Other complaints included coping with a lack of diversity in the ad world.

“Age discrimination is even stronger than racial or gender. It is truly automatic,” said one anonymous 60-year-old who listed himself as Hispanic in the Campaign US survey.

Challenges and Opportunities
While conceding morale challenges, several Little Rock professionals said technological innovations and new avenues of communication also offer business and creative opportunities. Others, like Rob Bell of Eric Rob & Isaac in the River Market, say they have dodged the bad-morale bullet.

“Can’t say we’ve experienced that at our shop — in fact, morale and business are at an all-time high for us right now,” Bell said.

Ross Cranford said established employees do have to work to stretch their horizons. “People can get stuck in a rut doing the same things over and over, he said. “It used to be just print, radio and TV, but our clients now also want and need web, social media and digital video. So all of these different channels have to be unified under one integrated strategy. The data-driven marketing revolution is evolving daily, and these new opportunities require constant agility and teamwork.”

Mike Sells, owner and CEO of the Sells Agency, says technology’s influence depends on attitudes. “If you’re not changing with the times, it would be very depressing, but if you look at it as a challenge — as an area to master — it can be the exact opposite. For me and the folks at my shop, it’s always fun to have a new challenge.”

Sells said it was easier to make a television commercial buy in the old days and know that people would watch the commercial, unless they were getting up to get a Diet Coke. “But it was harder to know what happened after they watched. Metrics today are advanced, and one trend is that you definitely have to know data — how to analyze it and present it to clients.”

But he said the bottom line of advertising and marketing — using creativity to move an audience to take action — will always be the same. “The only thing that can stifle creativity is the individual ad person or the client. If you do bad creative work, it won’t get good metrics. You can say we’ve got a 25 percent increase in likes on Facebook, but if you’re not getting more clients or selling more product, what use is it? It’s still a sales funnel. If your metrics are good but your sales aren’t, it doesn’t matter.”

Cowling suggested ways to avoid the ruts: Hire unique people and let them shine, and use technology to help clients, rather than chasing every new wrinkle. “You have to avoid putting good people in the wrong job,” he said. “That helps stability and morale. Our average employee tenure is 11 years. Our longest, 26. Henry Ford said it well: ‘Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.’”

Thoma said the advertising life certainly hasn’t grown bad enough to keep people from wanting in.“We had several job openings recently and I had a flood of interest from people who are eager to get into, or get back into, the creative industry. Regardless of the challenges, one thing we can say is that this industry will continually challenge, excite and reward you with opportunities to break out, think new thoughts and do something that hasn’t been done before.”