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People are not spoils of war

Lupine Creative CEO Kate Wolff says the time of seeing advertising agency employees just as “talent” or a “commodity” are over. To build healthy employee cultures, “we need more empathy, transparency, and authentic curiosity.”

5 min read

MarketingMarketing Strategy

Marketing and advertising agencies have wrestled for talent since long before the pandemic. People do make the work, so finding the right people and nurturing them is paramount.

Now, there’€™s an urgency to the fact that among advertising agencies, where turnover is traditionally high, things are tougher than ever.

Today, all sectors are challenged by the labor shortage –€” making the business of building creative cultures more difficult. The US Labor Department’s Job Opening and Labor Turnover Survey recently revealed that the “quit rate” had risen to 4.3 million — the highest level ever seen.

Nearly everywhere you look, you’ll find stories about “€œthe war for talent.” In this “battle,” agencies big and small explore remedies like more robust benefits, renewed diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) commitments and more flexible schedules.

Wise tactics in the art of war?


But we shouldn’€™t think about people in those terms. We’€™ve branded people as a commodity; they’€™re just “talent.”€ But it’€™s time for a rethink. To build healthy agencies in unhealthy times, we need more empathy, transparency and authentic curiosity.

Empathy is essential to creativity

Research shows there are positive outcomes associated with empathetic leadership such as inclusion, engagement and innovation.

However, for many, empathy no-doubt seemed absent last year. It was a terrible time with 50,000 advertising jobs lost. A pink slip, on top of facing a global health crisis, was crushing. Now, as we clamor to win people back, we have a messaging credibility problem.

We’€™re all still acclimating to nearly two years of pandemic life. We’€™re balancing work with health crises, personal losses, child care, social division and nonstop virtual interaction that tethers us closer — but with less humanity.

We’ve also lost meaningful cultural benefits tied to a career in marketing. We’€™re missing travel, in-person events, inspiring experiences and even airline and hotel status. None so serious as other pandemic challenges, but this dulls our industry’s sheen while the demands for our creative output grow higher. Burnout is real and people are dropping out.

Empathy is imperative, but doesn’™t come naturally to everyone. We must coach leaders to set a good example and to create the brave spaces crucial to creativity. Empathy grows within agency culture when we teach people to understand the gap between perceptions and intentions. It also grows when we teach the importance of treating both sides of any interaction with an equal ear.

Transparency guides communications and cadence

Jettison “€œover-communicate”€ from your vernacular. Transparency and robust communications are essential to building trust.

The 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer shows an erosion of trust that has accelerated around the world. The US, already in the bottom quartile, saw another 5-point drop following the last presidential election. People find it hard to trust anyone. None of the societal figures tracked were trusted: government leaders, journalists, religious leaders and CEO credibility reached all-time lows.

For leaders, this intensifies today’€™s difficulties, especially as we face decisions like whether to mandate vaccinations or how often to ask people to come back in. Answers may not come quickly but we can’€™t let this deter us.

We should communicate often and with as much transparency as possible, even if the only answers we have are that we’re still evaluating circumstances. That’€™s what our people are doing too.

At our agency, we ensure every team member shares in clear expectations –€” or as Brene Brown would say, “€œWe paint success.” Being instructively detailed may seem too pedantic for a free-flowing creative process, but people today welcome it. Clarity leads to people feeling successful at the close of each day, preventing burnout.

Curiosity supersedes swag

Look at advertising agency workplace stories and you’€™re sure to read about perks, working remotely, flex schedules and overdue DE&I commitments. We too often see these efforts as workarounds to problems. We’€™re using remote work to create social distance on one hand and investing in DE&I to reduce it on the other.

Right now, we have an incredible opportunity to transform workarounds to proactive culture-building strategies that fuel more creative work.

As we ponder the benefits of reaching candidates in communities that are not near our urban centers, we also should consider how to forge authentic connections. We’€™re going from a world where brands want ads to “€œgo viral” to one where they want to forge more authentic, sustainable community connections. To do this, start by nurturing curiosity about communities within your agencies and with the brands you serve.

Think about creating things people will talk about at dinner versus making ads. When building for a community, don’t try to throw a party. Instead, look for ways the brand can plant roots that support the micro-economy, and highlight brands and organizations that are “€œdoing it right.”

Generate financial support for community causes, and craft brand messages with people from the community at the table. Looking at the intersectional LGBTQ+ community, for example, more than 70% of community members say it’€™s important that ads are made with the involvement of depicted communities

Building healthy marketing and advertising agencies in an unhealthy world requires all the radical creativity we can muster and a willingness to collaborate in ways we haven’t before. It’€™s time we rethink the war for talent by looking for ways we can work together to make the advertising industry more empathetic, more diverse, and even more creative.


As founder and CEO of Lupine Creative, Kate Wolff serves as pack leader on all business. An award-winning advertising executive, she’s stewarded some of the world’s most impactful brands, helping them tap popular culture. Kate’s deep understanding of the advertising and marketing space frequently turns traditional brand marketing strategy on its head, through cultural, data and behavioral insights. She built L.A.-based Lupine in 2020 with a base of experiential and cultural expertise and has grown the agency to 30 employees.