Murat Mutlu | Why talented creatives are leaving your agency

Fed up with life at the agency coalface? Sick of working all weekend and not getting any credit for it? Murat Mutlu feels your pain. His heartfelt rant sums up the frustrations of many a creative today.

Over the past few months it seems like I keep having the same conversation over and over again with friends in dozens of agencies around London. It usually starts off like this: “Who do you think is the best agency is at the moment? Is anyone doing good work?”

And ends with them explaining why they are thinking of moving on. The reasons why are always the same:
“I want to work on an actual product people want to use”
“I want to build my own thing”
“I want to explore more new technology and ideas not gimmicks”
“We never do any interesting work”
“We only care about hitting targets”
“I don’t feel like I’m learning”
“We never push back and tell the client their ideas are shit”

The exodus of talent we’ve been hearing so much about at executive/director level is now filtering down to smart young digital/mobile creatives, planners and account managers. And can you blame them?

The people who generate all the ideas and work are evolving and realising that they themselves could be reaping the rewards rather than the agency. Agencies, on the other hand, are happy to keep trying to live in a world which is ceasing to exist. Clinging onto the same ideas, tools, and ways of working with CEOs who are either oblivious to the current mindset or too frightened to instigate change. It’s the perfect storm of increasing entrepreneurialism, decreasing loyalty and an industry revelling in mediocrity.

Startups are offering equal or better salaries than agencies with more perks and chances to get equity, brands are taking design and development in-house after realizing they’ve been spending a fuck-load of money on sub-standard work, pure play product and design studios are quickly emerging with young and talented leaders, and of course technology is lowering the barrier to starting your own business, in both time and cost with the freelance market also booming.

Many agencies are offering whatever trend makes them seem relevant to existing and potential clients (who sadly lap this shit up). Whether that’s UX, User Centred Design, MVP, incubators or the current shiny thing – innovation labs.

While many people will shout “Well agencies aren’t about innovation or hacker-like creativity, it’s just about billable hours”, the sad truth is that whether they are or not, this is what agencies sell, not only to clients but to staff, and that’s the problem.

Promises made in job descriptions and interviews aren’t kept. You never get an agency intro that says

“We pride ourselves on creating branded apps that no one wants and churning out banners that no one clicks on. We say yes to all our clients’ daft suggestions because we know it’s the easiest way to make money. Oh and you’re gonna leave here with nothing worth putting in your portfolio. Fancy joining us?”

The talent is there, as is the desire. Agencies can try to stop the bleeding and try to create places where talented people want to use their skills to build great things for clients and users, or they’ll take their passion and curiosity somewhere else.

So here’s a small but potent list of reasons why talented creatives are leaving your shitty agency. It’s a view from the ground for the agency execs and CEOs. My own thoughts and those collected from designers and creatives (and a few PMs/devs/planners too) in agencies around London.

1) You won’t stop taking on shit work
We understand, you’re an agency, you need to keep the lights on and pay people. We get that. Everyone gets that.

But at the same time we expect you to have ambitions just like we do.

In the beginning it was cool to take the low-hanging fruit of animated GIF mobile banners and cookie-cutter augmented reality apps, just like we thought making club flyers at uni was cool when we first got into design, but after a while that shit has to stop and you need to start aiming higher.

It’s your job to get the best brands and companies doing interesting projects that push our boundaries. If you’re not winning these projects then that’s something you need to address, it’s down to you.

2) You don’t innovate
One of the worst feelings as a creative in the digital or mobile space is when it feels like the industry is just passing you by. In the time it takes to finish one or two mediocre projects the industry takes another leap forward with new software, frameworks, services, devices, APIs, design patterns and interactions, and we take a step back.

The place where you spend 8+ hours a day should be teaching you new skills and giving you hands-on experience and progressing you as a designer.

Clients are often reactive and risk-adverse, they want something after everyone else has done it to death. It’s understandable that clients have this approach. Brands may not be comfortable with putting experiments and prototypes into the wild, but there’s no reason why you can’t explore this stuff without them.

If you sell ‘innovation’ as one of your agency’s capabilities (who doesn’t these days?) then you should be making experiments and prototypes with technology, plain and simple.

3) You keep hiring shit (and not doing anything about it)

Passion and engagement are contagious. But so is negativity and mediocrity. There’s nothing more brutal than watching C players bring down A players. And when your A players leave, who’s going to attract your future talent?

Agencies are fast paced places to work and it’s common for teams to scale up in the blink of an eye. It’s inevitable mistakes in hiring are going to be made whilst under pressure, but the problem is that you don’t have the guts to correct them until it’s too late. Bad hires are like a cancer, they bring down morale, work and confidence in the business.

So how do you fix it? Advice from Mark Suster:
“One of the ‘tells’ for me of a management team that will not be extra-ordinarily successful is that they’re not always recruiting. I’ve seen it before – I send a talented member to a team and they say to me, ‘we don’t really have a role for that person’. Really? I always have a role for talented people. I may not have a BUDGET for talented people – but I always have a role for them. What role? Who the F knows. But let me at least have a coffee and feel out their enthusiasm, talent and ambitions. I might choose to do an upgrade on my existing team. I might be grooming them for when I have more money or more revenue. I might not be able to persuade them now but I want them to know my company so that when I’m ready to step on the gas I have a list of A players I want.”

4) You don’t stop taking on projects that can’t be delivered unless we work 12 hour days
Ahhh working til 9pm several days a week, it’s just the agency way of life right? Wrong, it’s bad management.

Tell your account managers (or yourself) to stop selling things that can’t be completed unless we work ourselves to death. I’ve seen people strain their health, relationships and family lives for what? So a deodorant can get more brand awareness? So that we can meet the unrealistic deadline you promised whilst trying to win a pitch? Or so a client can get dozens of mockups before they go on holiday?
This is advertising we’re talking about, not some higher calling. Everything we make is forgotten about in 6 months. Who gives a shit?

Matt Steel puts it in perspective in a brilliant, must-read blog post:
“Before his work as a business coach, Peleg ran a successful design firm in LA. He once told me that in the 18 years he owned Top Design, he never encountered a true design emergency. That simple truth resonated deeply with me. At Peleg’s firm, they weren’t saving lives or fighting wars. It was a service firm, and they lived accordingly. His team was in the office from 9-6 Monday through Thursday, and 9-2 on Fridays. They set realistic expectations for their clients and met deadlines. The business thrived.”

As Matt says later on in his post, sometimes you have to stay late because you’ve created a problem or need learn a new tool but too many unrealistic deadlines means that you stop creating because you love what you do. You begin working out of fear.
“When fear rules our lives, even the most amazing calling in life can be downgraded to a career. On the trajectory of fear, careers wane through the grey purgatory of jobs, and jobs break down in quivering heaps at the fiery gates of slavery.”

Fear becomes the driving force, the fear of missing a deadline, disappointing a client or wasting time trying to find inspiration. You begin churning out work and forget the reason why you wanted to be a creative in the first place.

The rewards for creatives are often minimal, we’re happy for a pat on the back and to be included in a ‘thanks for your effort’ all staff email but the chances of getting money, shares (LOLZ), or even getting your name dropped into the press release for all that hard work are slim to zero.

Which brings us to the next point:

5) You don’t give staff any credit
I really don’t understand why more agencies don’t give exposure to the people who do the actual work. Instead of putting yet another fucking generic CEO/creative director quote into a PR piece, why not grab a line from some of the people who actually worked on the project and busted their arse meeting its deadline?

The junior creative who stayed late for two weeks getting the project out of the door, the account manager who endured weekend calls from the client asking to make a logo bigger, these guys are the agency heroes. Thank you emails are great but they don’t come up in Google and you can’t link to them on blog or CV. Do the right thing.

Another way to give staff exposure is to start a blog and everyone contribute. Agencies are full of engaged people with ideas and passions, why not let them have dedicated time to blog?

6) You don’t buy us decent equipment
This is a no brainer.

Our job is to create, not worry about the ancient equipment you dragged out the cupboard. No designer wants to play ‘Guess whether Photoshop has crashed’ for half of the day.

Have you ever had to toggle between designing in Photoshop, a PDF containing wireframes, a email from a client with amendments, Facebook and Twitter all on one poxy 15-inch TFT Dell monitor that the last finance director left behind?

Get your designers some big fucking screens.

So there you have it.

I know people will say that agencies have always had high-turnover of staff and that these reasons have always existed, but I’ve been doing this for just over 7 years and it just feels different this time. There’s so many more options now that weren’t around 3-4 years ago, the way people are talking and the general mood has completely changed.

Whilst working at Isobar, every talented graduate or young UI designer I tried to recruit wanted to get experience working on products. They didn’t care about the type of work the agency produced. The brands were no big draw either. iPhone app for a beer brand? Mobile site for moisturising cream? So what?

When one of the designers told me “I want to look after users, not brands”, I had no reply, he was right. That’s all that you ever really do in a place like that.

I stayed in touch with a few of them, they work in tech companies or startups now.
Once they get a taste of real problems and caring for the end user, it’ll be near impossible to go back to doing marketing fluff.

Dustin Curtis wrote in his recent post:
“Learning how to think like this is like discovering halfway through your life as a flightless bird that you have wings and can fly. And once you discover it, there is no going back. It’s addictive and powerful. It ruins your ability to be a worker bee, because you’ve tasted blood: you become a killer bee, intent on understanding why things are the way they are, finding their flaws, and pushing the universe forward by fixing them.”

This feeling is the one that is rarely understood by the execs but it’s critical to realising the future of the industry. Maybe when the hackers and makers are running the show, things will change.


The article is reproduced with permission of Murat Mutlu, and express my feeling about why I decide to change my job and still love architecture and hopefully doing architecture in future in other environment and not common architecture offices.

Murat Mutlu is a product designer and co-founder of Marvel App. This post was first published on Mutlu’s site Mobile Inc. Follow him on Twitter @mutlu82



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