Advertising's triangle of happiness
In his latest column, Will Sansom blends Maslow’s Hierarchy with modern workplace challenges, giving the creative industries a five-point-plan to address the nurturing of young talent.
If 2024's first Focus on shots - celebrating young creative talent - has proved anything, it’s that nurturing the next generation of thinkers and makers should be the single biggest concern of our industry today.
And yet there’s an elephant in the room.
Currently, the effort that the creative industries make to attract and retain young talent is practically inverse to the value that they represent. Indeed, a report published in 2023 by The Advertising Association found that UK employment in marketing and advertising had fallen by 14% in the previous three years.
Real-terms salaries at an entry-level and mid-level have decreased 10% since 2011 - despite there being a cost of living crisis.
But then consider that this same report found that real-terms salaries at an entry-level and mid-level have decreased 10% since 2011 - despite there being a cost of living crisis. And consider that post-pandemic ‘hybrid’ working practices now require employees to be exhaustively ‘always on’. And consider how slowly the creative industries are still making progress in most aspects of Diversity and Inclusion (D&I). You start to get the picture…
So what to do? Well, better.
This is supposed to be a strategic column so let’s use a model to try and help - a triangle-shaped one because we all know that they’re the best and most strategic.
Above: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
If you don't know Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, it's a pyramid model that spells out the fundamental requirements of human beings - building from the practical to the more transcendental. In (very) basic terms, it goes: ‘Am I fed?’... ‘Am I safe?’... ‘Am I welcome?’... ‘Am I empowered?’... and finally, ‘Am I the best version of myself?’. Now this model can be translated into the workplace to apply to almost any employee; but on closer inspection, it’s spookily indicative of how the creative industries are currently failing young talent.
Let’s start at the bottom. Basic, practical requirements to live - in this case: salary. As we’ve already touched on, salaries for young employees are actually declining. I worked on an innovation project last year which involved a global brand giving young creative talent ‘a platform’ for their work. However, a member of the project team was a creative grad who reminded us that ‘opportunity doesn’t pay the rent’. Amen.
Minimum salary is a hot topic right now with a handful of UK creative agencies committing to a new £30,000 benchmark. Compared to some industries (of course) that’s not bad. But the average starter salary remains at £24,000 - that’s just £697.50 more than the London Living Wage. Remunerating people properly feels obvious, but if it was, that small gaggle of agency leaders wouldn’t be on LinkedIn boasting about being in the minority. This is fast becoming table-stakes and it’s a straightforward commitment - nay investment - to make.
Psychological safety is one of those things that no agency wants to admit isn’t present in their culture.
The second tier on the pyramid is safety. But let’s talk about psychological safety. Why? Because without it, being creative is very, very hard. One graduate of the Night School D&I programme that I helped run at The Brooklyn Brothers, told me that for her, being creative meant ‘feeling safe enough to speak up, disagree openly or offer suggestions without fear of repercussion.’ Amen (again).
Psychological safety is one of those things that no agency wants to admit isn’t present in their culture. And yet so many legacy issues die hard; uncompromising egos; strict hierarchies; engineered competition, etc. These are often condemned explicitly, but still allowed implicitly, because it’s where many creative businesses still find their ‘edge’. Unfortunately, if you tell younger generations to ‘get out of the kitchen if they can’t take the heat’... well, they simply will. Just check out the Soft Life trend that blew up on TikTok last year if you don’t believe me.
Above: Last year's 'Soft Life' trend on TikTok.
Next is feeling welcome. Seen. This is clearly an important part of psychological safety and a massive consideration when it comes to the diversity of modern creative businesses. You might have a thorough induction policy, a corporate value rooted in ‘mutual respect’ and eclectic playlists on the speakers… but none of these things matter if a young creative doesn’t feel that the business is capable of truly representing them and the kind of work that they aspire to make.
I am reminded of one young creative strategist who told me that he became frustrated at being marginalised with the ‘brown briefs’ at his (very big and very established) agency, so he left and founded his own consultancy. The takeaway here is that if you’re serious about welcoming diverse young talent, genuinely put them at the heart of what you do and most importantly at the heart of your creative responses. All of them.
Next is feeling empowered to be your most creatively productive self - something that I’d argue is harder for all of us than it’s ever been. But it’s especially tough for those less equipped to draw (and enforce) healthy boundaries.
A recent article in The New Yorker detailed the fascinating shifts in the ‘knowledge workplace’ since COVID. First was the ‘Great Resignation’. Then we had the ‘Remote Work Wars’. Next, ‘Quiet Quitting’ became a thing - popular with younger employees who decided to work within the requirements of their contract and no more. Sundays buried in pitch decks? Forget it…
Now, however, we’ve stopped shifting and have simply plateaued on what the article described as ‘The Great Exhaustion’. An age of indefinable ennui. A sense of simply being tired of working. Causes for this are multifaceted, but chief among them is having to operate within the worst of pre and post-pandemic worlds. Five-day weeks and commuting persist but in addition we’re now expected to be reachable wherever and whenever via Microsoft Teams as if we were still 100% remote. There’s never an excuse not to be on. To be doing. To be productive.
Opportunity doesn’t pay the rent.
I remember Iain Tait - former Wieden+Kennedy ECD - once saying that you wouldn’t spend all day lifting heavy rocks and then go home and expect to be able to lift them all evening as well. So why would you expect the creative muscles in your brain to work in the same way?
The Great Exhaustion potentially affects us all, but for young people - with fundamentally different priorities when it comes to wellbeing - healthy boundaries are fast becoming a non-negotiable that the creative industries ignore at their peril.
And so we’ve reached the pinnacle of the pyramid. Self-actualisation - or rather fulfilling your potential. The cruel irony of this, is that it’s the holy grail of a happy, creative workforce… but it’s also not directly in any employer’s control. It is, however, the result of everything that sits beneath it and these are the things that we can do better at.
So next time your business is talking young talent, remember:
Opportunity doesn’t pay the rent.
(Psychological) safety comes first.
Don’t just respect - represent…
… and no heavy rocks after 6pm.
Phew, time for a nap.