A New Kind of Creative: Why Brands and Agencies Have Brain-Drain

My first day as a marketing intern, I had one job: find the contact info of all the local movers-and-shakers and put it into a spreadsheet. Besides planting the seeds for what would become a complicated love-hate relationship with Microsoft Excel, the doldrum of this assignment revealed a pattern, one which reached across industry lines and ran top-to-bottom amid verticals. Creatives, I learned, move around a lot.

2015 was a gig economy. You had to be savvy, scrappy, and good at social. Diversity hiring was finally taking off and the pistons of the economy were beginning to fire. From a video perspective we were seeing the larger gears turn that would eventually become the Pivot to Video. But behind the curtain, the industry brain-drain we’re living in now had been well underway. Recession tactics meant cutting weight, and young creatives are always the first to go.

Say what you want about Millennials, but we refuse to die. Copywriters started making coffee, DP’s began managing equipment warehouses, graphic designers laid out church bulletins and sold fonts online. They became YouTube creators and Instagram influencers, Vine’rs and Meme’rs. And five years later, when the brands and the agencies started thinking about taking some risks again, these young creatives were still there, and, best I can tell, still furious. Sullen and salty in a way that only Millennials can be. But the cost of health insurance being what it is, a cold compromise was struck: The creatives would come back, bringing with them all of the knowledge they had gleaned on how to make this magical thing called social media work, but only for a year or two at a time. After that they would leave, either jumping ship to a competitor that offered more creative freedom or to chase the young creative’s Holy Grail, starting and running their own enterprise.

As fast I could update my Excel spreadsheet, someone would move, be promoted, quit, partner with another creative, or leave. Sometimes all of the above. The pace of it was so fast, usually LinkedIn and the company websites weren’t updated, and I had to resort to diving into people’s personal social media just to get an accurate lay of the land.

To anyone who has been in the industry for a while, my freshman observations probably seem somewhat rote. And they are! News flash - creatives are odd people. My degree is in creative writing, so I’ve been around my fair share of offbeat characters. What concerns me, and what I think too many of the decision makers have missed, is that the real talent, the true up-and-comers, cannot be swayed with dollar signs and fancy offices. They aren’t afraid of going it alone because they’ve done it before. They had to. When there was no clock to punch and no water cooler around which to congregate, they were still shooting short films, still drafting mood boards. But they did it for them, not for you.

Speaking to brands and agencies: you can’t match that price, yet you’ll have to. There’s another pivot coming, and in fact it’s already here. New Media, this weird and wonderful thing all the far-flung creatives built while in limbo, is rich in resources, and now everyone with a widget to sell wants to mine it. To do that, you’ll need the creatives to trust you.

Next week: What do the creatives want?   




Hunter is Slate and Main’s Content Manager, staff writer, and It-Kid. Follow him on Twitter at @HunterRaySmith and email him at hunter@slateandmain.com

Hunter Smith