Thought Leadership

Are marketing careers becoming more Squiggly and what should the industry do to adapt to the end of linear careers paths?

In an era in which creative people have the tools and the inclinations to create their own paths to success and happiness, business as usual is no longer an option.

Nicola Kemp

Editorial Director

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What happens to an industry when the next generation of creative leaders don’t aspire to be their boss? With a fundamental shift in both expectations and economics, the traditional value exchange between employers and employees is no longer fit for purpose. With five generations working side by side in the workplace; business as usual is no longer an option. 

At the same time, for the generation who grew up in the shadow of the meteoric rise of tech founders such as Mark Zuckerberg, the cult of the entrepreneur is in full swing. Of course, there is an inherent privilege in the ‘do what you love’ mantra, which has fast become part of the wallpaper of the creative industries. Yet that doesn’t obscure the fact that the very concept of success itself is in the midst of significant flux. Individuals are following their own Squiggly career path, rather than following the path set by the traditional corporate ladder.

‘Doing it for the man’ and let’s face it in the creative industries it all too often is still a male CEO or board that you will be doing it for, has fast become an unattractive long-term career choice for many. The perceived gulf between the stereotypes of the ‘linear corporate career’ and the freedom and autonomy of being a freelancer or entrepreneur is a significant challenge for the creative industries. When your primary differentiator is the creative talent of your people, attracting those people, and creating an environment in which those people can thrive are a business imperative.

With this in mind we asked a selection of industry experts what the industry should do to adapt to this trend:

Diversity should be a verb; it’s something you do.

Dr Rachael Kendrick

Dr Rachael Kendrick

Rachael, Brave.jpg

Creative Copywriter

Brave

Academic career paths are the least squiggly you can imagine. You take on undergrad, masters, PhD and postdoc like increasingly gnarly boss fights in an unimaginative video game. For me the squiggly part came when I realised just how bored I was drowning in grant proposals, peer reviews and never-ending student marking. When I finally escaped, I felt like a dog let off a leash, and I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of making things up for a living. But I only got to make that break because one person, shout out to Alvaro Sotomayor at Wieden + Kennedy, saw the potential in a weird academic who didn’t know her deck from her deliverable. 

It’s easy to work with people who look like us and seem to share our motivations. There’s an expectation that junior creatives should arrive fully formed in our industry; passionate, peppy, partnered up, complete with killer portfolio. It’s harder to tease out the potential in someone older, younger or just plain weirder. But diversity should be a verb; it’s something you do. The industry needs bored, curious weirdos, and it needs Alvaro Sotomayors who are willing to do the work to include, encourage and develop said weirdos.

Claire Hynes

Claire Hynes, Mr President.jpg

CEO

Mr President

The world of work sometimes seems divided between those who like to stick, and those whose career is more, well, “Squiggly”. I’m firmly of the former category. I’ve worked with the same group of people through various incarnations of agency life for what seems like a lifetime. The businesses are different, but there’s a continuity that goes back almost 15 years and there are advantages to that. For me. But this isn’t the reality for everyone. And for whatever reason, a far more squiggly approach to careers and progress is the new normal, with people staying in their roles for a much shorter period of time.

As an agency leader, I’ve had to get used to this. In the early days of Mr President, every time someone left, I would be bloody furious and take it as a personal affront. But now, we factor personal evolution into our planning and see it as a positive. Once you drop the pretence that everyone is going to stay forever, you can have much more honest conversations with people about their aspirations and help them on their journey, even if that ultimately takes them outside of the organisation. That honesty allows us to get the very best from people when they’re with us.

Rather than forgetting about leavers, we now actively celebrate the achievements of our Mr President alumni. Some have become clients, some are collaborators. We’ve turned a source of angst into a source of joy. The concept of Squiggly Careers helps us all not just to expect but to welcome change, and to stop seeking guarantees about the future.

Only ‘Squiggle’ if the linear path ahead of you isn’t something you want to continue on.

Prashant Yadave

Prashant Yadave

Prashant Yadave, Keko London.jpg

Head of Strategy

Keko London

As someone who started out in politics, then moved into market research, then strategy in advertising, PR and latterly at Keko, I’m a big advocate of people being ‘Squiggly’. I didn’t necessarily plan this route; I just know what my strengths are and, critically, how I could apply them to the different businesses I’ve worked in.

I think it’s easier to achieve ‘Squiggly’ in integrated strategy departments like Keko’s, because we’ve got brand, social, data, tech and media strategists all in one team. So, we’re all able to learn from each other’s skillsets, as well as be agile when it comes to putting project teams together, something that often reveals hidden talents, underplayed strengths and often creates new job roles. We also invest a lot of time in better understanding ourselves and how we behave, whether by using Jungian Archetypes, the Enneagram Test, or Myers-Briggs.

The agency industry is capable of adapting in big and small ways. Picking a project team that utilises the best skills in the building, using personality tests to find out who’s good at what, prioritising skills development in appraisals, creating flexible working arrangements, as well as having agency structures that make it genuinely possible to switch between disciplines.

For people who currently feel boxed in to a role, I’d say the first thing to do is start developing a clear idea of your strengths, then communicate these to your agency. If they honestly can’t accommodate your ambitions, then it may be time to look elsewhere. Finally, let’s not hate on the linear career path too much. Someone who knows where their strengths lie may already be in the best role for them. So only ‘Squiggle’ if the linear path ahead of you isn’t something you want to continue on.

Marian Brannelly

Marian Brannelly, Blis.JPG

Senior Global PR & Comms Manager

blis

Yes. Just as our industry is changing and evolving, careers and ways of working have also gone through a period of transition. The notion of a traditional career was based on a highly structured hierarchical pathway with clear steps on the ladder. While there has always been non-linear movement for marketers across this industry, the rise of the squiggly career means more people are entering the working world without a long-term career plan, opting instead to define success as they shift roles and switch fields. For me, the squiggly career means iteration and growth. It’s less about titles and salary and more about finding roles that fulfil and challenge. 

Companies should provide opportunities for staff to be agile and experimental, testing and learning to collect the information they need to make future career choices. The twists and turns of a non-linear career path mark the lessons learned and the choices made. For employers, this adaptability and capacity to embrace change is an incredible asset. Every company should be excited by change, and people who view their careers as a journey can elevate their peers to do the same. In her Ted Talk, Patty McCord shares a great lesson about creating companies that are great places to have worked at, so that people who leave the company become ambassadors. I think that’s a perfect place to start, building a culture of “never-finished learning”. 

If squiggly careers are the new normal, how can our industry adapt to make the most of what their people have to offer? Start by investing in your managers

Sarah Ellis

Sarah Ellis

Sarah Ellis, Gravity Road.JPG

Strategic Client Director / Co-Founder

Gravity Road / Amazing If

Everyone’s career is now squiggly. There is no such thing as a career for life and very few of us would describe our work using words like linear, straightforward, predictable and ‘ladder like.’ At their best squiggly careers are full of curiosity, creativity and exploring possibilities, and as someone who spent the majority of her ‘first’ career in marketing, this sounds ideal. But it isn’t all up-side. More than ever I hear stories of burn-out, expectations of being ‘always on’ and organisations talking up things like flexibility only to fail to deliver on the practical realities.

If squiggly careers are the new normal, how can our industry adapt to make the most of what their people have to offer? Start by investing in your managers, particularly first time and ‘middle’ managers. Managers have a significant role to play in supporting people’s squiggly careers, especially when you consider up to 70% of someone’s engagement at work is directly related to who they work for. Support managers to feel confident having regular coaching conversations with their teams covering areas like strengths (are they being used enough?), ways of working and exploring future possibilities. Meaningful manager/team member career conversations are now a ‘must-do’ not a ‘nice-to-have’ if you want to grow your people and your business.

Matthew Knight

Matthew Knight, Leapers.jpg

Chief Freelance Officer

Leapers

As the industry moves towards embracing more flexible, agile, short-term teams combining freelance and perm talent, we need to not only rejoice in the number of talented freelancers who are available at a moment’s notice (over 50% of the creative workforce is self-employed), but also consider how we better engage and support our people, regardless of contract. Far too many freelancers are brought in last minute, not onboarded, not given the support they need, receive no post-project feedback and find access to training, pensions and mental health support practically impossible. If we want to continue to draw upon a diverse pool of talent on-demand, we need to put back in, not just take out, else we risk developing a skills gap and a mental health gap. It’s not easy; IR35, time and money get in the way. But it’s not impossible, as long as you’re taking accountability, working well with everyone, not just your ‘employees’.

The industry needs to stop thinking about employee retention and move towards investment in talent, regardless of employment contract. Training individuals for the next role, and knowing that when you hire someone new, their previous company has done the same for you. Embracing flexible, part-time, short-term and fluid roles. Being supportive of individuals who have side projects, as the learnings they uncover benefit their day job.

Investing in the start-ups which people leave to create, supporting their growth, and benefitting financially when they do well. Investing in the wellbeing and upskilling of the freelance workforce, so 50% of our workforce doesn't stall and develop a skills gap, and so you can continue to call upon the best quality on-demand talent. Our people flow between businesses so frequently that we can work as a community rather than an industry. So, we need start thinking collectively rather than competitively, and together build a more supportive and sustainable future for our sector.

We can’t forget the importance of a good balance of established knowledge, especially timeless fundamental principles, and fresh thinking that challenges the status quo.

Rania Robinson

Rania Robinson

Rania Robinson, Quiet Storm.jpg

CEO & Managing Partner

Quiet Storm

Marketing careers are undoubtedly becoming more squiggly, and as someone who has had a very squiggly career, before it was an acceptable thing to do, I might add, I welcome it. 

The first thing those of us who are established in the industry can do to adapt is to start looking at the positives that people who’ve moved jobs in a less-than-linear way bring. These people have learned how to be adaptable and they don’t have fixed mindsets. Given the current climate, how quickly things are changing and with so much disruption across the board, they’re the kind of people you need in your organisation.

Secondly, people who’ve worked across numerous roles, businesses and industries bring a broader perspective to any role. From a personal point of view, it helps to run a business insightfully when you’ve done almost every role. This is by no means downplaying the benefits of crafting and honing a skill in a consistent role but bringing a fresh perspective, when traditional approaches are becoming less relevant every day. 

All this said, we can’t forget the importance of a good balance of established knowledge, especially timeless fundamental principles, and fresh thinking that challenges the status quo.

Gabrielle Ludzker

Gabrielle Ludzker, Proximity London.png

CEO

Proximity London

One of the simplest, most valuable management training lessons for me was to surround yourself with the best possible team and make sure they are different to you, with skillsets that compliment your own. Sounds simple. But actually, it’s not, because really talented people rarely fit in a box, they rarely conform to the traditional job descriptions our industry has held onto so tightly for the last 50 years.

For me, the choice to be agency-side is deliberate. I love the freedom to re-invent our proposition to suit the market and evolving technical/data capabilities. But most of all I love that we can truly be masters of our own career path. Discovering people’s superpowers and creating a bespoke role for them is beyond rewarding. We were the first agency in the UK network to appoint a COO because we knew he would be brilliant at supporting our business transformation. Instead of looking externally for data planners, we asked the whole agency if anyone wanted to re-train and then targeted some very talented Account and IT brains who now are at the heart of our team. We’ve supported Community Managers to become CX experts, planners to run innovation, receptionists into VO talent and more plans afoot.

If you want to keep your best people, you must create the most inspirational career path possible for them, uniquely. It’s not only good business sense, but it’s now an expectation of the entry level workforce. And to move from just a job to your true vocation, you sometimes need a good squiggle.

It’s a more balanced relationship, I believe, between the individual and the corporation.

Justin Pahl

Justin Pahl

Justin Pahl, VMLY&R.jpg

CEO

VMLY&R

I’ve had a very straight-line career. A magnetic north if you will. I climbed that ladder and I knew where I was headed. I used to worry about the ‘crazy decisions’ I thought the millennial workforce around me were making in the first few years of their career. I didn’t think they would be allowed to climb that same ladder in a less conventional way. 

But I’m glad things have changed. The world has gone squiggly. And now the hard part is finding the squiggly people that are ready to ride the rollercoaster. So, I don’t just encourage squiggly careers, I actively seek out the people that have taken them because these people help our industry to thrive. The diversity of people’s interests and backgrounds make us a wholly better and stronger workforce.

It means we look at how we recruit, evaluate and retain our talent with a different lens, to ensure we attract and keep the rich culture that diversity of experience brings to our agency. It’s also about flexibility. Flexibility to do that side-hustle, to work part-time or to take that sabbatical. And to have the time to re-charge so that we can be our best and whole selves at work. 

It’s a more balanced relationship, I believe, between the individual and the corporation.

Christophe Castagnera

Christophe Castagnéra, Imagination.jpg

Head of Connected Experiences EMEA

Imagination

We are constantly hearing that the world is changing faster than at any time in human history. Technology is leading the way and welcomes a new revolution almost every year. Politics and global weather events are equally turbulent and devastating. So, is it any surprise that the way people define their careers and lifestyles is changing as well, especially in marketing? For our industry, change is both inevitable and inspirational.

Agencies are increasingly matching teams to their clients based on skillset rather than job titles. They are creating workforces that have a more diverse range of abilities and specialisms than ever before and can solve business problems more accurately for their clients. All the while delivering beautiful advertising and brand experiences.

As a result, we are starting to see a shift in traditional agency hiring practices. University degrees are no longer a necessity, neither is years of industry work experience. It is, albeit slowly, bringing new voices and approaches, removing the dreaded echo chambers and generating work that pushes boundaries.

However, universities are also responding to this demand for more horizontal skill sets by providing greater breadth in their courses. Where talent used to require different disciplines throughout their career, new additions to the industry must immediately grasp a much wider range of tech, channels, and mediums than ever before.   

Innovation, change, and evolution have always been principles of our industry. But it has never been so important. Agencies need to continue to take risks, listen and provide talent with the space to exercise creative freedom. Careers are definitely becoming more ‘squiggly’ but harnessing this is a huge asset. Businesses that do not will end up stuck in linear ways of thinking and suffer because of it.

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