02/22/2013 10:25 am ET Updated Apr 24, 2013

Advertising's Human Crisis

Advertising executive was named "the most overrated job of 2012" by job-search website

Indeed, while the public looks at advertising and imagines offices populated by suave Don Draper clones, here in the real world, the industry is facing a talent crisis.

At a panel last fall, five top ad agency CEOs identified "retaining and developing talent" as their biggest challenge.

Such broad agreement sends a clear message -- the advertising industry must do a better job nurturing the creative talent and savvy business minds crucial to its success.

This talent problem is not new. A recent survey conducted by the 4As (American Association of Advertising Agencies) in conjunction with Deutsch LA found that a quarter of the workforce didn't love working in advertising. Nearly 70 percent lamented the lack of opportunities for growth.

These findings follow a 2011 4As survey that sent shock waves through the industry. The poll found that 30 percent of the collective advertising agency workforce would be gone within 12 months. Seventy percent of employees said that they'd consider a recruiter's offer if approached.

In response, the CEO of WPP, Sir Martin Sorrell, said the treatment of advertising employees amounted to "criminal neglect."

The good news is that most advertising industry leaders have taken the first step -- and admitted that there's a problem. Fixing it will require some significant changes to the industry's culture.

To start, advertising must lose some of its provincialism. No longer is the industry confined to Madison Avenue -- indeed, my own agency will exit the famed road next spring. To succeed at the global level, we need a global voice. That means hiring employees from across the United States -- and around the world.

One way to attract this necessary diversity of talent is to make the world of advertising less insular -- that is, to expand what it means to be an ad man or woman.

Advertising is beginning to incorporate a host of new fields, including social media, data crunching and gamification -- or, introducing gaming elements into nongame contexts.

As the definition of advertising expands, so should the talent pool it draws on.

"Expanding the definition of advertising keeps it fresh for the type of traditional talent you want to retain as well," observed Rick Liebling of Y&R. "Creative people want to work with and be around other creative people, regardless of their skill sets or core competencies."

And yet, 64 percent of those surveyed by the 4As and Deutsch LA reported that it was increasingly difficult to be creative. In fact, when asked to name the most creative companies, advertising agencies weren't even mentioned.

Accordingly, Wunderman/Y&R established Z Academy, a program that identifies top students from diverse academic backgrounds and prepares them for jobs in advertising.

That brings us to a second problem -- the lack of industry training.

The 4As/Arnold survey highlighted this problem. Ninety percent of the employees questioned said that they learned to solve problems on their own. But only 25 percent of execs thought that their underlings figured things out independently.

That communications gap must be bridged.

We can start by defining industry expectations. Unlike many fields with linear career tracks, advertising doesn't offer one clear, well-documented path to success. It's critical that those of us in the industry make sure that those inside and outside the advertising world have a realistic view of what we do -- Hollywood portrayals be damned.

There is consensus around this. "When I was at university, I had no idea what happened in the agency world," Simon Bond of BBDO said recently. "We need, as an industry, to invest time, energy, effort and money into attracting the best talent by educating them what an ad agency does and why it's great to work there."

Our industry must show new employees how to thrive. By creating a support network for guidance and mentoring, our young ad execs can become our industry's greatest advocates. Construct online tools and programs that allow fresh, new recruits to learn from young industry insiders. I know the agencies I represent welcome this and will endeavor to make this a reality.

The fact is, at its core, advertising is a human-resources-intensive enterprise. In the United States alone, more than 462,000 people work in the industry. Those folks remain advertising's single most important resource -- and mustn't be neglected.

The time is ripe for action -- further delay will only compound the issue. Our industry leaders must provide job clarity and support to the creative individuals we need from all walks of life. With them, the advertising industry's future is bright.

William Manfredi is Executive Vice President, Global Talent Management across Y & R and Wunderman.