Prakash Patel, CEO of digital agency Prezence

Prakash Patel, CEO of Prezence, looks at attrition, talent & transformation – the “elephant in the room” – in the marketing industry in this first of a two-part series.

With the emergence of new technologies and mediums, old business models may be defunct. But I can assure you that the old business working ethos is still desperately needed if businesses are to survive in today’s hectic world.

In a career spanning three decades, I have worked full time for only six established companies (including my own company). That basically averages four years per company.

This would have been unthinkable to my father, for whom a job was a job for life. I remember him asking me why I was leaving a perfectly good job, and me responding that it was to ‘pursue a new challenge or opportunity’. We could only make peace by agreeing to disagree.

I guess the same can be true of today’s young working generation, for whom the average time spent at a company is about 1.5 years. To this new generation, anything more than that is a lifetime.

They say ad years are like dog years. I say in digital, it’s that to the power of two.

Don’t get me wrong or think I’m being naïve. It’s great when people move on to pursue new challenges and greater opportunities, or move on when things haven’t worked out. Having said that, the true reasons for this employee churn in the industry aren’t those.

The true reasons are frightening, costly, and challenging.

I ask myself: “Is it the culture? Is it the work? Is it the leadership? Is it even me? Or, perhaps, is it just the new way I need to accept, like my father had to, with my generation?”

This alarming attrition rate is something others and I have never witnessed before. Although it’s making a few astute head-hunters very rich, I feel it’s holding back our potential as an industry. And although we don’t discuss it in public, I’m going to lay it bare.

In spite of the many great things we at my agency do for our team: paying well, treating employees fairly, encouraging innovation, having company-sponsored lunches twice a week, and allocating the last Friday of each month to invite guest speakers to inspire and mingle with – last year we had an attrition rate that ran into double digits.

By the way, these are perks most players in the industry provide to their teams. The question then remains: Why the attrition rate?

This isn’t a problem that only we’re facing. I’ve spoken to lots of senior leaders in advertising, locally and overseas, and one of the biggest challenges leaders face in any organisation, let alone advertising and in particular digital, is one of staff attrition.

There you go. I’ve said it again, “ATTRITION”. Doesn’t pointing out the elephant in the room make us feel better

I remember reading an article by Herman Manson about Saving NATIVE which looked at the process and evolution NATIVE went through during its establishment. Manson highlighted the issue of attrition.

Another article, this time by Alistair Mokoena, also picked up on this.

They aren’t alone, and neither am I – it’s an industry phenomenon that we need to face up to and tackle.

The repercussions this situation holds for agencies individually, and for the industry at large, cannot be underestimated.

Potentially mediocre workforce

Without prejudice or disrespect to anyone, we are creating an industry of mediocrity if nothing more than an online profile could lead to somebody being seen as an amazing person who has achieved much in little time.

Personally, one thing I loved about my background is the solid training we got.

More like an apprentice, we worked our way up within an organisation and in doing so were mentored and taught the basics, from writing briefs through to running brainstorming sessions and basic business etiquette, giving us the foundation we needed to succeed and ultimately build a solid career based on solid experiences.

In today’s industry with its high employee turnover, it frightens me that people aren’t facing up to challenges or learning how to deal with those challenges anymore. To say nothing of learning the basics. In some cases, they’re just running with no feet on the ground or wanting everything now! Admittedly, sometimes it is time to move on, but please be patient when you are starting out in your career.

I hear so many people talk about being a strategist after only being in the industry for a year. For me it was the years working on brands that gave me the insight and understanding of what brand values meant, and what drove the brand platform. If you aren’t spending the time working with a brand, then I feel you may be missing a huge opportunity in learning how to strategise.

What I am suggesting is that patience and building a career has to be the main aim, rather than just chasing the money. Facing and overcoming challenges early in a career will only put you in a better position later on when you’re the mentor or manager – a rewarding privilege.

No references

Out of all the people I have seen leave (and for valid reasons), none of their prospective new employers has called for a reference. This is frightening. Surely if the person you are about to employ is worth it, then contacting his or her previous employee is just basic human capital practice?

LinkedIn surveys and references may look good, but what’s wrong with the traditional ways of obtaining references? Recently I was requested to provide references for virtual colleagues on LinkedIn, yet I had no clue whether the person was good at their day job. How can I grade someone I had never worked with? Don’t believe everything you read online.

Here are a few facts about where we as an industry stand today.

Fact 1:

There is a huge shortage of talent in our industry. There are more jobs than people. So what are we doing? Head-hunters scroll LinkedIn profiles, use PNET and find staff, recommend staff and all it does is circulate the attrition from one agency to another.

In short, it’s all poach, poach, poach.

Fact 2:

A talent in today’s digital space can become a “guru” in less than a few years – whether he’s a bad egg or not. And that goes for anyone from account executive to the head of an agency’s digital division.

In the past, if I reviewed a potential candidate for employment, someone moving jobs every year wasn’t given a second look. In today’s workforce, it’s a common trend.

So do I say no, or do I partake in this orgy of recruitment? I must admit I have changed some of my old ways. When employees want to leave, I do ask about the reasons why. If the reasons are good, there’s nothing I can do to make them stay, and I won’t be selfish in trying to keep them if they are offered a really good opportunity. I would encourage and really wish them well.

But it’s not all bad news. Tomorrow  I want to explore how this elephant in the industry could be an opportunity.

Part II

Yesterday Prakash Patel, CEO of Prezence, looked at how and why the new millennial generation of talent in the marketing industry, and doubly so in the digital industry, seems to think that anything longer than 1.5 years in one job is a lifetime. We’ve also seen how this trend, which the industry has been complicit in creating, has affected not only agencies but the industry as a whole.

Now, having pointed out the elephant in the industry, Patel explains why he don’t just see it as a problem, but also an opportunity for the industry to motivate staff, and give them a purpose in their jobs.

What motivates us?

When looking at what satisfies us in a given career, it’s vital to have a job with a purpose that stirs you every day.

I am not being naive as I totally appreciate the value of salary expectations and rewards. And yes, that means being able to do the basic stuff from writing briefs, contacts reports and marketing plans to the more exciting stuff like strategising for a brand, all of which can only come with experience.

A great video worth viewing (and sharing) is taken from a talk by management expert Dan Pink on “the truth about what motivates us”

The research described in the video is fascinating. It demonstrates how time and time again, regardless of where experiments to test this are done, the idea that if you pay more, people will produce more, is proven entirely wrong the moment that a job requires even the most minimal amount of thinking.

Essentially, money isn’t the all-powerful motivator we like to see it as.

The research shows that purpose in what we do is most important when it comes to our motivations. Take what makes a great teacher for example. They don’t do the job for money, but rather the purpose of being a teacher growing the next generation.

I think this is phenomenal. Even more so in our industry where creativity and innovation, driven by passionate people who must have a purpose in what they are doing, are our currency.  If you’re time-watching, then this isn’t the industry for you. To be successful in this industry, you can’t just chase the money. You must chase the career.

For instance, a recent innovation activity we have started at Prezence, driven by our Creative Director Lizané Connoway, is what she calls “Play Days.” From visiting a museum or writing their own song, once a month Lizané asks her creatives to take the day away from the office and to do something within the creative space they haven’t done before. The only requisite is that they then share what they have done (check out one of our creative’s play day outcomes here).

I intend rolling this out to our technologist/apps department and all business area in the coming year.


The digital industry, like the rest of South Africa’s business world, has made steps towards transformation. But steps are not enough.

Rather than working together as an industry, individual companies are taking on the challenge of transformation in isolation. More can be done and should be done in collaboration with one another. As an industry, maybe by collaborating with official bodies like the Digital Media & Marketing Association (DMMA), we can speed up transformation through growing the talent pool, as opposed to fuelling this trend of poaching.

We should be encouraging and investing in the future of our industry – the youth, students, graduates, and in particular previously disadvantaged groups  –  to help grow our industry and help fill the gap from the bottom up.

However, this can only be done if we all buy into it.

From sponsoring students from previously disadvantaged backgrounds and/or setting up a non-poaching policy charter for all members, it would be great if transformation became part of the purpose and mission of a “constitution” for official bodies like the DMMA.

For now our commitment as Prezence is taking part in the Primedia Bursary Programme with the University of Cape Town, where youth will be given full bursaries and allocated mentors to help guide and develop them. This programme is overseen by the Primedia Foundation which awards bursaries with the aim of addressing the critical skills shortage in South Africa.

This part of my work gives me the greatest hope, reward and job satisfaction.

The passion shown by the 16 students we interviewed at the beginning of this year was heartening, encouraging and reassuring. They just wanted an opportunity to improve their lives and make their families proud.

What humbled me, however, was listening to students who while themselves were in need of help, still selflessly helped others. That, to me, is the root of transformation. As an industry, and as a country, we can all learn from this attitude.

Ultimately, like the rest of the economy, we must reflect the realities of South Africa’s population breakdown. Not only in terms of our workforce, but also ownership. In the short term, however, people who are active in this industry must be representative of South Africa in all senses – be it in racial or gender breakdowns.

As with the development of any industry, these people ultimately need to become its leaders.

If we as an industry plan on growing and providing digital solutions for the majority of South Africans, nothing will give us more knowledge into what the majority of South Africans want and need than just being reflective of that population.

So IMAGINE… if every agency of a certain size and revenue took on at least one graduate from a previously disadvantaged background, what a difference it would make to our industry and country at large!

Just imagine.

Yes, people will come and go and that’s part of growing and learning. But people can also stay and grow.

What we make of it is up to us.

To those starting out in the industry – although joining the current recruitment merry-go-round may be

tempting, building a career is far more worth it. The joy and fun of working in advertising is something I would recommend to anyone, but to make the best of it, patience is crucial.

Purpose is what must drive you. The rewards will come in many forms.

This opinion was first published in two parts, here & here, on