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Industry Contributor 21 Oct 2019 - 5 min read

MFA EX: People leave their managers, not simply their employers

By Steven Burt, Group Director

Last week’s MFA Ex will go down as probably the most insightful industry conference this year. There was already a high degree of anticipation about the return of the MFA Awards, held in the evening, but at the preceding day-long conference 1,500 people were treated to thought-provoking and revealing discussions.

One of many topics that was highly contentious was the Initiative session on industry staff-churn, titled Stay or Stray. The agency’s CSO, Sam Geer, captured the audience via their mobiles to vote on why people leave their jobs at such an alarming rate every year. That industry rate is 37 per cent. Why? What’s wrong? 

Key points: 

  • People leave their managers, not just their employer
  • It’s very easy to obtain a ‘manager’ title
  • You do not own your employees; you’re merely borrowing them

There was a big number on the screen at Initiative’s MFA Ex session: 37 per cent industry churn. Why? To find out, the speakers went to the audience.  

In fact, there were large sections of the day focused on retention of talent, which is no surprise as each agency’s IP is effectively it’s people. The interactive session, Stay or Stray, led by Initiative CSO Sam Geer, highlighted the fundamental reasons people leave agencies or the industry.

Working with an interactive format that engaged the 1,500-strong audience via their mobiles, the conference saw that the leading reason for churn was that people ‘leave their managers’, not just their employers. This was no surprise to the panel, including Initiative’s national director people & culture, Scott Laird, and organisational psychologist Dr Lauren Kirby – or to me, for that matter.

Our industry seems to give people the title of ‘manager’ with little or no training. Sure, they may be great at some of the hard skills but may lack the training or development in the softer skills, like managing people. Becoming a manager or even more prevalent, a director, is a continuous evolution. The notion that one day you’re a buyer and the next you’re a ‘manager’ is close to farcical if no development of these soft skills are in motion. 

This theme was supported in another session ‘Why “The Whole Self” Is Greater Than The Sum Of All Parts’, where the moderator, Sherilyn Shacknell, asked the audience, “Who here in this room feels comfortable with telling their manager how they’re feeling or coping?”

The result was a startling 15 per cent. To me, a fair conclusion is that managers may not always have all the necessary training to adequately manage and inspire their teams, nor do their direct reports feel confident in confiding in their leaders.

Sherilyn concluded with a quote that stuck with me: “You do not own your employees; you’re merely borrowing them.” 

The MFA should be commended on engineering a forum to show a path to a stronger, healthier media industry. Let’s collectively tackle the churn and other common problems we can all see challenging the industry.

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Steven Burt, Group Director


Steven is passionate about driving business results for clients, and with his team has been successfully in changing the business operations of both TAFE and Taronga Zoo to online e-commence based businesses. Steven started at UM leading the subscription business for News Corp. Prior to UM, Steven work at PHD as a lead on Hollard Finance Services (now GreenStone) driving digital leads and also calls to their call centre. Steven has worked across various Industries from Automotive, Aviation, Retail, Government, FMCG and Pharmaceutical to name but a few. Steven has a passion for acquisition based business that are fused with creative critical thinking. These drive the greatest opportunity for business results. 

Steven’s qualifications are a double degree in Marketing and Advertising from Charles Sturt University and an MBA from Macquarie Graduate Business School. Steven also has numerous industry certificates that include Google Squared and the Trading Desk 4 certificates. Steven is a practitioner of the Scale Agile Framework with a Certificate from Sydney University.  

Steven contributes to the Media Federation of Australia, the governing body of the Media industry. Steven has been the Chair of the MFA 5+ for the past three years and has been a member of its board for four years.

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