Mark Pollard: Why learning and development are essential to retaining strategists in a talent crisis

Sweathead - Mark Pollard AI

“Just like the brands they work on, strategists want to feel like they’re growing”

By Mark Pollard, Founder and CEO of global strategy training company Sweathead

When a strategist raises their hand for training it’s a leading indicator you might lose a good employee. Deep down, many of you know this, which is why you try to get learners to promise to stay for a few years under the threat of having to repay the company for the training. 

Irk. But why does this happen?

First, a strategist who wants to take part in training is ambitious and restless. They want to do more, and be more, and they want it to happen soon. Second, they’re showing enough loyalty to your company to ask you to pay for them to learn, but the request is a gentle warning too. Why is it a warning? Because if you send this person to learn how to do better work they’ll come back to the company wanting to do better work. This is where many companies fail. The expectations of the newly trained person are met with resistance back at the office. So they leave.

Most advertising strategists are idealists. You also know this because their idealism is why you hire them. But, just like the brands they work on, strategists want to feel like they’re growing. And they want to feel this to a level many others don’t. 

Strategists are like reverse fire hoses. They can never get enough. And if you want to keep one of these talented reverse fire hoses, here’s how learning and development can help:

1. Training offered with intention tells people their growth matters

Corporate L&D initiatives do not communicate this. They are just time-sucks. Training needs to be intentionally tailored to the needs of the strategist and their professional growth.

2. Learning builds communities and positive teams

At heart, strategists are lifelong students. They’re often the students who liked doing exams. So bringing them together around learning and knowledge is a perfect way to improve the vibes of the department.

3. Many professions require on-going learning and practice. Why not strategy?

If practice makes perfect, why do so few strategists practice anything? Deliberate practice has been shown to help people improve faster than people who don’t do it. Deliberate practice involves breaking down tasks into smaller chunks, doing them, and getting feedback from a coach or a mentor. It’s how many sports people and performers improve their craft.

4. Training is powerful for your employer brand

The brands, agencies, and management teams with toxic reputations are common knowledge on the anonymous message boards. But agencies that put an emphasis on training will have grateful stories told about them within the industry.

5. Learning is a break from competition

You can’t survive long in advertising without enjoying competition, but creating low-stakes, non-competitive spaces can give your people a break, pull them back from burnout, and help them experiment with new techniques. 

6. Training shows strategists that companies trust them

Strange point but true. There’s a lot of suspicion of people who do this kind of work. Do we really need them around? What are they really doing? And a lot of managers squander their talent. Training dares the strategists to take themselves further, and validates their value. 

When I took over leading a team of strategists a decade ago, one of the first things I said to them was this: “I don’t know how long we’ll have together, but I want you to leave here better and more desired because you’ve worked here.”

We built a lot of our working weeks around learning. I’d start team meetings with the question, “What’s one thing you’ve taken a risk on in the past week and how did it go?” All that mattered to me was that we become a self-improving organism. I figured that if we could do that, the work would improve and people would feel more fulfilled. 

But in the throes of the work week–the late nights, long weekends, and short turnarounds–it’s hard to sustain the energy this idealism requires. So you revert back to the norm, and all of the good intentions are put out to pasture. 

Most advertising is mediocre. By definition. And that means that we’re either squandering talent in the industry, or we’re allowing ourselves to be mediocre. And mediocrity is the fastest route to self-implosion.


In March 2023, the American advertising industry purged itself of 2,000 jobs. In April, it hired 2,000 people. According to a recent survey by the 4As (link)–the main advertising industry body in the USA–20% of agency staff were in their first year in the industry in 2022. This is up 13%. Meanwhile people 2-4 years in the industry dropped 8% over the past year.

Mark Pollard is the founder and CEO of Sweathead, a global strategy training company with a community of over 18,000 strategists worldwide and a podcast with over 1.3 million listens.

Pollard’s media career has seen him go from hip-hop journalist to radio host and now, a strategist. His career in strategy started in his native Australia before moving stateside, working for companies including Leo Burnett, Big Spaceship, and McCann. Pollard’s work with the global strategy training company has seen him consult for and train companies like Wall Street Journal, Twitter, The Economist, and agencies around the globe.

Top image: Mark Pollard

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