Finding and keeping talent is only getting harder for digital marketing agencies these days, a reality that hovers ominously over this year's Advertising Week in New York. Meet 20-year-old Corey Lenhart, a living, breathing answer to many of the talent questions that ad leaders are agonizing over.
An aspiring filmmaker, Lenhart hails from Waubonsee Community College in the Chicago suburbs. He was discovered by Pereira & O'Dell in San Francisco in mid-2011, after he posted a "thank you" video on YouTube in response to "The Inside Experience," a branded social film the agency crafted for Intel and Toshiba.
Lenhart's tribute to the film, its corporate sponsors, and its director D.J Caruso has gotten about 4,000 YouTube views.
The agency posted his video on its Facebook page and months later asked him to accept a paid internship to work on the second Intel + Toshiba social film. Since Lenhart, who is half African-American, started in June 2012, he has been promoted to production coordinator, or "super intern" as he calls it. And the second film, "The Beauty Inside," in which he has a bit part, has done even better than the first. So far, it's snagged 55 million views compared to the first film's 13 million views.
Lenhart, sits in on client meetings, hangs out with Pereira & O'Dell staff from various departments, and marvels at how much trust the 120-person agency has shown him. In December he plans to leave agency life for a while to attend film school.
His key advice to the talent-hungry digital ad industry, "Push us."
ClickZ: Why did you film a "thank you" to a pair of tech brands, of all things?
Corey Lenhart: It's because I became friends with a small group of strangers from around the country as we participated with the interactive film that those brands sponsored. In "The Inside Experience," viewers could send escape ideas to a fictional character who was trapped in a room with only a laptop. Among the hundreds of people who took part, about 20 of us formed a tight group to help the girl escape. In my video, I wanted to tell the world that this is who we are and how we met, and that we were thankful to everyone who was behind the project that got us together.
ClickZ: How much time did you spend on your video?
CL: We wanted it to come out right after the film ended, in order to get the most attention. My friends from the film took footage of themselves on their webcams and sent it to me. I put it all together and posted it in three days. Shortly after, the agency saw it and put in on their Facebook page and the director, D.J. Caruso tweeted about it and posted a link to it.
ClickZ: A year later, you are coming to work every day at the Pereira & O'Dell office in San Francisco. Did you ever dream…?
CL: No way. When I did the video I was an 18-year-old between my freshman and sophomore years at college without a full-time job, living with my parents. I had taken a couple of film study classes and done some video editing for my Church. Now I'm here. It's been amazing.
ClickZ: What are your duties?
CL: I was hired to help on the Intel account. I was also given a quick scene in the second film and I got to observe part of the film being shot. The idea of this second film is that this character Alex wakes up in a new male or female body each day. Ordinary people auditioned on Facebook to appear in the film as one of the versions of Alex. I handled administrative duties for the auditions, including posting on Facebook and paying the talent. People think internships are about getting coffee and doing paperwork. But I'm learning what actually happens behind the scenes when you make a film. It's 100 percent valuable for my career.
ClickZ: What part of your role surprised you?
CL: That the agency throws so many different tasks at me and trusts me so much. And beyond doing my tasks I'm included in client meetings a couple times a month.
ClickZ: Is the ad business what you thought?
CL: I used to think advertising was all about the money, for both the agency and the client. But I've found that the writers, directors, and producers really take the work personally. Their focus is if the fans will like it, not if the client will like it.
But this is the thing: with a fan-intense project like this, what makes the fans happy makes Intel happy. The client really cares about the interaction [with the audience].
ClickZ: Here's the million-dollar question: what easy fix can agencies make to cultivate talented people like you?
CL: When you see people with the right abilities, be proactive and take a chance on them. Be open to opportunities. Go for it. My grandpa used to tell me, "Do something, even if it may turn out to be wrong. But do something."
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Joan Voight is a Contributing Editor to ClickZ. Based in the San Francisco Bay Area, she has covered online and offline media, marketing and advertising since the mid-1990s for several business publications. She spent nine years at Adweek magazine, where she was San Francisco bureau chief, national senior writer and contributing reporter.
March 19, 2014