Gear Up for the Talent Wars

I wrote a short article last month on the growth of online advertising and the shortage of talent available to deliver on the promise of these optimistic projects.

Talent is the most important, and most overlooked, potential constraint to the future of our industry. As I stated in the piece:

Interactive agencies, advertisers, and portal companies are all pursuing the same media-related skill sets, and the pool of talent is relatively small. Why? During the dark days of the Internet, roughly 60% of online media professionals left the industry to pursue other opportunities or career paths. What remains today is relatively small group of hardened Internet professionals who are commanding prestigious Internet roles and generous salaries.

Yahoo‘s and Google‘s recent earning announcements were very clear, very public pronouncements about the health of our business. The industry is experiencing a creative renaissance, and it’s a wondrous thing. Growth is the lifeblood of any professional services firm. In this business, it allows creative minds the freedom to work on a variety of intriguing marketing problems.

This stretches people, requires they take on more responsibility, and offers opportunities for advancement. More important, growth also provides opportunities for people who feel it’s time for a new venture with a different company. This ebb and flow of talent keeps companies fresh and dynamic. Companies are like mini-ecosystems (think of an estuary or tidal pool); many dynamic forces must remain in balance for the ecosystem to flourish. Too little movement, it becomes stagnant. Too much, and it becomes a swirl of sediment or, worse, empties into the sea. Nature solves this in the ecosystem’s composition. For us mere mortals, it’s much more challenging.

Superior talent seeks those agencies that offer the prized rewards. For many, that’s an exciting and complex problem to solve. The agency must have a client set that’s bold, dynamic, and innovative. Great people also want great peers who will collaborate with them to generate the big ideas that solve problems. More than ever, innovation and creativity are the product of collaborative efforts extending well beyond the traditional pairing of an art director and a writer who generated great ads in the past. Big ideas can come from anywhere.

Our job as agency leaders — and this extends to the client side — is to attract and retain superior talent and provide an environment in which innovation and creativity can flourish. Sounds simple on the surface, but it’s very challenging when you break the problem down. How do you ensure you’re adding great talent?

  • Hunt. We have over 50 open positions in our company right now and have redoubled our recruiting efforts. Internal referrals accounted for half our new hires last year (about 90 people). We have what I’ll crassly call a bounty program that encourages people to put forward qualified candidates who they know. It works.

  • Challenge. With rapid growth, many businesses face a highly competitive talent market. Some managers are tempted to speed up the hiring process to reduce the number of interviews. They sometimes overlook fit issues. Big mistake. To borrow a great term, “white space” is critical when assessing talent. Meet them. Form an impression. Expose them to your team. Then, think hard.

    My agency has a rigorous recruiting process. All prospective hires coming in for an interview must write an essay on an exceptional experience they’ve had in life (“exceptional experience” is our brand promise). It serves two purposes. First, it reinforces what we’re about. Second, it gives us some insight into the person; how they think, how they express themselves. We want people who “think different.” Senior-level hires then have a week to prepare a one-hour case study presentation on the same topic. It’s a lot of work, but most candidates like it. If they decide not to participate, then they’re not really interested in us. Everyone on our team agrees it gives us a new level of insight into candidates. It’s better to miss out on a candidate than to hire someone who doesn’t fit.

  • Close. It’s critical everyone helps close the process. If someone isn’t sure he wants to dive in, we help him think it through.
  • Measure. We want this to be an exceptional experience for new hires, so we survey recruits we’ve won and lost to get feedback on how to make the entire process better. We’ve learned a lot.

Assuming you have rich, complex problems to solve, how do you create an environment where great talent flourishes?

  • Listen. Ask your talent what they need. Just as important, ask what they don’t need. We did this recently and got thoughtful answers. Some policies that enabled our survival and prosperity in the slow-to-no growth market a couple years ago are unnecessary and inhibiting creativity and innovation. Easy fix. We also need to adjust our physical space to allow, and encourage, more team-based interaction. This is a bit harder, but we’re doing it. Finally, our people need additional tools to support innovation, such as software programs and faster computers. The upgrades were underway, now we’re now accelerating them.

  • Plan. It’s easy to get caught up in the moment and forget people seek growth. Take time out to help them plan their path forward in your organization. Then, be disciplined about guiding them along the way. Otherwise, your organization becomes a talent rest stop.
  • Invest. A couple years ago, salaries were the only talent investment many companies could afford. Many got out of the habit of investing in people. This year, we’re investing more in training than we have in the past four years combined. Our development programs are focused on enabling collaboration and creativity — the fuel of big ideas.

Today’s talent market is hot. Very hot. In fact, the first interactive advertising job fair in recent history was held in New York last month. Agencies, media companies, and clients are all seeking the same great talent. Let the best company win!

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