Keeping a Team in a Rotating Economy

If you’ve worked in advertising, especially digital advertising, for any length of time, you’ve probably noticed that employee retention is a challenge.

When I started out, the only way to get a salary increase, or even a promotion, was to get an offer from another agency and then use that to negotiate a greater salary. One manager even recommended this as a strategy, probably not realizing that searching for a new job and then interviewing (usually several times with one company) is incredibly time-consuming and usually happens on the current company’s clock.

Twelve years later, the problem is even more serious. Employee/company relationships have changed in the last 20 years and the idea of loyalty on both ends is seriously compromised.

As a culture, we’ve moved away from seeing anything as a long-term proposition, including our employment. Having options isn’t a bad thing, but the larger issue is that once the honeymoon is over, we’re already thinking of our next gig. And, fortunately, in digital advertising, the next gig hasn’t been so hard to come by.

The major impact has been at the junior level, because senior-level positions are fewer. By that point, most people have exhausted their benefits. Even if you negotiate another week’s vacation, the reality of ever taking it is slim.

However, junior-level executives have a lot to gain from moving around: more money, new opportunities, impressive titles, and new perks. And let’s face it, if the job turns out to be a dud, there’s another one around the corner.

You can’t blame junior staff for changing jobs and, eventually, even leaving the industry. Once the fun and glamour of being wined and dined by vendors (probably their own age) has worn off, the reality of the work sets in, and that work isn’t the most glamorous.

Most planners spend their days trafficking, tagging, billing, and troubleshooting. In other words, the same people who were attracted to advertising because of their outgoing personalities (people persons) are spending their days inputting data. One of the quickest ways to make people hate their job is to assign them tasks they don’t like to do and aren’t suited for their personality.

Furthermore, digital is so labor-intensive that, to keep margins profitable, we’re often overworking our junior staff to delirium. Of course, moving around from company to company isn’t going to solve the larger issue of burnout and ill-suited responsibilities, but it puts a bandage on the situation and makes a planner feel better in the interim.

Another larger issue is that managers, many of us who are also on the younger side, came up during a time when we didn’t have the best mentorship and management and survived at a time when being a soup-to-nuts media executive was highly valued. We probably were promoted because of our experience and creativity and not necessarily because of our management style.

Therefore, we need a dose of Management 101. We can’t afford time-, money-, or management-wise to train people who are gone six months to a year later. This creates a huge burden on the team, the works suffers, and ultimately it reflects poorly on the agency.

Employee retention needs to begin at the hiring stage. Creative, intelligent, and detail-oriented people are important, but more important are loyal and dedicated people. Look for the people who were on teams (athletic, debate, school paper, etc.) or who worked through high school and college and still maintained a social life and good grades.

Focus your interviewing on questions that would demonstrate commitment. These are the people who stick with it through thick and thin. They’re not the ones who make sudden moves based on the latest temptation or when things get rough. Ask them for examples that demonstrate this.

If a candidate has been working for a short time, understand why the applicant is leaving a current job. Will the available position address that reason, or will the candidate soon be looking again?

Once the person is in the position, stay connected. The best way to maintain employees is to care about them and what they care about. If they care about life/work balance and they don’t leave work before midnight every night, chances are they’re looking for a way out.

Work out a plan so that they can manage their interests while performing well at work. People want to work for people who have a vested interest in them beyond the day to day. If you don’t know what’s important to your team, start finding out.

Finally, be honest with yourself. If you’re not the best at interpersonal skills, then either you need some professional development in this area to do damage control or you need to reach out for help to someone who does.

Human resource executives, by nature of their career choice, usually have strong skills in this area. Reach out to them, ask them for assistance; ultimately, retaining staff is an overall company investment.

Related reading