Talent Shortage Forces Ad Agencies to Get Creative

Fierce competition for talent has forced interactive agencies to get creative about retaining and recruiting employees.

Yes, there’s poaching, but no one will ‘fess up to the practice. Startups, especially those in “hot” sectors like social networking, are said to be luring senior executives (not entry or mid-level workers) with an equity stake.

What can job seekers expect from advertising and marketing agencies in the current climate? I tracked down some professionals at agencies, from large to small, from East Coast to West Coast, to size up the landscape.

Investing in Employees

“There’s a cold war for talent in our space,” said Tracy Cote, executive director of talent at Organic. While the agency won’t disclose the number of openings it anticipates in 2008, Cote said most will be due to growth, not turnover.

The agency, she said, strives to provide exceptional career development, perks, benefits, and a dynamic, interesting culture. The San Francisco-based agency’s perks and benefits include on-site dry cleaning, massages, parties on Friday, pet insurance, and deductions for 529 college savings plans.

More important, Organic invests in its employees, affording them opportunities to participate in leadership and management training or programs that delve into practical on-the-job skills, such as project management and Flash or AJAX (define) training. It’s retained Lee Stapleton as talent development director; he’s responsible for designing and developing in-house programs and other career development activities.

Four times a year, Organic employees convene for three to four days in Las Vegas for Camp Organic. There, the emphasis is on getting employees to immerse themselves in “consumer empathy,” a team-building experience to better understand the agency’s approach for helping its clients.

Recent hires at Organic have included Steve Kerho, director of interactive marketing for Nissan North America, and Bryan Fuhr, planning director at JWT.

Feeding the Pipeline

BGT Partners, based in Miami, gets plenty of applicants, said David Clarke, BGT’s managing partner.

“It’s finding the cream of the crop in that group, that’s what we find challenging,” he said.

The agency expects to hire about 20 employees in 2008. Job skills most in demand: interactive and talented designers, online marketing specialists, project managers, business specialists, and Microsoft.net software programmers.

The agency interviews three to five candidates a week year round, regardless of whether it has an opening.

“If they are unique, creative, extremely motivated, we’ll find work for them,” Clarke said.

BGT’s process starts this way: an agency director or partner spends about five minutes on the phone with a candidate. Promising prospects are invited for an in-person meeting with the director and others. After the chat, selected candidates are invited to a staff lunch on Friday.

“If they are looking for a job, this is not the right place for them,” Clarke said. “If they want to have an impact on the business, and have that spirit within them, then we want them.”

In New York, finding candidates for entry and mid-level positions at Agency.com isn’t an issue.

“Really strong senior level creative talent is tough to find,” said Riccardo Zane, president of Agency.com’s New York office.

Could Agency.com be losing out to startups offering equity?

“I have yet to have someone come to me that won’t accept a position because there’s an equity offer on the other table,” he said.

Zane sees another change from the high-flying ’90s.

“All the nice, wonderful perks had nothing to do with the work or the job,” he said, referring to the dot-com boom. “People [today] will shift for a client, not for a company.”

Slugging Away in Louisville

Interactive agencies in many small- to mid-sized cities in middle America have had to adapt to a tight digital workforce. They’ve either had to lure talent away from larger firms, or train in-house.

John T. Volpert developed his interactive expertise working in Dallas (t:m advertising; the Richards Group’s Click Here digital division, and imc2) and San Francisco and Atlanta (Exile on 7th) before he joined Red Giant Advertising in Louisville, Kentucky, in 2006.

Why Louisville? He wanted to return to the region for family and personal reasons; he was raised in southern Indiana across the river from Louisville. Red Giant was his first choice because it’s ahead of the curve compared to other Louisville agencies, he said.

More recently, Red Giant hired a media buyer/planner with experience in broadcast, print, and outdoor advertising, and it’s training her on-the-job training in interactive. That includes learning about SEM (define), third-party serving and tracking for post-click and post-view activity, and enabling spots (created for cable and broadcast television) to run on sites either via a video viewer or through tools such as PointRoll.

Management 101

WPP’s digital media-buying company, GroupM, is on a massive hiring spree. The firm is doubling its worldwide digital staff to 2,000, according to a BusinessWeek profile on Irwin Gotlieb, GroupM’s CEO.

I asked Bob Norman, GroupM Interaction’s chief executive, about his agency’s approach to hiring.

“There’s no silver bullet to talent acquisition but having the right clients sure helps,” he wrote in an e-mail. “It also helps if you try your best to be supportive and even kind to your staff. They deserve it and if you have a market perception of being a nice (as well as smart) place to work it helps beyond measure as it massively reduces the rejectors.”

Norman’s advice for job seekers: communicate and believe you want to commit to an organization, understand what the enterprise needs, and see yourself in that context.

“[President] Kennedy asked a janitor in 1961 what he did at Cape Canaveral. He said, ‘Mr. President I’m helping put a man on the moon,'” Norman writes, suggesting that attitude goes a long way to increasing a person’s likelihood of success.

Additional (and practical) advice to candidates: “Don’t overtrade your scarcity value; we already knew that.”

And by the way, if you’re looking or hiring, ClickZ recently launched its own job board.

Meet Anna Maria at SES New York March 17-20.

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Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.