The 10% rule: How to gain speed, capabilities faster

Despite high turnover rates, advertising agencies continue to beg, borrow and steal experts rather than develop their own talent, writes the founder of smith & beta

Imagine attending your upcoming office holiday party. In between photo booth moments, you take the time to glance around the room at two hundred of your co-workers. If given the choice, would you invest in hiring 10 more experts to add to this group or make sure every single employee in that room is 10% savvier in the most critical capabilities, such as content strategy, mobile, and KPIs/Measurement?

A 10% lift in expertise, skills, abilities and competencies would allow employees to better manage client opportunities and generate more opportunities. It’s what I like to call the distributed talent model and it focuses on elevating each employee’s understanding of critical skills. It’s an efficient model that is severely underleveraged in the advertising industry. 

Shared capabilities, versus isolated skills, allow for speed and innovation. In the recent smith & beta "State of Talent Report," we found that mid-level understanding of basic digital skills is missing within agencies. Greater than half of all survey respondents rated their expertise in both mobile and KPIs/Measurement as novice or lower. Similarly, 44% of respondents reported their understanding of social media to be novice or lower. Clearly, many agency employees today do not understand key practice areas that provide the greatest opportunity for future growth at agencies.

Many agencies have tried repeatedly to build the expert department, lab, or specialist discipline with the belief that a few experts will service client opportunities. But that approach falls short, time and time again. Labs are closing, experts are isolated and misunderstood, and entire specialty departments are shuttered. The advertising industry struggles to attract specialists. Despite turnover rates in excess of 25%, we are all too often attempting to hire, rather than develop, talent. Hiring experts has not scaled capabilities overall. Yet, we continue to beg, borrow, trade and steal to ensure we hire specialists or acquire companies to provide those capabilities.

The alternative and complementary approach, investing in elevating the capabilities of every single employee, is not common practice. But why isn’t it? One theory is that talent leaders need quick solutions and believe that the development of skillsets and capabilities of employees takes far too much time and investment. Speed and reaction time are drivers. Relying on experts allows an agency to react to short-term issues, but it does not provide a sustainable talent solution for the future. Another theory is that leaders are not familiar with how to create cultures of learning that promote formal knowledge sharing long-term. However, both theories are debunked when organizations commit to the distributed talent model rather than an isolated one.  

To be clear, experts are not going away, they play a very important role inside an agency. Yet their ability to distribute their understanding and share their knowledge is limited. One or two employees cannot affect lasting change. This limitation is not necessarily based on their own ability, but the organizational rejection of knowledge sharing, organized learning and investment required to upskill employees in peripheral roles.

To best leverage our investment in experts, we must address the knowledge and understanding of those around them. Instead of calling the expert into the room during a pitch, client call, or briefing, consider investing in those who surround those experts. Distributed knowledge increases speed and impact.

Agencies and clients alike are struggling to overcome silos that slow down decision-making, collaboration and shared knowledge. Clorox’s CMO Eric Reynolds was recently quoted saying his company needs to increase its agility to survive. "We are too slow, and we are trying very hard to move faster," he said. "Consumer packaged goods companies are essentially dead in the next decade or two unless we fundamentally change the way we work. We want to transform to become digital first, being more adaptive and responsive."

The quickest way to increase an organization’s agility is to create 10% increased understanding across all employees in key skillsets and working methods. This approach to talent takes commitment, and the belief that employees are capable of evolving what they know. Think ahead, six, 12, 24 months—what is the talent vision for your agency? You’ll be that much closer to your version of "Agency of the Future" by next year's holiday party with an intentional investment in distributed knowledge vs. hiring another round of ten experts.

--Allison Kent-Smith is founder of talent development firm smith & beta. 



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