High churn and low productivity: why the creative recruitment model is broken

When talent is the creative industries biggest asset, fixing the broken recruitment model must be an industry imperative.

The creative industries are at a pivotal time for talent. More and more companies are competing for the same skills within limited talent pools. Talent acquisition and retention are maybe the biggest issues businesses now face, with even more uncertainty over what this looks like in the future.

Churn is high, diversity and inclusion is only inching forward, neurodiversity has joined the conversation and the industry keeps shooting itself in the foot with Top 5 lists and shocking gender pay gaps. So how are the processes and suppliers behind these challenges supporting the industry, their clients and the solution?

The traditional recruitment agency model is broken.

Dated methodologies are not fit for purpose to serve the market and address the problems all creative businesses and departments face. It used to be that people were driven by five main pillars when deciding on their career path: company, remuneration, location, job role and progression.

For talented people in the industry, with even a reasonable level of confidence, they don’t need a company to work for. Therefore if they do choose to consider that path, the focus has shifted to what businesses can offer them during the time they work there. The type of work and projects that they’re going to be working on, the flexibility afforded whilst doing this, their specific ability to impact that business, and how they’re treated. They want to enjoy ‘employed life’ and enhance their skills whilst doing it. The paradox is, that this then puts them in an even better place to not need the company anymore and the cycle continues.

So, what do your recruitment agencies need to be doing and why is it not working?

  1. Put you, the customer first: The most successful modern businesses put the customer/ consumer first and build everything around this. The way traditional recruitment agencies work, prevents this from being possible. They do not operate in the best interests of either of their customer groups; hiring clients and candidates. Instead all processes and decision making are centred around money. At a macro level, where the business will make the most money, and at a micro level, how much commission the Consultant will earn. Now I must emphasise you can’t blame the recruiters for this. It has been this way for decades and most have been brought up and educated in this way of thinking and after all, they are working to put food on their table, but the industry as a whole is to blame. If it doesn't adapt now, it will become irrelevant. Clients require more and are rightly demanding it.

  1. Be authentic:  The commission centred model leads to clients being prioritised based on the level of fees they pay and the talent is manipulated by ‘the sell’. An agency paying low fees can become a sweatshop and an agency paying high fees becomes the best place to further your career, develop your portfolio, win awards and have an amazing work life balance. Sound familiar? The negative impact on the creative industries is huge: high churn, low productivity, disrupted cultures and eroded profits. No longer should these quick win behaviours to get a fee in be allowed to continue. Recruiters need to authentic with their clients and their candidates and put the right people in the right jobs.

  1. Work together to create modern diverse and inclusive workforce: Your recruiter should be a talent partner who can help you with creating a more diverse and inclusive workplace. Having a diversity agenda or quota is not going to drive any actionable change if the recruiter filling the talent funnel is making decisions motivated by their own compelling bias; cash. You can ask recruiters to provide 50:50 shortlists or commit them to accessing new and mysterious talent pools that quite frankly don’t exist, but all you will ever get is lip service. It is only in the recruiters interest in the current model to fill as many jobs, as quickly as possible, to make as much money as possible. Now I will also be clear that many creative agencies accentuate this problem by putting recruitment briefs out to 3, 4 or even 5 agencies at once, thus amplifying the race and worsening the problem. This does not broaden your potential talent pool, the market is too small, this just puts a rocket in to already bad practices.

  1. Working with creative businesses to overcome the gender pay gap: With the gender pay gap still top of the news agenda, there is no doubt that many agencies are nervous about the reputational damage their own data will cause. Recruitment agencies are in a privileged position of having a whole of job market view and the salary and employment data that comes with it. Recruiters should be partnering with businesses to take a long term view on how to address this problem. Using their data, knowledge and influence to educate and inform. Currently any difficult conversations about flexible working or candidates requirements returning from maternity or paternity leave are avoided because it is seen as less likely they will get their fee over another candidate who doesn’t require these considerations. Recruiters won’t address male dominated cultures, they will compound the problem by recruiting to type to get the deal done.

  1. Develop and promote your Employee Value Proposition: Having an engaged, purpose driven workforce and low churn is a common business goal. The essence of your business is lost (a problem magnified when you instruct more than one recruiter) because recruiters care about the wrong things. No matter how hard you work on finding those small competitive advantages and invest in your culture, it disappears in rushed and vague communication to prospective talent when recruiters work with a large portfolio of clients chasing fees.

  1. Innovating and investing in technology: I believe permanent talent acquisition is a process that can't be replaced by technology, but it does need to be augmented by it to improve efficiencies and methodologies. AI and machine learned algorithms aren’t smart enough yet to understand people's emotional drivers and culture fit, but they can add value. New technologies can map culture, both current and aspirational and they can learn trends about what works and what doesn’t in your business. Like any data lead learned solution you have to be aware of the quality of the inputs, but these innovations are coming and they are coming quickly.

Disruption and innovation are at the very core of the creative industries and are key to what makes them such an exciting world to be part of.

Recruitment businesses supplying the market need to urgently take an introspective view with this in mind and pivot, otherwise they will find themselves quickly replaced.

Creative businesses need to be asking more of their talent partners and challenging them to change. Brands are asking this of agencies in an increasingly volatile and evolving market. Talent is central to all. Recruiters need to recognise and help to solve these very real business problems they, and the creative industry are facing, otherwise it will all collapse.

Ross Taylor is the former founder and CEO of Gemini People and a talent consultant passionate about diversity.

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