Talent is the Answer

Credit: Etienne Girardet
Credit: Etienne Girardet

Strategies for attracting and retaining talent today.

Nothing disrupts like a pandemic. 

The advertising industry has morphed in ways that were unimaginable just two short years ago.

Last year, the industry contracted with layoffs and furloughs as clients slashed budgets mercilessly. Displaced candidates came at me like a scene from The Walking Dead

But late last year, hiring came roaring back. Recruiting assignments cancelled in May popped up again in October, as clients gained confidence with the promise of vaccines and a new administration.

Bad Decisions

But the ad industry made several bad decisions last year which it is only now starting to walk back.  

First, beholden to Wall Street, holding companies cut not just the fat, but into the bone of their body of talent. 

Omnicom’s headcount shrank by 8.4% and IPG’s by 7.6%, last year according to annual reports. If the 2008 recession was a wake-up call to do more with less, 2020 was a year of reckoning. Senior leaders were pruned to preserve headcount below. 

But at what cost?  One exec quipped that he’s working so many hours, “it’s not working from home, it’s living at work.” Agencies are now scrambling to replenish leadership roles.

Second, in an admirable but wrong-headed attempt to preserve talent, agencies shifted people from one client to the next without thinking through the implications. People with non-healthcare experience were transferred to pharma accounts, for example. One former Publicis exec called it “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.” It was sink or swim, and many people were out of their depth. 

In contrast, several independent agencies managed to preserve their headcount. The Payroll Protection Program helped, but so did not being beholden to Wall Street.  

Great talent is more important than ever

It’s now dawning on agencies that talent is not just an expense, but the answer. Fairfax Cone famously said of ad agencies: “The inventory goes down the elevator every night.”

Agency costs are shifting away from real estate, as holding companies break leases on millions of square feet of office space, allowing more for talent as blended work becomes the norm.  

Remote work is one of the good things to come out of this pandemic. Before last year, people begged for flexibility and a better work/life balance, but agencies refused in most cases. The pandemic shattered the myth that proximity equals productivity; today, 40% of my recruiting assignments are remote hires.

Hanging on to great talent

So how can agencies take this opportunity to invest in their talent as the world opens back up?

1. Take care of your talent. 

Be aware of the toll Zoom fatigue is taking on your employees and culture. Zoom Happy Hours are so 2020. While you can’t “manage by walking around,” you can check in often and institutionalize more frequent feedback loops.  

Work out a career path plan to keep employees on board. The No. 1 reason people leave their jobs is because they feel like there’s no upward trajectory. Large holding companies are well positioned to support employees in this way, but few do.

2. Put your best foot forward during the hiring process.  

Align interviewers around the job description and skills needed to succeed. Everyone talking to candidates should be singing the same tune about the company’s values.

Hack the process by limiting travel and in-person meetings. One CEO I work with gave a candidate for an ECD role an office tour from his laptop. Without ever meeting or setting foot in the office, she started on March 1.

Don’t leave candidates hanging without feedback after an interview. Ghosting doesn’t reflect well on you or your organization.

3. Always be hunting for great talent.  

As CEO of GE, Jack Welch said leaders should fire the bottom 10% of their workforce each year as part of a continuous improvement process.

Great talent means fostering diversity. The DE&I movement seems to be losing steam as leaders such as Gary Vaynerchuk renege on promises, and agencies continue to fall short. Yet, time and again, diversity has been proven to boost innovation and results.

So let me revise my title: Great Talent is the Answer.

Tony Stanol is president of Global Recruiters.

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