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‘Agencies have been paying lip service to people for far too long’: experts on talent

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By Sam Anderson | Editor, The Drum Network

July 4, 2022 | 6 min read

Employers in the marketing industry have been grappling with talent problems for the last couple of years. As a result, talent has been a major focus of peer group sessions in The Drum Network. Here, we bring you a peek behind the curtain, with the latest approaches to the problem from HR specialists and agency leaders.

Links in a metal chain

How can agencies attract – and keep – the best talent in 2022? / Edge2Edge Media via Unsplash

“Our agency is only as valuable as its people.”

Like most clichés, this one’s true: marketing agencies are exactly as valuable as the skills and experiences of their workers. That’s why recent talent troubles have got agencies so concerned; if it’s harder now to get and keep great people, that means it’s harder to do the number one most important thing for agencies’ continued existence.

But as Robin Bonn, founder of agency transformation consultancy Co:definery, told The Drum at a recent session for members of The Drum Network grappling with these problems, “many agencies have been paying lip service to people for far too long.” While every agency in the world will recognize people as their most valuable asset, they haven’t necessarily backed that up with action.

Add into that mix the so-called ‘great resignation’ and a raft of other post-pandemic complicating factors, and things start to look worrying for agencies. Still, says Bonn, we shouldn’t fall into the trap of calling this a “crisis or battle” for talent (The Drum will have to plead the fifth on the latter). Rather, agencies face a “series of very winnable moments,” he says.

New value exchanges

If an agency is its people, then ‘talent’ in some ways encompasses every facet of an agency. It should be unsurprising, then, that our discussions about talent expanded out to almost every business area, from client relationships to agencies’ very reasons for existence.

One way of looking at the issue is that, as agency RocketMill’s chief exec Tom Byrne says, “through Covid, the core social contract is broken.” A traditional value exchange between an agency and its (traditionally young) workforce is: we give you a nice place to work among friends in a metropolitan center; you give us your daytime Monday to Friday. But even with many agencies returning to the office in some form, the new social contract is being constantly renegotiated without reaching consensus.

For HR consultant Liz Nottingham, it’s no use trying to reknit this ruptured social contract without also looking at the “employment contract.” As HR managers across the industry will tell you, candidates and workers everywhere are more and more likely to push back against offers, negotiate and walk away if the terms aren’t right. Smart businesses, Nottingham says, will be asking themselves “what can we be doing to bolster up such an environment that there’s no point in [workers] leaving?”

True attraction

Every worker, of course, is different – so each will have a different thing (or set of things) that makes it not worth their while leaving. That calls, Nottingham says, for a new paradigm of “bespoke talent management” where agencies “go around satisfying individual needs to minimize the attraction on the other side of the fence.” That will vary by demographic (people at certain life stages will care more about social perks; others about pensions), geography (healthcare will be a deciding factor in the US; less so in Europe), and personal factors (people with kids might favor shorter days or weeks; others might favor more holiday).

“One size isn’t fitting all anymore,” says Nottingham.

The seemingly never-ending arms race on perks and benefits, simply, is a fight that agencies will not win when pitched against wealthier tech companies. But a tailored approach, combined with a plan to attract the workers you most need, just might mitigate that phenomenon. “There are bigger levers we can play with,” says Bonn, “to make sure that talented people think, ’oh my god, I want to be going there and doing that kind of work.’”

Practical steps

The key is to “start with small things that you can control and influence,” says consultant and headhunter Lucy Goode. So here’s a round-up of the practical actions for attraction and retention favored by our panel.

  • ‘Modular benefits’: allow workers to choose a package that suits them

  • Package value transparency: show workers the value of their package – for example, with a chart

  • Focus on ‘boomerang workers’: it’s inevitable that some will expect the grass to be greener elsewhere. If they’re good, keep in touch, and don’t be too proud to take them back if they’re disappointed by the move

  • Take mentoring and coaching seriously: use it as an opportunity to listen to workers

  • Consider that young workers and new starters aren’t enjoying the same learning opportunities that you might have done – and correct for it, with masterclasses, buddies for new hires and team days

  • Get buy-in from senior and mid-level workers: their relationships are essential to culture and retention

  • Don’t just rely on a single staff survey: follow it up with conversations and action

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