Want the best tech talent? Don't be an agency

“Criminal”, WPP chief Sir Martin Sorrell said of the agency talent situation in 2011. Not much has changed since.

Jonathan Fren

Can you blame them? The talent, that is.

I meet loads of amazing, incredibly smart developers, engineers and creatives every day. Millennials with wild crazy ideas, wanting to change the world. They’re just not working at agencies.

Tech companies and digital studios are offering developers more money, ownership, recognition, flexibility and fun.

It’s not that agencies can’t offer these things; it’s just the tech industry has overtaken them in the rush for talent, and they’re stuck with a culture and model that doesn’t blend well with today’s tech land.

At agencies I visit, it often seems developers are an afterthought; “oh, we need a digital department,” it was once decided. And the digital department becomes an isolated step in the process. But developers can and should be involved as early in the brief as designers and creatives are.

It sounds obvious. But it helps to be one to truly understand what great talent wants. The best developers want to be surrounded by other great developers. The biggest virus you can have as an agency building digital products is starting off with mediocre or no technical talent; it breeds bad engineering and disenfranchises good people so they leave for places that, like them, value quality.

Great developers and engineers want to be given a problem, and left to find a solution. Give a problem to 1000 developers and they’ll all find different solutions. The ability to give ownership in products, not only in the form of equity but the freedom to innovate, is something agencies struggle with versus product-based companies and studios.

I’ve coded since I was 14, and have had several product-based internet companies; so when I decided to start a company that would build digital products for other companies, I knew exactly what type of technical environment I wanted to curate.

I wanted us to be a tech company. Just awesome design and awesome engineering, but with an agency fee-structure – charging companies for our time building bespoke products for them. It was an un-agency.

I wanted to only hire amazing designers and have no hierarchy in the creative teams, and have minimal hierarchy in engineering.

I wanted to be rid of account managers, delivery managers, project managers, and have the designers and developers control their own projects as if they were our own. I also wanted to give them the support they needed to remain buffered from clients, policies and commercial pressures.

So what can agencies do? The core problem is deeply rooted in the culture and model of 'the agency', but there are some quick, and some less quick, fixes that strong leaders can implement to revolutionise the appeal of an agency to creative digital millennials.

Give ownership and involve early on

Involve developers from the idea stage of projects. Talk to developers and integrate them in the process. Put them in front of clients, and get them involved throughout the design and creative processes. The worst thing you can do to a developer is dump them a big document saying “here, build this".

Tool up

Give creatives and developers the best. That means big, state of the art monitors. Powerful computers. Fast internet. The latest software and online tools. Github, Slack, Sketch, Sublime, Trello, Invision, Adobe Creative Suite, Jira, Confluence, Bugherd. Don’t skimp on tooling.

The number of agencies and companies I visit using old computers, tiny or no monitors, slow internet, outdated tools, and over-dependence on spreadsheets is astonishing.

Stay at the cutting edge

Let developers play around with, suggest and use the latest technologies. Don’t just stick to technologies because you’ve always used them. Clients and the larger world will also thank you for this; and you’ll be building much more value.

Give developers time to work on their own projects and experiments too.

Pay more

It’s easy to say, but some of the tech salaries I see from agencies are insanely low. Spend money on developers. Especially if you can’t give equity. If you absolutely can’t spend more money, at least make sure you can provide a darn fun environment and give them fun and challenging projects, and enough time to work on their own. One great developer > two mediocre ones.

Give recognition

Give developers recognition for what they make – publicly, internally and with clients. Including the junior ones.

Innovate

Don’t be a template agency, building the same thing over and over again. Good engineers want to innovate, give them the chance to. You’ll lose them if you don’t, and you’ll become stale.

Understand and master the process

It’s often much more efficient to have only one developer working on a project than two; or two than four. Be agile, and have good solid processes including TDD and QA.

Hire differently

When hiring, don’t look at previous agency experience or experience with similar things to what you build. Look for side projects and raw talent. Hire constantly; not just to fill roles.

Commercialising creative industry has always been difficult – true creative brilliance comes from an unhindered license to create; something that often doesn’t fit in well with a commercial imperative.

Developers just wanna have fun. Give them good tools and give them ownership over products, and they’ll be one of your most powerful assets.

Jonathan Fren is CEO of Rebel Minds

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