3 Ways Ad Agencies Can Stop Brain Drain

June 21, 2016

3 Ways Ad Agencies Can Stop Brain Drain
“Hire people who are better than you are, then leave them to get on with it.” - David Ogilvy

David Ogilvy’s advice to the advertising industry 50 years ago seems more relevant today than ever as talent seems to be on every agency leader’s mind these days. Any panel at any of the major industry conferences invariably comes back to talent, often the lack thereof — how to find more of it (including from more diverse backgrounds), how to attract it, how to develop it, and, perhaps most importantly, how to retain your best and brightest.

The Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity will be no exception. On Wednesday, June 22, at 1pm, LinkedIn will be hosting “Brand & Talent: The Secret of Purpose-Driven Agencies,” a panel discussion that will feature agency leaders discussing the strategies agencies must pursue to thrive. Penry Price, Vice President, Marketing Solutions, LinkedIn, will moderate the panel. Panelists include Bryan Wiener, Chairman, 360i; Chris Loll, COO, IPG Mediabrands; Pam Hamlin, Global CEO, Arnold Worldwide; and William Lidstone, CMO, Razorfish. The panel will take place at the Palais des Festivals on the Fifth Floor, Salon Croisette, and you can register to attend here.  

The panel will address how turnover at ad agencies has always been higher than other industries — but that gap is widening. In fact, turnover has risen to 66 percent, up 10 percent in the last year, according to new research by the 4A's and LinkedIn. Simply put, agencies are having a harder time retaining the top talent that drives their business. It’s classic brain drain, and it’s not surprising, driven by adjacent employers like tech companies in search of people with the same types of hard-to-find skills like UX design, analytics and mobile development. Everybody wants technology capabilities, except the average first-year agency salary is $45,000 less than the equivalent tech job at giants like Google. That’s a sobering reality, but money isn’t everything — otherwise we would all try and work at hedge funds. Agencies have to focus on offering challenging, meaningful work, rewarding career paths and recognition in order to thrive amid industries that use perks, compensation and a “making the world a better place” vision of the future to lure talent.

While there’s no silver bullet, building a strong culture that’s reflective of what employees value in the workplace most is one way to stem the tide of brain drain, and at the very least out-compete other agencies who also suffer from the same talent dynamics. Companies with strong culture report more quality applicants, lower turnover and faster hiring. It’s not just Silicon Valley players who invest heavily in their employer brand — Unilever is an example of a brand that understands the value of employee experience and is one of the most proactive when it comes to investing in building a strong corporate culture. At LinkedIn, it’s built into our performance evaluation process -- everyone gets evaluated not just on their work but also on how well they exemplify our values and culture. We also just released our list of Top Attractors for 2016 which honors the companies most sought-after by professionals around the world based on billions of interactions on LinkedIn. Having a strong talent brand is a big reason these particular companies are on the list.

Here are my three suggestions for how agencies can build a stronger corporate culture and break away from the brain drain:  

Lead by example

Your agency’s leadership team should create an environment that lives by the organization’s mission and values. If it’s transparency and collaboration that you want to promote, consider providing forums for two-way dialogue between leadership and employees. Alphabet, for example, is known for its “TGIF” weekly all-hands meetings, where employees can directly pose questions to co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin.

Or if work-life balance is top of mind, take a page out of Wieden & Kennedy’s book. The agency’s London office recently decided to trial a new approach to limiting working hours by barring its staff from setting meetings before 10am and after 4pm, and discouraging employees from working over 40 hours a week. Employees are instructed not to send work emails after 7pm and encouraged to leave at 4:30pm on Fridays. Leadership is about more than just communicating to employees — you need to actually live out the values and mission that make your organization stand apart from the rest. Employees will follow you and lead by example as well.

Build a community of brand ambassadors

Corporate culture isn’t only about engaging with employees internally -- it’s just as important to cultivate employees as brand ambassadors outside of the office. This critical group of people will share the experience of what it’s like to work at your company, spreading the message of your culture far and wide to their networks and beyond. Our research has shown that messages shared by employees have up to double the engagement rates than those shared by companies directly. Edelman’s Trust Barometer shows clearly that in many cases general employees are more trusted than CEOs when sharing information.

Connect the right people to the right job

Mapping the right people to the right roles is crucial in attracting and retaining talent. It starts with first knowing your potential new hire, and what they want from the job, and honestly assessing what you have to offer. For example, millennials don’t want to punch in and punch out once the day is finished. More than anything else, they want jobs that offer a challenge and advancement. Throughout the interview process, articulating purpose and clearly outlining how the potential new hire will fit into the broader corporate objectives is key to gaining their interest.

Considering the number one reason people leave ad agencies is concern about lack of opportunities for advancement, be transparent about professional development programs, the performance review process and how the employee’s career goals will be supported. Beyond that, make sure to highlight the company’s culture, such as the weekly all-hands meetings or community volunteer programs throughout the interview process. Armed with this information, both you and the prospective employee can see whether the job is a cultural fit. If the employee leaves on good terms, find a way to leave the door open. At Ogilvy, the boomerang effect has become an important part of the company’s talent strategy, ensuring that star employees know that are always welcome back if they decide to leave.

Ad agencies have an obligation to articulate their mission and values in a way that engages employees and fosters community. Companies that do this successfully attract great employees and see higher retention than their peers. Since 96 percent of advertising professionals say they can find a new job easily, a strong corporate culture has become the new table stakes. It’s time for companies to operationalize their culture -- or risk losing out to those who do. Is your company ready to make the change?

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