In today's fast-paced idea economy, creative talent comes at a higher premium than ever before. To stay ahead of the trends and technologies shaping our culture, advertising agencies need to solicit and recruit out of the best talent pools available. There is, however, more competition for this talent than ever before – from startups in particular. Compared to agencies, startups provide a shorter line to the top and, in many cases, more opportunity and a bigger piece of the monetary pie.
While acquiring talent is a top priority for every successful agency, retention is ultimately what winds up being a major focus. This "talent problem" remains a hurdle for the creative industries; retention means creating and curating a company culture that keeps top talent engaged and challenged to do their best work — a reward that is often more important than money to Millennials.
With the general consensus being that Generation Y is a cohort of creatives who prefer the complete life integration of work and play, agencies must create environments that nurture this integration, à la Google. But the answer to the talent problem does not lie solely in perks like office bars and ping pong tables. It goes much further than this.
One frequent complaint from industry veterans is simply that the Internet has ruined everything. It has. Digital technologies are inherently disruptive to traditional business models. The rate of change has accelerated and will continue to accelerate. We are, in effect, in a state of permanent beta. When we look at the talent problem for agencies through this lens of constant change, it's clear change is seen as a problem when it is, in fact, the solution. The challenges that come with this change are rife throughout the creative industries, including cultural and academic institutions, as well as advertising agencies. Permanent beta is permanent, and its impact is widespread.
Doc Searls, the author of "The Intention Economy: When Customers Take Charge” and founder of ProjectVRM at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, wrote an article in the Wall Street Journal last year that explored the supply side of the consumer and how they now have the power and tools to demand what they want. The same thing applies to college students today: They know what they need and how to get it, and in many cases, do so without relying on their professors or the university. Colleges and universities are increasingly challenged to become more relevant to the real interests and needs of students who are hungry to learn and grow. Agencies seeking to retain creative talent face this same challenge.
Creative people are driven by the need to learn and improve. Creatives are, in effect, learning machines that thrive on challenge and opportunity to improve their craft. If the work assigned to them doesn't feed this drive, they can go somewhere else — and they have many choices.
A creative culture is a learning culture – an environment that is constantly developmental and forward looking – and we all need to understand this and live it, every day. Agencies and institutions alike must create and maintain stimulating cultures that reward talent with work that is interesting and engaging — work that inspires people to do more and helps them grow professionally and personally.
Now for the practical question: How to do this? The truth is there’s no simple recipe. But recognizing that learning (and creativity) are not what we do in one phase of our lives prior to entering a profession or something that we do when we're not at work, is a key step to getting there. Change provides an opportunity to grow and permanent beta challenges us to always be learning. A great creative director is a great teacher, above all else.
Agencies that fearlessly approach change and re-imagine disruption as an opportunity for growth will develop learning spaces that attract the talent they need and deserve. They will also draw talent who already knows that the most profound, powerful and practical learning space is one's own mind. A work environment that creatively challenges its employees and cultivates learning will keep them.