Why Agencies Need to Invest and Grow Their Talent In-House

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Jami Oetting
Jami Oetting




Once upon a time, the hallmark of the most successful advertising agencies was their deep pool of creative talent -- talent was as fiercely fought over and bragged about as one’s big brand accounts. Creative talent and the work they produced provided an agency’s differentiation.

Today, agencies are struggling to stay relevant and current in this digital marketing reality. The Online Marketing Institute’s 2014 State of Digital Marketing Talent study shows that the biggest agency skill gaps are in mobile, analytics, and marketing automation. And only 8% believe their employees are strong in all areas of digital marketing.

Where Are They?

Our industry no longer attracts the best or the brightest. In fact, according to an industry study, Transforming Talent Management, it seems that ad agencies aren’t doing a whole heck of a lot to promote themselves or support their employees. Back when advertising was the glamour industry, agencies deeply invested in their creative teams with extensive, proprietary training, and mentoring. They were high profile.

That's not the case anymore. The best and the brightest are choosing other careers or going to work for brands -- magnets offering cool cultures filled with stimulating people, clear career paths, training programs, and flexibility.

In fact, more brands are building their own in-house agencies than ever before (58% in 2013, up from 42% in 2008). Apple plans to grow its in-house agency to 1,000 people during the next 12 months and has already begun “poaching” from agencies. Part of this dynamic is driven by brands’ desire to have greater control over the end creative product and to do it for a lower cost. But a more pressing reason is the increasing nimbleness required of marketing. In a world where a brand’s reputation can be trashed to the tune of $180 million in the time it takes to tweet United Breaks Guitars, speed counts.

Moving Out and Up

The average 18- to 40-year-old person goes into a job knowing that in 18 months she can get an average of a 20% pay increase when she switches firms. Why switch? Because all the knowledge and skills she’s acquired is worth more to a new employer than her current one. Her current employer expects her to figure out her job on her own, demands 18-hour days, suffers big egos as long as those egos deliver, and offers raises of only 2% on average. So, what’s “attractive” about that?

Practice What We Preach (Not)

Agencies constantly preach that brands must treat their employees right because if they do, employees will treat the brand’s customers well, creating the emotional connection between customer and brand, which translates into higher sales and greater brand loyalty. Right? Look at Starbucks or the Ritz-Carlton. Their employees get more training than the average agency employee who is expected to be far more technically proficient and costs more.

The 4A’s study found that 30% of an agency’s personnel will change jobs in 12 months, 70% would call a recruiter back, and 96% are confident they can get a new job easily. Why would they leave you? 70% want to take care of themselves first, 60% want better compensation, and 50% feel undertrained with no career path. 90% of agency employees said they learned by figuring things out on their own.

Clearly agencies don’t practice what they preach. Instead, they’re more focused on revenue and driving costs down. No wonder employees don’t feel emotionally attached or loyal.

You Can Fix This

The good news is all of this is fixable. In fact, it’s an exciting opportunity to create a competitive advantage for your agency. It won’t happen overnight, and it won't happen without your dogged commitment to steadily fixing what’s broken. If you want a thriving agency filled with great clients and employees, act now before you get left behind.

Start On the Inside

If you haven’t already, assess what services you need to offer to keep your agency competitive. Create a list of the knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs) you need to have in-house to offer those services with confidence and unabashed expertise.

Assess all employees (that includes you and your principals or managers), and note each person’s demonstrated strengths on the list of KSAs. Identify the gaps between what you currently have and what you need.

Senior management must commit to doing what it takes to turn around this dearth of knowledge and leadership -- and that means investing in your current talent and future talent. No ifs, no buts, no maybes, no holdouts. Actions will be required by all. Enthusiasm is not optional.

Detractors: you can vote with your feet and leave.

Create a Learning Culture

Rather than go on a hiring spree in a vain attempt to plug the gaps, start investing in the people you’ve got. There are lots of ways to do this, but the most important thing is to start immediately and involve your entire team every step of the way. Here are five ideas to get you going. Some are formal and some aren’t. Whichever route you choose, act consistently, and don’t give up:

1) Create mentoring opportunities.

Mentoring is a classic and proven way of showing employee support. As the Center for Creative Leadership points out, “Mentoring relationships allow wisdom to get passed down in the organization and create a platform for more experienced people to help younger employees manage their careers, navigate organizational politics and be successful.

2) Crowd-source learning ideas.

Based on your gap analysis, prioritize the KSAs, and assign a leader to each one. Each leader gathers and brings back ideas about how to get everyone up to speed on the assigned KSAs. Discuss the ideas as a group, tweak if need be, and decide which ones to do and when. Then do them. Assess, tweak, rinse, repeat.

3) Cross-train employees.

Start weekly brown bag lunch sessions that everyone attends. Team members teach a KSA they’re excited and passionate about -- even if they don’t know much of anything. There are thousands of topics that can be taught even under just one heading. (Recall how meaty advertising and direct mail are.) Why? Because the best way to learn something is to teach it.

As knowledge spreads, more questions arise, ideas percolate, and wham -- suddenly you’ve got excited, inquiring minds becoming digital experts who are hungry for more. Feed them and not only will you have more committed and loyal employees, you’ll start to harvest a crop of that new talent you’ve raised from seedlings. (It’s also a heck of a lot cheaper than paying recruiter fees every 18 months.)

4) Create a standard new employee onboarding process.

Get your employees to tell you what they needed to know the first week or month they started at your agency but didn’t find out until much later. What help did they need and didn’t get? What resources were missing? What did they need that would have made them more productive, sooner?

Collectively, outline your new onboarding process. Test it with your current employees and have them tweak it. Document it.Then, assess and tweak the document every time a new employee goes through it. No employee should be left in the lurch. Everyone should be productive from day one.

5) Hire a training company that specializes in digital marketing.

If DIY is too overwhelming and you’ve got the resources, hire a specialist such as Smith & Beta, General Assembly, or AgencySide. These training consultancies are familiar with ad agencies’ challenges and have designed courses and programs that can be adapted specifically for your agency or delivered as is.

Most offer online or on-demand courses, some offer custom-designed courses delivered on site, and others offer courses at an off-site location open to all agencies and their employees.

Another option is to partner with a local college or university. You may find your local community college is a better option because their mission is to produce job-ready graduates versus universities or colleges that tend to deal more with abstract and theoretical concepts with little hands-on application. “Job ready” means graduates who have actually learned, practiced, and mastered the skills necessary for the certificate they’ve received.

Sometimes hiring professionals to take the bulk of the work off your shoulders lets you focus on what you do best and can save you money in the long run.

Don’t get seduced into using these (or other) ideas tactically. The most successful agencies are creating, testing for, and enforcing a standard baseline of KSAs. This strategic approach means everyone is on the same page and has a respect for and understanding of their colleagues’ roles. That goes a long way toward creating a work environment that attracts talent.

Cultivate Your Own

During the past 10 years, a foreign language has emerged that screams of the need for talent who know about: sales funnels, sales enablement, SEO, social media marketing, tribes, content marketing, conversion strategies, TOFU, MOFU, BOFU, analytics, ROI, multivariate testing, metrics, marketing automation, CRMs, SLAs, lead nurturing, lead generation, workflows, progressive profiling, mass online personalization, app development, social selling, Vine, OpenGraph, APIs, plug-ins … the list seems endless.

The bad and the good news is you’re not alone. This is an industry-wide problem. Every agency is stuck. Even the digitally savvy ones struggle to find the right people.

But there is an answer -- grow your own digital marketing leaders.

Start with making a public commitment. Get your employees involved. Take baby steps, and expand your efforts. Be consistent. Listen, watch, and learn. Tweak. Repeat what works, fix what doesn’t. Keep going. 

Your reward? A best-in-class agency with bragging rights.


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