Close-Up: Live issue - Do ad agencies need talent officers?

Claire Billings examines the growing trend for employing high-ranking human resources experts.

Little noise has been made about the role of talent officers in the past, but the job came to the fore when Bartle Bogle Hegarty and JWT London announced in the same week that they were appointing senior people to these positions.

Lindsey Clay, formerly JWT's deputy managing director, has stepped into the role at the London agency, while BBH has chosen an outsider, the former WCRS managing partner Niall Hadden, to handle talent for the network. Both are charged with recruiting and retaining staff at their respective companies.

The role has previously existed at holding company level, most famously at WPP, which now employs Mark Linaugh in the job. Brian Brooks, a former WPP talent officer, now works at Interpublic on a consultancy basis. The mammoth Ogilvy network, meanwhile, employs its chief talent officers regionally, with Mike King holding the role in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

But why is this title suddenly gaining popularity among smaller operations? One reason could be agency turbulence. This would explain JWT's motivation in promoting Clay. When an agency loses a string of accounts - in JWT's case Reckitt Benckiser, Weightwatchers, Rice Krispies and Persil - staff are bound to feel unsettled.

BBH's reasons are less obvious. Despite delivering less of the top-quality creative work for which it is renowned, it is one of the strongest agencies in town and has had little problem hiring talent in the past.

Hadden believes the rise of the chief talent officer is a sign of the times. "The ad industry has lagged behind other sectors in realising the importance of gearing up in people management. Now there's a greater realisation that talent is the differentiator in terms of success and performance."

Mark Rapley, a partner at The Garden Partnership, thinks it is a size issue. "Decisions on succession management would previously have been done through the daily direct contact between the founding partners and the people they worked with as colleagues below them. They wouldn't have needed to formalise the process. But now BBH is a big agency, it's probably a long time since Nigel Bogle knew everyone who works there."

However, Simon Sherwood, the chief operating officer of BBH, says it comes down to the old problem of there being a small pool from which to fish. "There is a shortage of talented people across the world," he says. "They need to be trained, developed and held on to. If you don't take talent development or management seriously, retention is going to be difficult."

But does this role really have a place in advertising agencies?

The danger, according to Rapley, is that advertising is different from other industries. "Agencies are peculiar, organic and biological creatures - I'm not sure whether one can apply an objective and psychometric approach to them," he says.

Others believe the development simply glorifies the role of the human resources director. "There is a danger that this is being done simply to make people feel important," Richard Pinder, the president of Leo Burnett EMEA, says.

While there is clearly a need for better management and development of staff within the advertising industry, it remains to be seen whether the trend for employing talent officers with grand titles will catch on.

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HEADHUNTER - Mark Rapley, partner, The Garden Partnership

"BBH has generally been good at talent recruitment and retention so the fact that it now needs someone with specific responsibility for internal and external talent is interesting.

"It's harder for the bigger networks to attract the top talent than it is for the likes of BBH, Wieden & Kennedy, Clemmow Hornby Inge or Mother.

"But if you're going to take the idea of your people as assets seriously, it is probably necessary to hire a talent officer as your agency gets bigger.

"I welcome any steps that go towards acknowledging the importance of talent. The jury's out on how well employing people inside an agency works."

AGENCY HEAD - Simon Sherwood, chief operating officer, Bartle Bogle Hegarty

"If you recognise that your single greatest source of competitive advantage is the ability to attract, develop and keep the best talent, then talent development is at the centre of the management agenda. You need grown-up, professional people to do it.

"We've stepped up the role from being a basic understanding of employment and contractual issues to real talent development.

"A lot of retraining has to be done because we all know it's not just about doing ads any more. People have to be retrained to change their behaviour and the way they think. It's easier to do that with your own good people than it is to try to find people who can do it already."

NETWORK CHIEF - William Eccleshare, European chairman, BBDO

"At a holding company level, having someone with real seniority and authority to manage big talent issues such as training and development makes very good sense. I'm not sure a chief talent officer does anything more than a good HR person at a local level. I don't think a chief executive of a local ad agency can really delegate responsibility for managing people. That's a prime responsibility of an agency head.

"It's a good sign that agencies are talking about the importance of people because it is absolutely critical to the strength of any agency. But I'm wary of grand job titles and wary of chief executives trying to delegate one of the most important parts of their jobs."

CHIEF TALENT OFFICER - Lindsey Clay, chief talent officer, JWT London

"Advertising agencies have always needed this role but have been slow to recognise it as a formal requirement.

"It is assumed that this industry's talented people, who are great communicators, are also brilliant managers. Agencies should be putting people issues at the same level in the boardroom as finance issues. It's easy to pay lip service to talent management; agencies are not looking at it as a strategic management issue.

"The other factor is that it has been difficult for HR people to be taken as seriously as they should be because they are not advertising practitioners. You are only taken seriously if you have a track record in the industry."