Close-Up: Nabs event shows value of mentors in adland

Speed Mentoring 2011 highlighted how everyone in the industry, not just new recruits, needs guidance.

If it hadn't been such a fun evening, the Nabs Speed Mentoring event - held last week at Dare London - could surely have been done under the Trade Descriptions Act.

Speedy it most certainly was as 100 industry newcomers played a kind of musical chairs, moving rapidly from one of 15 industry heavyweights to the next and peppering them with questions.

Among them: What should I say to my boss if I think that something is wrong? What would you do differently if you were starting in the business now? How do I, as a woman, work with a client who is clearly happier dealing with a man?

But whether all this could actually be called mentoring - rather than networking - is another question entirely.

The success of true mentoring is measured not in minutes but years. It often results in special bonds between mentor and mentee that cross agency divides and run counter to the industry's fiercely competitive nature.

However, there's a broad consensus that the Nabs initiative, now in its second year, has value, even if only to underline how important mentoring has become in allowing talent to flourish - and not just among the industry's newest arrivals.

Indeed, Stephen Woodford, the Nabs president and chief executive of DDB UK, who was among the luminaries taking part in the event, says it has inspired him to think about how mentoring can be made to work better in his own agency by getting more people involved as mentors and seeing that they get proper training.

Mentoring within an industry that for a long time never took it seriously is growing in importance for a variety of reasons. Not least because adland's Generation X, aged 28 to 35, is pressing for it, according to the IPA's latest Future Of Work report.

What's more, there's growing anecdotal evidence of pent-up demand. An ambitious receptionist at a top-30 agency paid the £50 fee out of her own pocket to take part in the Speed Mentoring night.

"Although it was very informal and great fun, you could sense there was a real need for it," Lee Leggett, Dare's chief executive and another mentor for the night, says. "It will give people confidence to ask for more of this from their agencies."

Not that mentoring is without its sceptics. Steve Henry, one of Britain's most acclaimed creatives, was also involved in the Nabs event. But he says: "The industry must always concern itself with what's new and never look backwards. Mentoring may mean too much harking back to 'the good old days'. And that isn't necessarily what we need."

Nevertheless, the new emphasis on mentoring is certainly being noted at the IPA, which is looking to build on its current ad hoc arrangement under which IPA Fellows, including Adrian Vickers, Marilyn Baxter and Hugh Burkitt, mentor top agency managers.

"The more senior you become, the less mentoring you get,"

Woodford remarks. "Yet it's at that time you may need it more than ever because you've nobody to confide in."

This may be less of a problem in time to come with the IPA Council set to discuss proposals from its Professional Development group for the establishment of an industry-wide mentoring network.

Patrick Mills, the IPA's director of professional development, believes the recession has accelerated the need for it as agencies are forced to operate with fewer staff who need to be engaged and motivated without them having to be sent on expensive training courses.

At McCann Erickson, the concept has been evolved into what Nikki Crumpton, the chief strategy officer, calls "reverse mentoring". This involves so-called "evangelists" - just "bright sparks", both from within the agency and out-side it, she says - being drafted in to brief senior executives about "what's hot and what's not".

Crumpton claims mentoring fits most comfortably within the creative industries. "Agencies aren't great 'factories of learning' like McKinsey," she points out. "In our business, people generally like to be inspired rather than trained."

And Crumpton, who has been mentored by the 101 founding partner and former Fallon boss Laurence Green for almost 15 years, maintains it's a great way of bolstering self-belief. "This industry has the ability to severely damage your confidence," she says. "Mentoring will help you deal with that because you can't be successfully mentored by somebody who doesn't like you and who doesn't want you to win."

Yet while the importance of mentoring is now widely acknowledged, it continues to be implemented mostly at the bottom and at the top of most agency hierarchies. A lot of middle-managers still miss out.

Dare will provide mentoring for the six graduate trainees joining in October. However, Leggett acknowledges that "if we're failing anywhere, it's at mid-level - but I suspect it's a common failing".

MENTORING - Nabs style

- Cilla Snowball, Group chairman and CEO, Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO

So, for love of Nabs and commitment to mentoring, a team of 15 of us (including Laurence Green, Lindsay Weedon, Sarah Watson and Danny Brooke-Taylor) showed up after work for the Nabs Speed Mentoring event, ready to exchange ideas and issues with 103 eager young adlanders.

It is a great space at Dare - all open-plan (yes, even Helen) and super-cool - and it was packed and buzzing for the mentoring event.

We all slumped into sofas and speed-gossiped, wondering what we had let ourselves in for. Being a professional swot but total stranger to speed-dating (honestly), I'd Googled ahead on tips for effective speed-dating (listening and smiling a lot, apparently), hoping that these tips were transferable for speed-mentoring. I needn't have bothered, as the super-slick and enthusiastic moderator Oli Barrett, equipped with microphone and whistle, quickly got us under starter's orders.

We were dispatched to tables of ten and the speed-mentoring began, ten minutes at a time, mentors and mentees moving around alternately on the whistle, five times over.

It was noisy, fast and furious, and the time flew by. Everyone had a question or an issue or an ambition to share, and there was energy, concentration and laughter. Direct questions, honest answers, in both directions, all at break-neck speed.

I was struck both by the confidence and enthusiasm of the talented bunch of people I met. We are recruiting really well in the industry and the standard was high. Everyone was relentlessly upbeat as well - a real can-do attitude, curiosity and conviction pervaded all my sessions. Some people had even paid their own way to get on the course, eager for tips on getting jobs. Their tenacity will pay off.

We covered a lot of ground in a short time - on creative work, clients, integration, goals, feedback, mistakes, working in teams and across disciplines. Everyone seemed happy and learning in their jobs, though just before the final whistle blew, a couple of people owned up to burnout. Trouble was, they didn't look remotely burned out. That was the thought I carried home with me.

And that's what Nabs is all about. Supporting people all the way, of all ages in the business, through thick and thin. The speed-mentoring evening was a huge hit for mentors and mentees alike. We had fun, learned tons and it was all in a good cause.