Navigating the ad industry's latest talentcrisis

If I had 20 per cent for every time an agency chief executive has told me they want to hire a new manager and asked who would I recommend, I'd be nearly as rich as a headhunter.

Unfortunately, I suspect that the reason I get asked so often is that headhunters charge a fortune and I'm pretty cheap (well, a few pieces of sushi and a fruit juice).

The fact that talent-spotting is an increasingly challenging part of the chief executive's role also has something to do with it. You can't share a lunch table with a senior industry exec these days without the subject bubbling up well before coffee. The talent shortage, or perceived talent shortage, and the lack of new blood are fast becoming obsessions.

Blame two badly timed recessions. The recession of the early 90s killed off a tranche of young people who would otherwise just be maturing into senior management roles, while the dotcom crash and accompanying downturn had a similar effect on the layer of talent that would now be being groomed for leadership.

Blame, too, the fact that advertising has lost some ground in the careers' beauty parade, with management consultancies and the City offering starting salaries that would make Sir Martin Sorrell weep. Then there's the work/life balance thing. At the risk of sounding like a jaded old cynic (yeah, yeah), young entrants into the ad business (and probably most other businesses too) don't come in with the sort of career-for-life mentality that the Thatcherite 80s instilled in my generation. Life is more important than work, and graduates come in for a few years then bugger off travelling or doing voluntary work overseas, whatever. It's impossible to compete with that.

So I expect the emerging talent in the digital sector - showcased in our feature on page 26 this week - will be hungrily eyed by the rest of the industry. Not only is digital experience about as marketable as you can get right now, but this is a sector to which keen young talent is gravitating and where management experience is on offer at a far younger age than traditional agencies can match. Plus, it's a sector of the business that seems to keep up that wide-eyed passion longer than more traditional agencies (particularly those that are part of international networks) can manage.

No doubt the people profiled in our feature will find themselves suitably courted by prospective employers and even more highly valued by their current employers now that they've been singled out.

Yet, take note of the recent experience of one traditional creative agency chief executive who has been raiding digital agencies for their creative talent. Apparently once his new digital creatives were safely installed in the bosom of the traditional creative department, they all started sniffing round the traditional creative briefs, writing TV ads, designing posters, broadening out their portfolios. Of course, they came up with some cracking ideas and, anyway, you'd be a mug if you were happy to stay a one-trick pony. But it's a lesson in how hard it is to change an agency culture with the addition of a handful of people from a fresh new sector.

Anyway, if there's a lesson from all of this, it's that talent shortage or no, the real trick is holding on to the good people once you land them. Many agencies across the different sectors are now experiencing staff churn rates of 30 per cent or more. That's a crippling cost (in terms of recruitment, training and the inevitable salary inflation that comes when you have to continually poach from rivals). And a ridiculous waste of time and energy. So it's not just a case of spotting talent, it's holding on to it too.

That means better training and benefits, better acknowledgement of the new work/life balance ethic and, fundamentally, offering the right environment for young people to round-out their experience beyond the silos that currently prevail. That way the industry will really begin nurturing a new breed of executive ready for the opportunities ahead.


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