Solve advertising's talent crisis by thinking like a strategist
A view from Shu Han Lee

Solve advertising's talent crisis by thinking like a strategist

Shu Han Lee, strategist at 18 Feet & Rising and named among Campaign's 2017 Faces to Watch, shares her lessons from the ladder.

It seems our industry is suffering from a reputation problem when it comes to attracting fresh blood.

I remember family and friends alike cautioning me against advertising when I was looking at a career in strategy. I was told it was near impossible to get in without knowing somebody or doing multiple extended internships; and that even if I did, I wouldn’t get paid or trained as well as my peers going into tech or consulting.

I was also told I wouldn’t have a life anymore. I’m glad I gave advertising a chance despite their advice, and that the industry gave me a chance – but I’m afraid many others have walked away. And it’s more than a re-glossing job that the industry needs if we want them to turn back around.

So, what does the industry need to change to attract the best talent? I thought the best way to approach this problem was by drawing on concepts that we’re already familiar with and use daily for the accounts we work on – but for some crazy reason, aren’t considering in our recruitment strategy. There’s no doubt the industry’s made up of great marketers, but we fail to put that same lens on ourselves when it comes to recruitment.

Here’s how to approach the talent issue like we would for a brand:

1. Recognise who your customers are

I think the most important shift in thinking here is to realise that we need new talent; we should be the ones taking a step down from the employer high horse to explain why they should work for us. Once we see potential employees and colleagues as customers – equal in importance to the clients we bend over backwards to seduce – we can then go about talking to them in the right way.

2. Understand that they are multi-faceted

We understand that people don’t exist just to be shoppers of your brand; consumers aren’t single-minded creatures and care about many other things. In a similar vein, people don’t exist just to be your employees.

They want to be able to pursue and develop the various aspects that make them unique – and they can only do so in an open, flexible working environment. I’ve seen many of my peers from university (brilliant, energetic, creative thinkers) choosing to work for start-ups instead, where their multi-passionate experiences and skills are openly appreciated.

To change this, we need to be comfortable with the fact that advertising is not a well-rounded person’s only passion or aspiration. I’m lucky that 18 Feet & Rising realises that – we’ve got a burlesque dancer, a practising carpenter, and a cookbook author/occasional chef (yours truly) working across our creative, strategy and new business teams. And it’s brilliant.

The industry needs to build a culture that enables and encourages people to lead interesting, diverse lives. Which brings me to my next point.

3. Embrace diversity, and mean it

Diversity is the buzzword of today. Many brands have been quick to jump on the bandwagon, be it rightly out of motivation or the fear of being left behind. But the really successful brands are those who have committed to celebrating diversity beyond a PR tick-box. Similarly, agencies who are approaching the diversity problem with a "for the sake of it" mentality will only have it backfire in Pepsi-Kendall Jenner fashion, when they honestly assess the strength of their teams and creative output.

Diversity shouldn’t be an initiative, or an item on the end of our checklist; it should be embedded within our culture. We should be genuinely looking to create teams that bring together different genders, ethnicities and backgrounds – because we truly believe that their diverse experiences create better, more exciting work.

4. Acquisition is important, but so is retention  

Every Treatwell appointment or Classpass torture session I’ve attended has been followed swiftly with a feedback request popping up in my inbox. And understandably so – it costs anywhere from five to 25 times as much to attract a new customer than to keep an existing one, so it makes sense to invest in sustaining these existing brand-customer relationships.

Just like these user-focused brands, the industry needs to continue investing in new talent after getting them on board. We need to give them the training and opportunities they need to grow, and we need to allow their voices to be heard in the meeting room. And, happily, that’s exactly what will continue to attract new talent to the industry, because let’s not forget the power of good old word-of-mouth in marketing.