As part of Leeds Digital Festival, I was asked by my friend Mark Kelly (Agency Growth Coach) to give a talk to a room full of agency leaders around how digital creative agencies could/should go about finding, retaining and developing their talent. This is that talk in blog form.
‘Finding’ talent in the first place is tough - really tough. After 15+ years of doing it for a living, it’s still a struggle to boil that down to a 20 minute talk so I tackled something a bit a different, focusing instead on the complete opposite; the reasons why agencies might lose the talent they already have!
Bear with me here because it is, in my experience, the way you treat you current staff and the culture you’ve developed along the way, that’s by far and away the most effective tool you have for attracting new talent to your agency. And hopefully, by pointing some of these reasons out, it’ll help you avoid them and therefore, avoid the needless cycles of finding replacements and having to treat all recruitment as a firefighting exercises.
So, before we dive in, a line or two about me for those of you that don’t know me already…
I left art school back in 2002 and after failing as a full-time graphic designer, I started working as a recruiter within the creative sector in 2004, setting up on my own, as Character Creative, in 2006.
Since then I’ve worked with loads of creative agencies and over the years I’ve helped build teams that have delivered award winning work for businesses and brands all over the world.
I’ve seen what works and what doesn’t work. Within agencies that are big, small and inbetween and these reasons are pretty universal - no matter what the size or make-up of the organisation.
I speak to a lot of people - particularly people that are frustrated in their current roles and who’d like some help to move on. And over the years, I’ve come to recognise some patterns in those conversations - particularly when it comes to the real reasons people want to leave.
So, in a somewhat logical order…
1. You ‘tell’ and don’t ‘ask’
In my experience the best agencies are run as democracies - it’s probably a philosophy every agency sets out with - sure, they have structure and management, but everyone has a voice and is everyone is heard.
However, despite these claims, it’s a lack of influence or a general feeling of being under-mined that’s easily the number one reason for talented people wanting to leave their jobs.
It comes ahead of money, promotions, holidays or fancy perks - the feeling that you’re listened to and ‘valued’ is more important ANYTHING else.
Take a minute to think about the word Undermine -
It’s the compound of…
Under + Mine
In this circumstance, two definitions stand out:
- to not make the most of an available resource.
- to lessen the effectiveness, power or ability of something (or someone), especially gradually or insidiously.
Corrosive and detrimental stuff. Not good.
Without a watchful eye on behaviours, it’s easier than you think to get here and become more of a dictatorship rather than the democracy you set out to be.
And it’s understandable too - chances are, you been around the block, seen it, heard it and done it before - multiple times - so more often than not, before you’ve even been asked the question, you’re ready with an answer - or at least you think you are. The temptation then is to throw that answer straight at the team and task them with the execution rather than involving them in the conversation in the first place. It’s faster, *easier* and less effort - for you you at least.
My advice; even if you *think* you know the answer, ask it anyway.
At worst; you come to the same conclusion you thought you were going to anyway. But at least you’ve engaged your team and made them *part of the process* rather than just have them carry out instruction.
At best: you get a solution you’d never thought of, a better one, a more concise one, more radical, more impactful. Imagine that?
I’m not suggesting you turn the fate of every project over to staff that might still be unproven but lean on them. Challenge them. With inexperienced staff, do it when you’ve got the safety net of your rock solid solution up your sleeve anyway. They’ll like it. Even if they don’t tell you.
After all, you’ve spent good money on acquiring the‘talent’ in the first place so using them as nothing more than instruments to issue instruction to is a waste - for everyone.
It’s also a sure fire way to see them out the door pretty quickly.
BTW, aren’t we an industry that takes pride in the fact that, for many of our best creatives, this is more than a job - it’s a calling anyway?
2. You promised the Earth
If you’re losing people within weeks or months of their start dates, it’s almost definitely for this reason -
You’ve (or they) have over promised on the role you’ve put them in.
“The role I’ve got is not definitely NOT what they sold me!”
“I’m basically just art working”.
You’d be really surprised how often I hear things like this.
You can have all the beanbags, Fussball tables and artisan coffee you like but if the role sucks, you’ll get found out sooner than you think. In a competitive market, where good people can sometimes get multiple offers, that can happen within a day or two! I know a designer that walked within 24 hrs!
Don’t get me wrong, like all the other reasons on this list, it’s understandable - the market’s competitive so there’s always a temptation to sell someone the dream and miss out on some of the mundanity of the day to day.
Solve this by articulating what it is you’re aiming for - a direction of travel - that’s ’the dream’ if you like, but be honest about the here and now too - the short term vs the long term - say things like…
‘we’re trying to get here - we’re moving closer, but there’s a way to go - and we’re hoping you’ll be a really important part of helping us get there.’
That invitation to come along for the ride, to ‘roll up their sleeves’ and ‘get stuck in’ and - importantly - to have a say in what happens next - can actually be even more enticing than the dream itself. People love to be a part of something bigger, to help build it. When you get them there, they’re much more invested too so therefore, much more likely to stick around for longer to enjoy the fruits of that labour.
It requires some faith of course, if that vision of the short term pain puts some perceivably good people off, have faith that you’re much better off knowing that now than in 6 months time and having to repeat the cycle all over again.
3. Lack of progress
If people are hanging around a bit longer then 2nd on the list of reasons is normally, lack of progression.
It’s sounds a bit ‘X Factor’ but most people like to feel like they’re on ‘a journey’. Especially when it comes to their careers.
For ambitious, young creatives - in particular - feeling like you’re ‘standing still’ feels more like you’re falling behind.
And whilst money isn’t everything, it does play a part. A small pay rise is often worth much than the value of the money itself in the minds of your talent. It’s a gesture of good will, an acknowledgement of a job well done, a sign that they’re moving forwards and making progress.
If you still think…
“Pay checks at the end of the month are reward enough!”
You’re in trouble.
That *might* be true in some industries but it’s definitely not in ours - not if you want people to hang around.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think pay rises should be a given just for ‘time served’ and it’s not the only answer, but if someone’s adding value and delivering on what you’ve asked for, it’s a really good and obvious place to start when it comes to demonstrating they’re making progress.
There are other ways of course - training and development courses, mentorships, memberships to clubs and industry bodies and a bunch of other perks but I’ll save that for a future post.
All in all, think about giving people realistic, agreed upon and measurable targets so that when you next sit down to talk you’ve got something real to discuss and measure against.
Have a look around your studio - what’s the make-up of your management team? Is it filled with people that look at bit like you? That sound a bit like you? That hold the same sorts of opinions as you?
Is that a good thing or could you do with mixing things up a bit?
Is your agency about challenging the status quo? Or is it just about doing things like they’ve always been done? If it’s the former - which I expect it is - then you should be practicing what you preach here too.
Like our previous reason - lack of progression - for your talent, the perception that their career path is blocked by their bosses ‘cronies’ - despite their shortcomings - is hugely frustrating and another surefire route to the exit door.
This one’s a realisation that might take a few months or a few years for your talent to come to - the crucial thing is though, you’ll often not hear about it until it’s too late - if at all - so regular ‘sense checks’ on this are a good idea.
“You can’t be what you can’t see”
So be mindful of that whenever you’re making decisions about who to promote. Don’t just think about the person involved, consider the impact on the wider team and the workforce in general. What does it say to them?
If you want EVERYONE to feel like THEY can make progress too, whoever gets those promotions are the clearest signals you’ve got for demonstrating that’s possible.
5. You’re living off past glories.
Sometimes things start off well but go downhill. Lulls in new, exciting work are one thing but if a designer gets stuck on the same account, doing repetitive, cyclical work (perhaps because they’re a really safe pair of hands) over time, there’s a good chance they’re be on their bike too.
Be aware of this happening and if you know you’re likely to be putting really mundane stuff in front of someone for an extended period of time, try and build in snippets of interesting stuff along the way - even if it’s some self initiated agency work.
Variety is the the spice live, especially for creatives.
So if they can’t get it with you, they’ll naturally go looking elsewhere.
6. Work/life balance
Fortunately, as an industry, I think we’ve moved past the days of the 100hr work weeks and pulling ‘all-nighters’ every other night. There’s still room for improvement though.
Don’t get me wrong, most creatives that are passionate about what they do will be more than happy to put the hours in when it matters most, but building a culture of ‘first in, last out’ can be really harmful in the long run - particularly if you want to keep hold of people for more than a few months.
“My boss won’t let me work late.” said no one. Ever.
Let people stay late if/when it matters but also, no one has ever said to me that their reason for leaving is that their boss doesn’t let them work late so, when you can, kick them out door at home time.
7. You don’t go the extra mile
Any good relationship is a two way street. Sometimes things go well, sometimes they don’t - for all of us - and we rely on our friends to help us get back on our feet.
If you’re relying on your people to pull you out of the fire when the pressure’s on and the deadlines are looming then it’s only fair that you’re prepared to do the same for them.
If you’re not, guess what? They’ll walk.
Have some leeway. Give the benefit of the doubt at times and do your best to let them know where to go if/when they’re struggling and they need help.
8. No support
In contrast to our first reason - “telling and not asking”, or what might be called ‘micro-management’ this is the other end of the scale - ‘macro-management’ - giving over excessive amounts of responsibility with little to no support or guidance in place.
Sometimes designers can complain too much about restrictions on briefs - being hemmed in by guidelines etc - but I think you need some boundaries - it gives you something to push up against - and the same is true within the studio. Freedom is great but it’s helpful to knowing where the lines are, whilst also knowing where to escalate if and when it’s needed.
9. Domino effect.
So you might doing great and you’ve a team of people that have hung around for years - they’re happy, productive and everything is rosy …until …one person leaves, then another, then another… and before to long, you’ve got a real crisis on your hands.
It happens A LOT but before we talk about what you can do, let’s look at the final reason, as they’re kinda of connected…
10. They’ve just ‘done their time’
Some times people have just done their time and they leave - and that’s ok. Not everyone can stay forever and in fact, at times, it’s a good thing - it’s an opportunity for you to provide something really important to the studio:
Let me point you towards a study by Professor Brian Uzzi on Q Theory.
Brian is a Professor of Leadership and Organisational Change at Northwestern University and back in 2005 he wrote a paper on Collaboration and Creativity.
In the paper he looked at Broadway Musicals between 1945 and 1989, studying their box office success and critical acclaim with aim of finding out:
“what’s the makeup of the teams that produce the most successful Broadway shows?”
He came up with something called ‘Q theory’ as the answer - I won’t go into detail here (this is a great summary though) but the gist was that finding a blend of people was key.
Teams made up solely of those that had worked together previously struggled to break new ground - they knew what had worked before so tended to stick to the same formula.
Teams made up of completely new members were uncomfortable and inhibited around each other so tended to play it too safe.
The magic formula was a bit of both - enough continuity to create a safe space, mixed with some fresh faces to provide new ideas and different perspectives.
For me, the same is true in commercial creative agencies too.
My point is that when people do leave, and they will, you should look at this as an opportunity to evolve rather than a problem to solve.
And to get back to my previous point - the domino effect - be aware of the knock on effects when people do leave. When notices are served, do an exit interview, no holds barred, and try to understand why they’re leaving. That way, if issues are raised, you’ve a chance of getting ahead of it and hopefully you can keep casualties to a minimum.
And that’s sort of it. All in all, keep an eye on all these things and you’ll have a great chance of making your work force a happy one - and - like I said at the beginning - that’s your best possible chance of getting new talent to join you.
Good luck and fingers crossed if we’re speaking in the future, it’ll be a positive conversation about expansion rather than replacement!