Making Maker Talent

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The advertising industry is in a state of flux. Technology continues to challenge our understanding of everyday practice. Our roles, outputs and outcomes are evolving. Brands and agencies are racing to match employee capabilities to the demands of the fast changing landscape. The CMO is the new CIO. Brands question the value and existence of the long-standing BIG Idea. Our core skillsets simply have not evolved as quickly as the technology around us. “Creative firms of all kinds (including ours) know that they must evolve at LEAST as fast as the world is changing around them.” – Tom Kelly, IDEO. Yet there’s little investment in continual learning and development for employees.

Ongoing employee development allows us to keep pace with technology. The entire industry needs to continually learn, relearn, and adapt.

Given these changes, how does an agency structure and leverage talent? What is the best talent? What skillsets and mindsets describe the most sought after and retained employees? These talent questions are circulating the industry; but very few agencies have invested in ongoing development of talent versus the acquisition of talent. We continue to buy, trade, barter and pay thousands of dollars in recruiting fees. Yet, ask managers their annual budget for talent education and development and you’ll often receive blank stares.

“Seventy-six percent of marketers think marketing has changed more in the past two years than the past 50.”*

We continue to hope that the next acquired digital expert or entirely new department of savvy technologists will solve for overall skill deficiencies. Agencies hire, rehire, trade and repeat; only to lose these coveted industry experts within the standard 15-18 month tenure. Ask most agency leaders their average turnover YOY and listen for the common reply, “we embrace turnover” or  “it allows for new thinking and ideas.” But try to build culture, skilled expertise and new ways of working when you’re faced with a 30-40% attrition rate.

So what do we do? Why does talent development change the equation? Take a moment to consider what your agency is making. What is your true output? Why is your agency hired? And how does your talent match the desired expertise and output? Now, project into the future one year from now (which equals about 3 years in technology terms). What are you making now? Who is your best talent? How would you describe them? How different are your answers? And who is the talent that will make the work? Are they digital aficionados, DeVinci-esque ideators, platform analysts, copywriters, hackers, artists, designers, inventors, or coders? A clear definition of the range of talent we need to educate and develop is very important.

Let’s explore the first three steps for development of agency talent:

1) Define the talent. Who is working at your agency? What do they know and what do they need to know? Why?

Create a current talent map that realistically represents what your employees know. Leverage this map to design a vision for annual education and development. What is the focus and why? How does your agency match the pace of technology, demands of clients, and needs of curious employees who value (above all else) continual learning?

2) Match talent to making. Does your current talent match the expectations of your (CMO) clients?

If so, what is the percentage of matched talent to desired agency output and client opportunities? Set up a system for ongoing evaluation of skills. Take up a “you cannot hide” attitude about competencies at the agency. Change annual reviews to be annual talent/education development reviews with clear expectations of professional evolution matched to current and future opportunities. Ask employees to write individual education narratives per quarter. Question daily the dedication and commitment of leadership to define the work at the agency. Go back to…”what are we making?”

3) Launch a formal education program. Do employees have access to a formal program for learning?

If not, start one. Because many of your competitors are in the process of designing, branding, and launching education programs.Recruit a small working group of cross-functional agency leaders to outline the skillsets and mindsets important for the agency to develop. Socialize the outline. Then ask this group to commit time, resources and budget to designing an education program that closes the gap of what employees know now and what they need to know in the future. This gap is your focus for curriculum design. Stay committed to moving employees forward to match the agency “making” of the future.

Look around at this year’s holiday party and think about a few more questions. What do all your employees know and what should they know? What can they make and what will they be able to make next year?

The cost of elevating the core skills of every single holiday reveler by 3-5% is often the same cost as hiring one single digital “expert.”

Although acquisition of talent remains important, development and education of current employees creates a clear competitive advantage. With a new ‘culture of continual education’ more employees recognize opportunities, understand technology, and win more business.

Stop dreaming of those talented employees and start making them.


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