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How To Keep Talent From Leaving Your Agency

How To Keep Talent From Leaving Your Agency
In design school we were taught that as ‘creatives’, it would be common, expected even, to bounce from agency to agency every year or two during our career. It was the way things were done. Don’t expect the 25-year gold retirement watch. Employment options for designers included going in-house (read: boring), going freelance (read: risky), or working at an agency (read: fun!). For me, it was a pretty easy choice.

When I got out in the working world of advertising, I wondered why people who had been doing it for ten years or more were so… crusty. It was like they didn’t appreciate what they had. Two months before interning at an agency I was literally working the grill at Wendy’s for minimum wage while I paid my way through college. Now I was sitting at my own Mac computer being paid above minimum wage to draw, use Photoshop, and set type. In other words, I was getting paid to create. I felt lucky!

Eventually, I too became crusty. I experienced the way client work and bad agency cultures can kill the passion I had as a designer. When I started my own agency I wanted to create a culture that was different, and I’m proud to say we had a great retention rate. It took four years in business before a single employee quit and moved on.

We did it by hiring mostly A players, we invested in their development, we set a good work-life balance with overtime being uncommon, and we had a policy of not throwing our people under the bus with clients. Many of our employees thanked my partner and me for it - they had all come from other companies that didn’t treat them with the same respect.

I’m not saying I was perfect, and I’ll share the mistakes I made in a future post, but I think we did a lot of things right when it came to employee retention.

Here’s Your Hat, What’s Your Hurry? Or, Why Do People Leave?

In a scathing, but well articulated post written by Murat, he details why creatives leave shitty agencies, and judging by the 200+ comments on the article, it seems people working in the industry agree.

In a study performed by ad agency Deutsch, working in conjunction with the American Association Of Advertising Agencies, several interesting statistics emerged:

  • The biggest reason (52%) creatives left their last job was because of growth. This could mean they left because they hit a glass ceiling, or moved on to a higher position elsewhere, or just weren’t growing professionally.
  • In terms of what people say their ideal job includes, 48% was ownership, 69% work-life balance, and 47% creativity.

And while 38% said compensation was a factor, clearly there’s more to it than just a fat paycheque. Creatives get into this business because they’re passionate about what they do yet many agencies tend to treat them like stock employees in some outdated HR manual.

To test this theory out, I did a Career Beacon search for advertising jobs. I picked Toronto for sheer size and volume of job postings.

Here are the first results that I found:

One is for a junior copywriting position:

To save you the time of having to read this, let me point out that beyond sounding like a boilerplate job posting (“Ability to meet tight deadlines in a fast paced environment”, really?), there is not one mention of the advantages of working at this company! The company doesn’t seem to consider that talented people have a choice of where to work and aren’t so desperate for a job that they’ll work anywhere. At least the copywriter gets to write about “sleep inducing topics”. Yay!

Next was a posting for a chief creative director for an agency that touts itself as the “largest marketing communications group” in a particular region of North America that shall remain nameless.

After listing all the good things this agency requires of their applicant, they tack on a few perks at the very end. A good salary, benefits, summer hours, and a “wickedly” discounted gym membership. No mention of ownership, personal growth, or being allowed the room to innovate on creative in-house projects.

Based on my research, personal experience, and conversations with former colleagues, the consensus seems to be that there’s a polarization between what creatives want out of their jobs and what agency leaders are willing to give. If you don’t believe me, read the comment thread on the Murat blog post linked to above.

Here’s the gist of the argument:

Creatives:

‘Stop taking on boring clients who give us mind-numbing work that doesn’t advance our portfolios! Stop letting clients dictate insane deadlines that force us to work long hours! Stop hiring shitty C players who bring the A players down! Also give us credit as individuals, allow us room to innovate on in-house projects, oh and buy us bigger monitors!'

Managers:

‘Stop whining, babies! We take on clients who pay the bills so you can get a pay slip! If you don’t like it then leave! Fucking pretentious hipsters who just want to sip on Starbucks and make things pretty all day!’

I’m really not exaggerating this dialogue at all.

Instead of fuelling the debate between these two sides, I thought it would be more helpful to point out ways that agencies can attract and retain top talent while not completely forgetting the commercial — and often volatile — nature of the industry.

1. Agency ABC’s : Start With The Basics

Most agencies think of the basics like the example agency job postings:

  • Good salary
  • Health/dental benefits
  • A free (or wickedly discounted) gym membership
  • Free beer on Friday
  • An office toy (beer keg, ping pong, foosball or XBox)

These are commodities that most agencies offer but clearly the standard ‘perks’ aren’t enough. You have to create an agency that people want to work for and contribute to.

For the record, my small agency never offered free gym memberships or office toys but we did offer Friday beer and full insurance coverage.

According to Deutsch CEO Mike Sheldon:

“Nail the fundamentals. You have to be able to win new business. You have to be doing brilliant creative work. You have to have a great culture that cares about people and celebrates the wins. You have to have an integrated offering and a modern view on marketing communications that people will rally around.”

Once you have the basics, move on to meaningful things that other agencies sadly can’t seem to offer despite the collective cry from creatives that this is what they value above foosball tables.

In some cases these suggestions don’t cost a penny to the agency and in other cases they can improve an agency’s reputation and bottom line.

To illustrate my points, I’ve shared some of the comments from people on the Murat post linked above.

2. Birds of a feather: Attract great clients

Attracting great clients - and the interesting, challenging work that comes with them - is one of the best ways to keep talented staff.

Of course, this is easier said than done. Agencies need a steady flow of client projects to keep the lights on and often those projects aren’t fulfilling to creatives. Most designers know that not every job will be fun, but for god’s sake throw them a bone every now and then.

The best way to attract great clients is to be great yourself. Position your agency as a strategic partner to clients, not just suppliers who slam out orders all day like a greasy mindless teenager working the grill at McD’s.

Your unique selling point to clients should be to produce meaningful, problem-solving, results-driven work. It should be about creativity for a purpose, not just to win design awards that serve the agency’s ego and not the client.

Designers will want to wake up early and stay late if they’re working on interesting, challenging projects that stretch their mental muscles. They also want to pitch their ideas directly to clients instead of staying behind the scenes taking orders from the account manager. It’s this kind of work and this kind of attitude that will help you win, and keep, great clients. Not to mention great talent.

3. Put your money where your mouth is: Invest in learning and creativity

I understand firsthand that as an agency owner you are concerned with cash flow and maximizing billable hours. But even a small investment of free time can go a long way. Remember, growth is the biggest reason creatives leave agencies and growth can take several forms.

As one commenter said:

Agencies grow [because of] talent and it is in their interests to place ongoing learning… at the heart of the business. People are motivated by… opportunities for personal growth… Lessons from each new engagement are recycled back into the agency's culture.

If you find that most of the client projects coming in aren’t very interesting, then schedule some time for in-house projects.

Even if you can’t afford to send employees to conferences in other cities, encourage them to attend free or local events in the design/tech community. Go with them!

Why are so many agency owners failing at this? Let’s read some more comments:

So few agency owners make the time to work on their people and the culture, and even fewer are able to openly share the agency's strategic objective. That's probably the single biggest contributor to high staff turnover. You owe it to your people to make more time.

At some point I stopped caring because they never seemed to care in the first place.

You may not have a lot of cash to spend but can you spare some time on a regular basis to make your team feel a part of the company and nurture their skills and talent? Are you hiring managers that are so focused on profit that they don’t value great work or the pride that comes with it?

4. Time on your hands: Don’t burn people out

Generally when you ask a client about their deadline, you’ll get one of two answers: yesterday or ASAP. Sometimes both.

You don’t have to accept that. An account manager we hired who came from a large agency was genuinely shocked that we didn’t expect her to answer her phone on the weekends. Agency people are routinely chewed up and spit out by being expected to regularly work until late into the night and over the weekend.

If you ran a pizza shop and customers told you they expect their pizza delivered in 15 minutes even though the pizza wouldn’t be fully cooked and you’d have to speed, risking damage to your car and the safety of the general public, would you give in to their demand or put your foot down and tell them you’ll need the full 40 minutes?

By allowing clients to dictate insane deadlines, you’ll burn out your staff and end up delivering sub-par work no one will be proud of.

One commenter said:

“The hours get longer, the work quality goes down and down, the pay gets poorer, the perks disappear, the fun vanishes, creatives turn into dogsbodies, the bullshit increases, while a tiny number at the very top give themselves obscene pay rises.”

5. Share the stage: Stop micromanaging and make your people the stars.

One of the hardest things to do as an agency owner is to step out of the spotlight. I struggled with this myself when I ran my agency and I had bosses in the past that did as well.

One time I was in a meeting with my boss and a client.

The client had a problem - the website we built was not converting well. Traffic was being driven to the site but few people were clicking on the “buy” button.

Looking at the site there were some clear usability holes. Instead of making assumptions, I recommended we perform some user-testing to learn what people thought when they visited the page and whether or not they can find the buy button.

The client nodded along in agreement. My boss looked visibly irritated that the client was listening to me, a lowly young designer. He piped in:

“I think we should do A/B testing instead”.

Without wanting to make my boss look bad but feeling a duty to serve the client, I warned that starting with user-testing would be faster, cheaper and give us a deeper insight into why users weren’t converting, whereas A/B tests take longer to run and are more useful when you want to refine something that’s already working, not fix something that’s broken.

He didn’t like that. Not one bit. You can guess how much longer I lasted at that place.

At another agency, a project manager handed me one of the most fun projects of my career - designing concert posters for an outdoor event. We were both excited about it but we knew that we had to hide it from the agency owner while he was away if we were going to produce anything worthwhile.

In the end, the client was happy with the work, I had a blast designing the posters, the concert attendance rose, and the posters were even featured on a popular advertising showcase website. Do you think my boss was happy? Nope, he was upset that he didn’t get to offer his input. Is it any wonder that creativity, passion, and job satisfaction can’t flourish in a place that operates like this?

Some agency owners want to be the stars and micromanage their employees. The question to ask is “Is this really in the best interest of our clients or my ego?” Your agency will suffer on many levels if you don’t stop doing it.

Conclusion

Nothing hurts an agency’s reputation more than staff turnover. After all, in a service business your people are your product. If your team is different every month, clients will get frustrated and leave.

As a commenter said:

Creatives in general are not that difficult to make happy. Give us free food once in a while, fresh coffee brewed in the morning, a pat on the back once in a while, and freedom to produce great work and we'll be happy..especially the last point. Sure the arcade rooms, pool tables, open bar on Fridays, etc, is nice but all in all we're here cuz we love creating things and seeing our ideas come to life.

I hope this post shed some light on why talent leaves agencies and what you can do about it. It might not change overnight, but improving your culture, nurturing talent, and making an effort to take on great clients with reasonable timelines will do a lot to keep A players with you and not your competitors. Let me know what you think in the comments below.

author bio

About Kyle Racki

CEO of @proposify. Product designer and podcaster. Dad to two beautiful boys. Karaoke superstar. Freed cultist. Batman enthusiast. Follow me on Twitter

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