Why Agencies Are Embracing the ‘Liquid Talent’ Trend

HR's latest secret retention weapon

A year ago, Will Flood, a London account director at M&C Saatchi, embarked on an immersive learning experience at the agency's New York office. "The sheer dominance of the American market in the world of advertising meant that it was absolutely critical for my career to learn how clients and colleagues work together here," said Flood. "More so than other markets, the U.S. has a tendency to be the first to set trends and drive innovation, so learning firsthand how to use new insights, new thinking and new technology to make powerful communications has been a huge boost."

More than ever, agencies are going with the flow in an increasingly global economy, grooming key employees like Flood for bigger roles through intensive on-the-job training. The operative buzzword is "liquid talent." That term has no precise definition but generally refers to giving staffers opportunities to broaden their skill sets and work on client business in different geographies and across various disciplines. "It's a trend, and I think we will see more of it," said Singleton Beato, evp, diversity and inclusion strategy and talent development at the 4A's.

At M&C, this approach to talent has become firmly established through a "scholarship" program begun three years ago. Each of the agency's 23 offices can nominate employees for three- to six-month work assignments at other network locations. "You get to know the office, you get to know the culture," said Moray MacLennan, M&C's worldwide CEO. "It's a way of maturing people, and it builds a robust fabric of network ambassadors." Flood, one of 30 employees who have gone through the program, performed so well during his three-month scholarship that he has moved permanently to New York as vp, director.

Such employees add value through their heightened knowledge and experience. In best-case scenarios, they grow into managers who run accounts, lead offices and fuel agency expansion. What's more, such training helps agencies and holding companies foster loyalty among exceptional employees and guard against poaching. "You retain the best people and reward them with new opportunities around the world," said Meagan Halpin, managing director of human resources at mcgarrybowen. "You want to be sure you keep them in the family."

Keeping London-based managing director Ida Rezvani in the mcgarrybowen family led to a three-month training engagement at the shop's New York headquarters in 2013. Mentored by founder Gordon Bowen and other leaders, she gained a better grasp of the agency's machinations, its approach to brand building and "a broader global perspective on my clients' business," she said. That's a good thing because one of those clients, Marriott global brand officer Brian King, said he prefers to have well-rounded "citizens of the world" working on his business, "and Ida epitomizes that persona." Like M&C's Flood, Rezvani chose to make the venue change permanent.

Sometimes, staffers move across disciplines, rather than geographies. For example, at TBWA healthcare shop CAHG, a group cd made a vertical switch to lead a new practice. The executive ultimately returned to a creative role with an expanded skill set. Pigeonholing staffers is a mistake, said CAHG president Robin Shapiro, because "fresh thinkers provide a great value" when given chances to excel.

What's more, agencies risk losing face with global clients—and perhaps their business, as well—by not expanding employees' horizons. "You're not viewed as an expert," said Halpin, if your specialization is too narrow or "if you only know one market."