Talent Wars

Agencies are battling Silicon Valley for the best people. Here's how they can win

Unicorn Hunting
Huge received 26,000 resumes last year—more than 80 per day—yet still couldn’t fill 50 jobs. There’s a disconnect between applicants and openings, and the problem is somewhat existential. Agencies seek hybrid workers who can write code as well as write copy. They want graphic designers who are also information architects—and they want them with a few years of experience. True creative technologists, with superior technical and creative talents, are so rare that one recruiter likens them to unicorns. (Still another calls them “five-headed monsters.”) Attracting digital talent is difficult enough—attracting highly sought-after, experienced talent exacerbates the problem.

Wieden + Kennedy’s senior management recognizes that its ideal candidates—“the Leonardo da Vincis, the Renaissance men and women who can create genuine art and technology”—are few and far between, says Igor Clark, the agency’s creative technology director. Wieden + Kennedy often hires these so-called da Vincis—many of them talented and ambitious enough to start their own businesses—as part-time consultants so it can benefit from their ideas and expertise.

The strategy often pays off. Consider James Gross and Noah Brier, formerly of The Barbarian Group, who last year launched Percolate, a recommendation engine for brands. Or Adam Leibsohn, who left Anomaly last year to start Voyurl, a browser plugin that helps Web surfers profit from their personal data. Then there’s Millie Sensat, a creative director who left Organic to co-found Clothia, a fashion startup. Even Richard Exon, CEO of Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R, and his creative director Damon Collins abandoned their company last fall to launch a still-to-be-named startup.

Turnover at agencies is as high as 30 percent on top accounts, according to Matt Straz, founder and CEO of Namely. “There’s only one other industry that has that high of a turnover rate, and that’s the hospitality industry,” he says.

Straz spent a decade at MEC before leaving to start his own company, which has built a dashboard for agencies to “check the vital signs” of their workforce, he says. Put more bluntly, Namely susses out those who are thinking of leaving their jobs and assists agencies in trying to change their minds.

The industry is also getting more aggressive, with the American Association of Advertising Agencies last month rolling out a website aimed at enhancing advertising’s image among young people. But creative technologists, product designers and coders the industry is attempting to woo aren’t impressed by large organizations where process, hierarchy, bureaucracy and—most egregious of all—cubicles—are the order of the day, says Shirley Engelmeier, CEO of recruiting firm InclusionINC.

It’s the dreaded millennial theme: members of that generation want their voices heard from day one, they want to grow quickly within the organization and they want responsibility. They want to stay late, and they want to be allowed to experiment. “They are intensely passionate if they are allowed to be included,” Engelmeier says.

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