Talent Wars

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

Be a Startup
Some contend that the agencies best positioned to attract and keep talent are those that act like startups. Agencies certainly are prone to tout the versatility of their work—you’ll work on something different every month, they often come promising. But at a big agency, the waterfall structure often requires that tasks be broken down to a menial level. They often are less collaborative, opinions go unsolicited and sometimes clients will nix entire projects after months of work, as any agency insider knows.

That’s why Andrew Mercando, product designer at R/GA, decided to cross over to a tech company. Mercando says he noticed the range of projects his sister worked on as head of product development at Hunch, a startup that last year was sold to eBay. While he worked exclusively on wire frames, his sister was designing a mobile app, creating visual treatments and building things, all the while collaborating with the engineers and making her voice heard. Last fall, he joined Skillshare, a community workshop startup.

It’s a common tale. “In the agency world, you might be a media buyer or supervisor, and you’re just a cog in the wheel,” observes AC Lion’s Cutter. “At a startup, you have access to the CEO and have a say in developing strategy.”

Agencies can’t recreate that kind of “your opinion matters” experience for each employee, naturally—they have big accounts, deadlines and shareholders to worry about, after all. But within the agency, they can recreate a flexible startup-like experience that appeals to employees most at risk for flight.

The best example may be Google’s “20 percent time” perk, which grants employees one day each week to work on a pet project outside their job descriptions. Agencies increasingly are copying the model with internal labs and skunkworks programs, encouraging innovation for the sake of innovation.

Sometimes, there are pitfalls. Take the labs arm of BBH, a 928-person agency with billings of more than $1.5 billion, which garnered national attention in March—much of it negative—for its guerrilla “Homeless Hotspots” project at South by Southwest. Meanwhile, Made by Many, a London creative agency with 31 employees, built an Instagram-like app called Picle as a side project; in just one month, 50,000 people downloaded it.

The natural extension of a labs program is the in-agency incubator. For the purposes of staying up on technology or grabbing a potential client’s attention, agencies like W+K, Rockfish Interactive and Ignited have invested in their own incubators. The result is a crop of in-house startups, with the added bonus of a startup-style infusion of nimbleness, experimentation and innovation.

Peer-influencer platform Crowdtap began inside Brooklyn creative agency Mr Youth. Now it is a stand-alone business with $10 million in VC backing, including contributions from Mr Youth. W+K’s cloud computing cost-assessment company Cloudability launched last year, as did Urban Airship, the agency’s mobile app push notifier. Rockfish has graduated 10 startups from its labs division, including CouponFactory and TidyTweet.

The agency incubator can be a powerful recruiting tool. Not only do employees get to work on fun pet projects, but they can aspire to one day spin their projects out of the agency—and find themselves at startups after all. Agencies get exposure to useful innovation, as well as street cred among techies.

Agencies less keen on in-house entrepreneurship have focused their efforts on in-house training.

AKQA’s internship program features training that is so robust the agency ends up hiring 80 percent of its interns. The firm hosts an annual student ad campaign in collaboration with Cannes, called Future Lions, which became a source of new hires for the firm, as well as Droga5, W+K and Crispin Porter + Bogusky.

Once they’re in, it’s important to let young, passionate employees know where they could be in five years and how they’ll get there, especially since turnover is greatest at the two-to-three-year mark, according to Cutter. “Agencies have more career development resources than startups—they have the ability to pay for an MBA,” he says.

For agencies to keep talent, it comes down to a concept they already are intimately familiar with: engagement. Agencies already make it a priority for their clients, as Engelmeier points out. If they want to win the talent wars, they’ll have to start doing it for themselves as well.