It's Time for HR to Undergo a Revival or Agencies Risk Stifling Creative Talent

The department and industry both need to step up

HR is in the ER, and there’s a screaming sense of urgency to lead the discipline toward a real top-to-bottom transformation. But will change really happen this time?

HR gurus have been predicting the disruption of this field for the past two decades. In the meantime, trust in HR practitioners has diminished to an all-time low and key skill sets have remained underdeveloped or underutilized for many of our HR professionals. Businesses are also outsourcing functional areas of HR, and movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp have sparked conversation about third parties, rather than internal HR teams, leading investigations, which is a necessary move.

So then, why am I pushing for a rebuild of HR rather than for the sounding of its death knell? Because ad agencies that tout culture without an insightful talent strategy will get nowhere. Because we’re losing talent. Because our industry cannot run if the talent group isn’t thriving in the creative environments we’ve fostered. Because what we’re seeing more and more is that too many times HR is not showing up in the way that talent and organizations need it to show up.

But when HR functions at the highest order, a business reaps proven benefits, including higher retention, increased profits, transparency, more trust in leadership and improved work.

Here’s how we get there.

What HR leaders can do

Effective and profitable agencies have holistic talent strategies, which means they know how to organize their staff, align their talent operations and cultivate a unique work culture that delivers on a company’s business strategy.


When HR functions at the highest order, a business reaps proven benefits, including higher retention, increased profits, transparency, more trust in leadership and improved work.

And, of course, on the other side of every program and policy, there are humans. HR has the opportunity to bring a human voice and touch to an agency in real, practical ways, including by targeting solutions to workforce segments such as parents, women, people of color, multiple generations, independent contractors and remote workers. This calls for HR to move away from one-size-fits-all solutions. Instead, we need to take a one-to-one approach that’s based on understanding people and team dynamics and that integrates life stage and career-stage insights. This may include tiering traditional benefits, wellness programs and performance engagement across segments.

In a workplace where all workforce segments can see and understand that their identity, skill set and experience are valued, employees will show up knowing that their organization is willing to deploy all of those things to benefit the business.

HR must also embrace a needs-based approach to talent management. Sometimes to a fault it has relied heavily on yesterday’s best practices to help with onboarding and performance reviews, for instance, and yet we still hear feedback that people don’t know what they’re doing or what is expected in their roles.

How management and agency leaders can step up 

We have to be brave enough to break the systems and reinvent. That starts with reskilling or recasting those who are clinging to an outdated HR model, where policy—rather than people—rule. With the right model and the right skill sets in HR, HR becomes a strategic partner helping to guide the business. 

Management and employees should also set a higher bar for what they expect from their HR departments, starting with getting smart about what high-functioning HR departments look like and investing in developing our key HR leaders whose development is usually forgotten.

To set that bar, do your own competitive analysis. To start, look at your clients’ businesses and look at what the top Fortune 500 companies are doing and try to remake and remodel the successes that make sense for your agency. You can tune into HR transformation experts like Adam Grant, Cy Wakeman, Josh Bersin and Natasha Bowman, who are all actively provoking critical thought and pushing toward more evolved workplaces and HR practices.

And when it’s time to hire the HR practitioners that can help you raise the bar, management should be looking for elastic thinkers rather than linear, transactional processors. In an evolved HR model, you want HR to bring these proficiencies to the table: business planning, insights generation, predictive analytics, leadership and entrepreneurialism.

We’re at a fork in the road, one where trust can be rebuilt along with an entirely new model for what HR does and what’s expected of it. If we don’t reinvent HR now, we risk significant damage to our agencies and our most valuable asset: our people.

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This story first appeared in the August 20, 2018, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.