Square Pegs: Innovating Advertising Agency Hiring Practices In A Recession

By SuperSpy 

Physics will tell you that all these laid off’d bodies have to go somewhere and right now, they are flooding the market with their talent and it’s not the rinky-dink kind either. Hiring managers should be psyched. It’s an employers market, which means that now is the time for innovation in staffing. There have long been complaints about hiring practices at agencies from staffers. Meanwhile, hiring managers often highlight that their pool of selection is limited. To quote from Dan Goldgeier’s editorial about HR execs: “Maybe you’re not looking in the right places or doing what it takes to recruit them. Or you’re not evaluating skills, resumes or talent properly. Or you don’t know how to find the right place for someone you can’t automatically peg.”

It’s this latter point we’re going to address today. Everyone talks about the ad business needing some serious innovation, as we watch specialty firms and tech start-ups steal client dollars. Yet, we consistently shun those people who don’t seamlessly fall into our antiquated niches. The very people who may help the industry “think differently.” Agencies need to consider the future of culture, the internet, television, mobile and gaming. It’s time we started being creative leaders and futurists for real. In order to do that, we have to break the assigned roles that CEOs, ECDs and HR Directors live by.

In today’s world, their are slew of people who have a variety of experience that blurs the lines of job titles. Everyone knows an ex-cool hunter who has also launched an amazing Faceboook application with friends, has a video show, used to run a zine and does a bit of copywriting on the side. So, what is this person? An HR manager may throw their hands up. He’s not a planner, but he’s got an eye for consumer behavior. He’s not a creative director by definition. He’s neither on the account side nor the creative end. So, where do you put him? Traditionally? Nowhere. He’s regulated to either being a hired gun on projects or forced into a limited role within an agency, when clearly he can input across a variety of disciplines.

And this is where many, many people get fed up with advertising and exit stage left. Even with folks getting the axe, Agency Spy has received frustrated emails from creative types. One reader wrote: “I have a lot of account management experience on my CV, but also spend time creating web tools for friends who have start-ups. When I lost my job, I wanted to move into creative programing for agencies rather than continue in accounts. One HR type said she wished she could hire me, but there was no position for me in the agency since they didn’t do that. Shouldn’t all agencies be interested in developing their own proprietary systems that they can sell to the clients? I’m going to the tech side. See ya”

We want fresh bodies in the system, right? We want to keep high level talent, no? The plug and play method is no longer working. Yet, it keeps getting enforced even at mid-sized and smaller shops. The way we slot bodies into old roles is hurting the industry’s ability innovate and grow the business, as well as keep up with the fast paced movements in culture. This is one reason why any agency who even remotely looks like its staffing or billing practices is off the beaten path grabs press lines and blog mentions. We all get excited that maybe – the game has changed. But often, it hasn’t.

For example, one only needs look at the media buying firms that are just getting around to creating systems through which clients can buy online media. Or, take a look at how late we were to the games of social media, blogging, ARGs, etc. Yes, some digital shops do a great job of churning out new applications and tech for clients, but it’s a minority. Why can’t advertising develop software for clients? Why can’t we generate exciting off beat games and tools for established properties? Why can’t we operate our own Google Creative Labs? Agencies keep complaining about limited revenue streams. So why aren’t we all going big or going home?

We are telling clients not to cut budgets, not to stop developing products and investing in their business just because the recession is on. Maybe we need to listen to our own wise words. Now is the time for agencies to gather some odd ball troops to truly create some mind blowing work. Use these think tanks to poach clients, to keep the ones you have or to build systems that have monetary value outside of your current roster. Maybe you pay them a small wage and then a percentage of the wins. Maybe you pay them in IP. Maybe you pay them like a regular employee. Depends on the size of your shop and its revenue, but it can be worked out. In this market, you’ve got talent sitting around and unknown talent begging to be let in. Why not give them six months to see what they can do? If you set it up right, you won’t be losing a thing and the potential gain could be awesome. Give it a go. Give it a go.

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