Agencies Must Keep Talent Fulfilled and Engaged

Here’s to the freaks

To help navigate the complex choice-based world of channels, tactics and trends that we all live in, I’ve recently been focusing on a simple concept that will be crucial to future success: Keep the freaks happy.

Let me explain. We can no longer rely on interruption and adjacency to make our work successful. Instead, we must always be creating things that are relevant and interesting enough for people to seek out on their own. It’s a useful filter that has had a profound impact on the way we think about making creative work; we now speak frequently about designing our executions and campaigns for choice.

Illustration: Niv Bavarsky  

But as a CEO, my job is mostly to create the conditions under which great work can flourish. So while our talented teams are thinking about how to design for choice at the campaign and execution level, I’m thinking about how to design a whole agency for choice. Things like structure and process must be considered as part of that challenge, but at the heart of it, the thing I’m most passionate about is talent.

During Advertising Week, I participated in a panel called “The New Narrators,” with several agency CEOs and industry leaders, and the conversation turned to talent. Troy Young, president of Hearst Digital, nailed it when he said, “Find the freaks. Find the people that are interesting, that have something to say, that are great thinkers, and that can solve problems.”

But if we want our clients to be happy and our agencies to be successful, we’ve got to also keep the freaks engaged and enthralled. Our people are incredibly diverse and smart—but that’s simply the cost of entry these days. A true freak is someone who is not only smart, obsessive and creative, but also someone who can blend these skills with the innate and rare ability to remain curious, open and collaborative through anything.

Designing for choice demands that people have to be constantly learning new things and broadening their expertise. It requires all participants to be open to ideas that come from anywhere. It means leaving your ego at the door and thriving in an atmosphere of constant change. And it most certainly means working in cross-functional teams where people are encouraged to leave their swim lanes. And it’s those traits, combined with best-in-class skills, that define our freaks and make them ridiculously valuable.

So how do we keep these people clicked in and happy? First, challenge them constantly. For the most part, freaks thrive on opportunities to push their thinking and their work further than they ever thought possible. And as a leader, there’s no greater satisfaction than watching people succeed at something they thought they couldn’t do. Challenge them to go above and beyond the brief. If it’s never been done before, even better.

You must also encourage them to wander intellectually. Applaud the art director who’s learning to play the guitar on the side or the strategist who decides it’s time to learn to code. It’s also crucial to set them free. Kernels of great ideas are rarely found within the walls of an agency office. Let it be understood that part of everyone’s job is to regularly go outside and experience culture.

And celebrate them. Our highly scientific research shows that when people party together, collaboration sharply improves. Never underestimate the positive impact of getting people together for no reason other than to relax, have fun and enjoy each other’s company. I’ve heard it said that the culture of a company is determined by what they celebrate. My motto? Celebrate everything.

Finally, just take care of them. This one should go without saying, but it sometimes gets lost. They’re people first—people who get sick and tired and have family crises. Pay them what they’re worth, offer great benefits and make it a point to include some unexpected perks. It’s hard to get great work out of people who don’t feel emotionally safe and appreciated.

We work in an industry where the ground is constantly shifting beneath our feet. Thriving in that environment can’t be about creating constricting structures and process. It has to be about the people—highly talented, curious, open and collaborative people—who make it work.

So here’s to the freaks. Take care of them, and they’ll take care of you.

Karen Kaplan is CEO of Hill Holliday.

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