Agency CEOs Need to Obsess About Talent

Havas Worldwide's Benett probes recruiting issues in new book

A 2011 survey that revealed that a Starbucks barista gets more training than an ad agency staffer spurred Andrew Benett to think more broadly about talent and best practices in other industries. The global president of Havas Worldwide subsequently interviewed leaders at companies as varied as Facebook, Unilever, Zappos, Forbes, DreamWorks and General Electric and their learnings became the foundation for a new book, The Talent Mandate, that came out today. Benett, who’ll also lead a discussion on talent during Advertising Week, explained how all companies can better recruit and manage employees.

What’s the biggest problem that advertising has in recruiting and managing talent?

The C-suite [executives] of most companies in our industry are not nearly as obsessed as they need to be with all aspects of talent management. How much time are they spending with their chief talent officers? How much time are they [spending] talking about, what are we doing with career-pathing and leadership development plans? How much are they thinking about how we assess our workforce and who our best are?

What’s the second biggest problem?

There’s a one-dimensional view of talent, where the challenge is to hire the best creative person, the best planner, the best account person. … Third is we don’t as an industry generally hire for where our business or our clients’ business is going because we generally hire to fill positions rather than future needs of the business.

In the book, you mention the failure of Time Warner and AOL to identify and unite under share values. How much consideration do you think Omnicom and Publicis Groupe are giving that in their merger?

John Wren and Maurice Lévy are two very smart people. So, you would imagine that they had conversations prior to the deal about the two companies’ [values]—point one. Point two is, to a certain extent it almost doesn’t matter because culture and talent live at the [agency] level and I don’t believe it can live hugely, meaningfully at a holding company level.

Ben & Jerry's has a Joy Gang, slide, fitness center, free massages and a nap room. Are today’s businesses becoming adult daycare centers?

It’s interesting. This has become another learning curve for me. I think all of those things are necessary—I put those all under the umbrella of recognition. … Those types of recognition are important because it says, the company cares about me.

You looked at how big companies breed collaboration and mentioned GE Colab (which centers around an internal social network) as example of how big companies can become smaller.

There’s a lot of learning from agile technology companies that companies like GE are employing today. It’s things like perpetual beta, right? Technically, Google was in beta for years. I mean, one can argue that it’s still in beta. So, I think the way a company like GE gets smarter is to start to act more like that.

You quote Hilton’s Paul Brown, who says, "Companies are looking for the future, but they hire on the past." Can you talk about that dichotomy?

You have to do both at the same time. When you have an account director leave on a piece of business, you need to hire an account director. Now whether the new account director that you hire has the same skills as the old one [is the question].

Your simple recruiting test—would I want to have a drink with this person?—reminds me, sadly, of how we elect some presidents.

(Laughs). I agree. That is how Americans vote.

But your point is a personal connection?

It’s not so much a personal connection. This is obviously inextricably linked to culture and this is where one shouldn’t haven’t have process for the sake of process. Another thing our industry doesn’t do well is to train people to interview [job candidates] well or what they’re interviewing for. … Are they interviewing against the values of the company or are they interviewing to fill that job? More often than not, they’re interviewing to fill that job. So, that for me is where do I want to have a drink with this person is important because … it goes back to cultural fit. It’s will this person fit in?

Agility and a willingness to learn new skills are key criteria that successful companies use in hiring talent. Is that a main point you wanted to get across?

It is. … The fact that our industry is changing at the rate that it is changing means that people need to be constantly learning. There’s no one in our industry today—and there can’t be—that has an absolute vision of where it’s going to be a year from now or two years from now. I don’t think anyone can claim to [know that] because who knows? Things move too quickly. That’s why the hire for agility is important and what’s paramount to that is the notion of curiosity. The people that are innately curious do better in our industry and I would argue … do better across other industries as well.

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