How To Stop Today’s Agency Talent Drain

The sucking sound you hear is the sound of executive talent draining from the advertising industry. While still adjusting to consolidation, the recession and ever-evolving technologies, the ad world is being slammed by a management shortage. Senior account management spots remain vacant, while small, midsized and large agencies all over the country await qualified candidates. To compound the problem, industry insiders say the account manager’s power has eroded in recent years, and the role has become less prestigious.

Some say the situation is reaching the crisis stage. “Great account people have become so rare. I can count on one hand how many I’ve met in a year,” says Colin Probert, president of Goodby, Silverstein & Partners in San Francisco. One partner at a mid-sized East Coast shop complains: “The biggest thing we do is look for creative account people. There is an absolute dearth of talented people with 10 to 12 years of experience.”

And the shortage is likely to get worse. For the next six years, the smaller number of Boomer offspring (20- to 30-somethings) will mean fewer experienced managers for all industries, says Jim Kochanski, svp of Simpson Consulting, a division of Segel in Raleigh, N.C. As many companies are learning, when a top account person exits, you “are caught with your pants down,” he says. Your clients get nervous, and your rivals know it.

So what can an agency do? In an ongoing management crunch, traditional recruiting methods can be too slow and costly. We asked ad execs who oversee account managers as well as HR consultants for advice on how to find good managers. Here’s what they had to say:

1. How to identify your stars

Hint: Look inside and outside your agency.

The job of managing clients’ accounts is different than it used to be, agree consultants and executives. There are now two levels of service—basic and advanced—that shouldn’t be confused, says Arthur Anderson, principal of Morgan Anderson Consulting. Basic service is facilitating and organizing the logistics of an account; and experts agree it is relatively easy to fill these positions. Advanced service, on the other hand, involves strategic brand management and integrated marketing expertise. It requires generalists who can run large, complex assignments. These are hard to find.

The first step is to identify people inside the agency who have an aptitude for advanced account management, Kochanski says. “Identify your portfolio of potential leaders the way you study your financial portfolio. Decide whom you want to invest in and whom you simply want to hold,” he says. Ask yourself, “Who could one day replace the CEO?” Remember, stars know they have the potential to lead. “If they think you don’t know they are stars, they will move on,” Kochanski says.

To find hidden potential, Joe Langworthy, economist and principal consultant at the Langworthy Company, suggests using personality tests to screen candidates and employees at all levels for leadership traits. McCann WorldGroup uses a talent profile program that rates its top 100 people by the quality of their product, partnerships, people skills, budget acumen and leadership, says Marcio Moreira, vice chairman of global professional resources. These executives in turn rate their own top people. The rating identifies the “fast trackers, the people who are smitten by the business and have an affinity to brands and clients,” he says.

In addition, agencies can seek potential leaders from outside to increase their bench strength. “We had to learn how to recognize that candidates might be good for the company but bad for the job we were trying to fill,” says Moreira. “When that happens, we try to hire them for another job or another country.”

2. How to make stars into leaders

Hint: You may need to redefine the job. Agencies discourage their own employees, especially the stars, whenever they go outside the agency to make a costly hire, notes Kim Nugent, Mercer Consulting senior talent consultant. When they see a person groomed inside the agency it offers an incentive to stay.

And there is the rub. When many mid-level account managers devolved to being “glorified bag men” it became a less-than-attractive career option for agency stars, says Moreira. To keep the winners, the profession needs to have higher expectations.

At McCann, the fast-trackers identified by the company’s talent rating are put in the Human Futures Development program, in which they are moved from unit to unit every three to six months to acquire new skills. “They are taught how to be the CEO of a client’s account, the person who puts the pieces of the puzzle together. That can be an attractive role for people with a restless intellect,” he says.

Langworthy suggests that instead of spending a year looking for the ultimate candidate, shops arrange their existing resources into a one-year program that will teach potential leaders the specific account skills they need. As the need for managers becomes less acute, he advises expanding the program to three years.

Such programs take some sacrifice. “Rotating potential leaders is key for them, but it’s often more convenient to keep people where they are, working on the same piece of business,” says Probert. “You also need to map out a path for them, step-by-step, which means that both sides—-the shop and the individual—are willing to be held accountable,” he says.

3. Ways to lure them with money

Hint: It’s how, not how much, you pay them.

The way you pay people can encourage or discourage those with an entrepreneurial spirit, says consultant Anderson. He advises giving at least half of the performance incentive pay from the client directly to the account team that works on the client’s business. Of that, 70 percent should be split among the creative and account management staffers. “This approach will make account management worthwhile to hard-to-find entrepreneurs and risk-oriented employees,” he states. Others suggest channeling financial incentives and awards directly to all employees. In both cases, perks and financial bonuses are linked to outstanding performance, not simply hefty paychecks.

Peter Hempel, evp of DDB, New York, says the ultimate test for pay and recognition at his agency is: “What has the individual done to improve the performance of DDB as a whole?” The person’s contribution is usually tied to clients or revenue, but it can go beyond that. “We recently rewarded a staff member who made sure that all the offices on one floor of the agency were painted during the Christmas break,” he recounts. “It was important to the shop and was not part of her job, and without her it would not have gotten done. She just took it upon herself.”

4. How to avoid high turnover

Hint: Find out why they leave.

High turnover is a symptom of an organization that is out of synch with its industry and is a red flag to potential leaders. Rather than business-as-usual, turnover should be regarded as a failure, say the experts.

In a management shortage, you have to hang on to your share of the labor pool, says Kochanski. Rather than guessing at why people leave, he suggests using consumer research techniques. For instance, shops can hold focus groups of recent hires, during which they are asked why they might ever leave and why they think others are leaving.

Another method: In-depth confidential interviews by people outside of the company. Shops often use outside HR consultants to meet with departing employees to discuss the conflicts, disappointments and other reasons for the move, with the understanding that the information will not be shared with the offending parties. Mercer’s Nugent says the findings may surprise bosses. “Rather than pay, it is often about respect from the top and boredom with doing the same thing for two years,” she says. She argues that shops should work backwards and examine what is valuable to the profile of the person that they need to make their organization thrive. Then look at their culture to see if it matches. For instance, “if you want innovative managers, trim the layers and give them room to get things done.”

High turnover should not be regarded as the price of doing business, says DDB’s Hempel. To avoid it, his agency discourages competition among staff—”that’s so old school,” he remarks—in favor of collaboration and teamwork. Constant learning is another way to retain people, he says. “Intellectual and creative growth is the basis of a career in this field. If the agency can keep the growth arch positive, it keeps employees interested.”

Even one of the hottest agencies in the country has to face the turnover problem. “Clients are working harder, and so the long hours at agencies have gotten worse,” says Jeffrey Steinhour, director of account management at Crispin Porter + Bogusky, Miami. “If potential leaders—the engines of the agency—want more balance in their life, they can be tempted to start their own business.”

It’s important to pay attention so you notice when someone is getting burned out and give them what they need, he says. “I’ve had people tell me they’d rather have a long weekend off than a $5,000 raise.”

5. Where to look for new talent

Hint: Try to keep an open mind.

Account managers today are essentially producers of hit campaigns—part communications manager and part entrepreneur, say agency bosses. Conventional outlets such as industry recruiters and university marketing and MBA programs don’t necessarily offer people with those capabilities or the right level of experience.

McCann’s Moreira says he taps the client companies for former CMOs and their right hands. He also seeks people from the digital industries who can provide inventive and fresh strategies. Executive recruiter Anne Ross, principal of Ann H. Ross Executive Search in Chicago, suggests looking for marketing services pros in the media, promotions and in-house agencies of toy and fashion companies. She also is a fan of dot-commers, who tend to be versatile and innovative, she says. “Sometimes trouble-makers are what an agency needs,” she adds.

Sources say talent is also being tapped from music and broadcast production companies, cable TV, university anthropology departments and even MIT. The secret to going outside the industry is to put together a clear idea of what your agency really wants. Ross says agencies often ask for specific skills and experience—such as three years in packaged goods or two in retail—but what they need are people with leadership and problem-solving abilities. By following these skill-set formulas, agencies may be turning their execs into commodities.

Jobs in account management have more to offer to non-ad people than the ad industry realizes, asserts Moreira. “Account people on a global account have more stature than the heads of agency offices. McCann WorldGroup tries to articulate the excitement and prestige of the job to candidates one-on-one,” and he adds, he’s convinced the industry as a whole can do the same.