Investing in Talent Is as Vital as Ever

NEW YORK In response to massive changes in the ways by which marketers reach consumers, as well as the ongoing cry from chief marketing officers for better integration, some agencies are revamping their training programs. In some cases, the new courses involve tackling actual client briefs.

Agency leaders say the changes are key to attracting and retaining prime talent. And although some shops are cutting staff and other expenses this year amid client spending shifts and declines, a look at a random sample of seven agencies from four holding companies revealed that most are increasing their investments in training. WPP Group’s Grey, for example, spent more than $3 million on global and local efforts last year.

Interviews with agencies last week by Adweek revealed a wide range of continuing education offerings that have been launched since January, ranging from new speaker programs at Saatchi & Saatchi and Bartle Bogle Hegarty and intensive multi-day work sessions at Young & Rubicam to a digitial accreditation program at Grey.

In most cases, the programs are buttressed by holding company training initiatives, which often target more senior executives, and basic agency courses on leadership and team building. The overall consensus among the sample, however, is that general 101-level classes aren’t nearly enough in an industry that is defined today mainly by change. The other agencies were DDB, Deutsch and McCann Erickson.

“I really think it’s imperative for the future of our industry in general that we make these kinds of investments so that we continue to attract new talent,” said Gary Villani, vp, organizational development and human resources at Grey Group in New York. Young & Rubicam Brands worldwide CEO Peter Stringham added: “It’s not just to teach but to learn.”

In April, WPP’s Y&R Brands, which includes Y&R, Wunderman and Burson-Marsteller, held the first in a series of client-focused work sessions in New York under a new initiative known as Ray Rubicam University. Groups of about 30 office leaders from around the world, including CEOs, creative directors and planning directors, attend the five-day sessions, at which client executives seek ideas for launching new products and repositioning brands, among other things, according to global managing partner Gord McLean, who manages the program.

Dannon executives participated in the first two sessions (the second one, in July, took place in Prague) and Kraft Foods execs from the Asia-Pacific region will attend the next confab, to be held in Singapore in November. Y&R is talking to Ford, Colgate and Chevron about taking part in future sessions next year, McLean said.

The primary goal of the program, according to McLean and Stringham, is to hone the practice of integrated marketing, which has long been associated with Y&R but has become less prevalent in recent years. By getting execs from different units and regions together on a regular basis, Y&R hopes to make the practice second nature. Also, those execs trained in the program are expected to share what they learn with their respective offices.

Training execs to teach others is also the foundation of programs at Omnicom Group’s DDB, which in February rebranded its efforts Catalyst, and Interpublic Group’s McCann Erickson, which is part of a McCann WorldGroup curriculum. In particular, WorldGroup has placed more emphasis on digital and integrated marketing teaching in the past two years, said Stuart Alter, the group’s evp and worldwide director of employee learning here.

DDB, meanwhile, has developed 19 new training modules since April. Since then, it has taught some 48 staffers to train others and expects to add 14-16 more by year’s end, said Roisin Rooney, director of operations and events in DDB’s people performance group in London.

DDB sets aside a percentage of gross revenue each year for employee training, and that budget has climbed steadily in recent years, said global chief communications officer Jeff Swystun. WorldGroup’s annual investment is estimated at more than $1 million, according to sources. Publicis Groupe-backed BBH last year doubled what it spends on training, to 2 percent of its salary costs from 1 percent, said North American chairman Steve Harty.

Smaller agencies have the luxury of training their entire staff en masse. BBH here, for example, requires all 200 of its employees to attend monthly “Upskilling” presentations on topics like mobile marketing, data analytics and social media. Those presentations began in April and each is reinforced by five to seven follow-up meetings.

The agency also participates in Google’s Campus@ outreach program, which introduces shops to Google products and services. Finally, the shop invites outside experts from, for example, MTV or Facebook, to speak. Deutsch and Saatchi have similar speaker programs.

BBH believes that ongoing education is essential to keep up with the rapid changes in the marketplace. “We realize we have to master on a strategic level a lot of new content areas,” Harty said. And while staffers won’t necessarily become experts, “we do have to understand how, for example, social media fits into all the target areas,” he said.

Or, as Swystun put it, “To us this is a huge investment in our ongoing relevance and differentiation.”