Live, Learn And Prosper

Chris Weil, chairman and CEO of Momentum Worldwide, has a lofty goal: He wants to see his company listed in Fortune magazine’s “100 Best Companies to Work For.”

Weil discovered a commonality among the listed companies was a top-notch employee training and educational program. So last year, Weil started beefing up his company’s educational options. The program at McCann WorldGroup-owned Momentum is now a year old, and 90 percent of the staff has attended at least one of the 30 courses, ranging from an introduction to the company’s culture to skill-improving classes such as time management and better business practices.

New York-based Momentum is not alone in realizing that employee education is crucial to staying competitive in a market where agencies vie not only for new business, but attracting and retaining talent. At many agencies, both creative and account management workers are aware that, no matter how high up the ladder they’ve climbed, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to get to the next rung without taking a course or two. The companies that have in-house programs say they can help employees better understand corporate vision, improve productivity and management skills and gain opportunities for networking and sharing of best practices.

“I don’t think you can run an agency today unless you’re training your people,” says O. Burtch Drake, president and CEO of the American Association of Advertising Agencies. While in-house training programs, mostly focused on mentoring young employees and grooming them for higher-level positions, were de rigueur in the 1960s and ’70s, many were disbanded in the ’80s and ’90s when cash-strapped companies cut costs. The economy may not be more stable, but many agencies are realizing that education is a necessary cost of doing business. The programs companies are offering today not only focus on training young talent, but on improving company culture and skills at every level—from secretaries to CEOs, creatives and account managers.

WPP Group says it offers such classes at many of its agencies. JWT, for example, has two programs: the Professional Development Program for continuing education among its general staff, and its High Potential Group, launched in January, consisting of about 50 workers under the age of 30 who participate in rigorous in-house training and special projects to propel them along the fast track.

Meanwhile, many of Interpublic Group’s agencies offer programs similar to Deutsch’s 8-year-old “Speaking Deutsch” program, which serves as an immersion for employees—both new and veterans—into the company’s culture and practices. Deutsch also offers courses that address skills such as presenting, writing and mastering computer programs. Svp/HR director Robin Lander stresses that even employees who have been at the company longer than the program’s existence are encouraged to attend, adding that “it’s enormously helpful to go through it at some point.”

At Momentum, classes are mandatory. Every new employee attends an “Introduction to Momentum” course, which indoctrinates new staffers into the company’s policies and culture. Additionally, employees must attend a certain number of courses annually, chosen by employees and their supervisor to reflect performance goals. Completing them is required for eligibility for a promotion or raise.

Meanwhile, at DDB, the DDB University program has been five years in the making. Unlike the agencies that had been slashing funding for their programs, DDBU launched in the midst of the economic downturn. There are course offerings for nearly every level of employee, as well as courses geared to both the creative and the account management sides of the business. In addition to learning, the classes are forums for sharing best practices, both within the company and through the tutelage of outside trainers.

“Offering learning, coaching and the opportunity for a think tank was a way to move forward and come out of [the] downturn, and to allow employees to grow during this crucial time,” says DDBU’s director, Raquel Suárez.

Back at Momentum, Donna Cargas, an account director at its St. Louis office, has already seen results since attending a session on ideation. She claims the session, called “Idea Intersection,” helped her understand and apply some of the shop’s proprietary concepts. “Yes, it’s hard to find time” away from the workload, she says. “But once you’re there, you’re glad you’ve done it. It reinvigorates you [and] reminds you why you love the business.”

Marcio M. Moreira, vice chairman of global professional management at McCann WorldGroup, says that the concept of in-house education has always been important. The company’s Human Futures Development program ranges from in-office seminars to a twice-yearly conference attended by top execs. Its main focus is on developing the company’s vision, business practices and ideas germane to the agency.

“In an industry that’s becoming generic, with people moving from one place to another with tremendous speed, what begins to happen is there’s no proprietary thinking and no culture,” says Moreira.

So, is there ever a concern that this investment will be wasted on employees once they leave the company? “What’s the other option?” asks Momentum’s Weil. “Not training them?”

For companies lacking the resources to develop in-house training, or for remote outposts, the 4A’s has a growing online curriculum as well as its longstanding Institute of Advanced Advertising Studies. Designed for professionals with up to four years of experience, the IAAS program simulates an agency, with students developing an advertising program for a given product and presenting it to a mock client.

“The business is so much more complex today, and you really need a formal, almost regimented program,” says Drake, who predicts the American industry might eventually follow the example of England’s Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, which is developing an extensive certification program that will soon be mandatory for members. The certification is analogous to the bar exam for lawyers.

The U.S. is a long way off from such draconian measures, but Drake believes that it will move closer to the U.K. model over time. “We’re not going to move as fast [as the U.K.], but you are going to need to have passed certain qualifications to advance in your job.”