Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Published in Mar-Apr 2012

Is your agency a creative magnet?

To gain and retain talent, advertising agencies need to re-engineer their creative departments.
Photo: Online.
Photo: Online.
Illustration by Creative Unit.
Illustration by Creative Unit.

Why doesn’t good creative talent want to work in your company? It’s not because you are a wedding card design company, instead of Apple. It’s not because you are based in Karachi instead of New York. It’s not because your salaries are too low, or because you don’t offer free food and laundry services. It’s because you are not providing the right opportunity. The talent you want would be happy to work in a non-air conditioned garage if it meant the chance to change the world. It’s because you are not a creative magnet. This, the opportunity to do great things, to make a real difference, is what drives most creative talent – whether they are conceptualisers, designers, developers, producers or writers. Most companies don’t offer this, so they skip your company and work somewhere that is more innovative and exciting. End of story.

But the good news is that you can offer them something exciting and great. The promise of changing a giant, behind-the-times organisation into a contemporary, people-centric, trend-savvy business is an incredibly exciting challenge and a big way for ambitious people to make an impact. However, it takes more than lip service to make the sale. Candidates and new hires with creative chops must truly believe in the company’s dedication to creative transformation and they must see that they are empowered to make this change. The trouble is that most ad agencies are not structured to deliver on this type of opportunity. The attributes of a soul-crushing, sisyphean, anti-creative workplace run deep.

Creative talent will not want to work in your company if:

1) Every element of their work will be pored over by multiple layers of bureaucracy.

Even if this is how the rest of the company operates, it cannot spill over into the creative department. In a creative environment, new ideas, solutions, even products and businesses, spring up daily and a new endeavour can go from conception to launch in a matter of months. Reining in the momentum will be read as inaction and a clear signal that the creative leadership is not willing to grasp the new way of the world. When heads of agencies, thinking of themselves as creative directors and account directors rolled into one, insist on presenting to the client ‘and’ going on shoots, there is something very wrong. Dear dinosaurs, if you want your agency to survive, get a hobby.

2) Mediocre is good enough.

While clocking out at five is attractive to some, it will discourage genuine talent. They want to be expected to do something great. They want to be pushed. They care about their work. Their leadership (and those they rely on to get things done) must match their appetite for success. Give them that adrenaline rush that they are looking for. Encourage them to come up with ideas without waiting for a brief. And then let them present their ideas to the client.

3) Trial and error is condemned.

The freedom to try out new ideas allows employees to take initiatives, make decisions and learn from their mistakes. It also demonstrates an attractive and inspiring entrepreneurial spirit. We forget the mistakes we made and boy, there were some whoppers. Always remember those. Let them learn from their mistakes as you learnt from yours.

4) Your company is so structured that it takes a lifetime to get to the top

Creative talent, often in their 20s and 30s, needs to see a clear path for career development that is based on merit (not years spent) and that is beyond the confines of the creative department. If they don’t, they will not see any reason to stay with the company in the long term. At the end of the day, bureaucracy is best limited to sarkari idaray.

5) Your offices are cold, impersonal and downright stodgy.

It may sound like it conflicts with the ‘you don’t need to be in Silicon Valley’ point, but appreciate the nuance. A traditional office layout is designed to communicate power among certain individuals and barriers between departments. This does not support the collaborative ethos, which is intrinsic to collaborative arts such as advertising. Companies should do everything possible to provide the creative team with a friendlier, open office space. Bring down the walls. Literally.

6) You hire people based on the zip code they live in, the schools they went to.

If you have rejected that kid because he went to the city university rather than to the fancy art school, but was nevertheless brimming with amazing ideas, although a little rough around the edges, then you are better off closing shop and retiring. It is within these bright sparks that you should be seeking a successor, not that smart aleck whose only qualification is an accident of DNA.

When all these creative talent deterring points are addressed, company leadership will then have effectively and proactively demonstrated its dedication to creative transformation. It is then that their words – a broadly communicated firm stance on the significance of the company’s creative goals – will make the most impact. Without this conspicuous top-down support, politics in the organisation or simply one influential disbeliever can hinder the effort, limit creative integration and discourage valuable employees.

To all the advertising seths out there, you need them more than they need you. Demand for their services is so high that they can afford to be finicky. If they don’t like where they are working, another firm with a more attractive culture and more opportunities will quickly swipe them up. It could be your company. But it could just as easily be another company.

S. Hyder is a creative working in a Pakistani advertising agency.