Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Meeting greater expectations

Published in Nov-Dec 2018

Flexibility and the freedom to experiment and fail are the key components to retention in today’s ad agency world...

Not too long ago, people in advertising lived a simple life. Salaries paid on time considered a major plus when hopping advertising agencies in Pakistan. There were no greater expectations as far as the remuneration was concerned, although some agencies used to give vehicles to their managers and senior staff; work hours were always gruelling and fringe benefits were best known as a band from the nineties. Yet, ad agencies were able to attract the best talent and even retain them without much effort.

The industry has come a long way and now offers provident fund, gratuity, medical and life insurance, company maintained cars, annual performance appraisals, training and development opportunities and creatively-designed workspaces.

Yet, more and more creative, media and digital agencies are in the grip of an unprecedented crisis of talent acquisition and retention. It was a common belief in the business that “you don’t choose advertising, advertising chooses you.” I don’t think we have that luxury anymore as there aren’t many mad ones left to choose from. In my opinion, we have overlooked a key aspect of the creative exodus. It is not only about perks and visibility. While it may be convenient to write off the departure of outstanding talent as a desire to add a big name to their résumé or the greed to pad their savings account, the key word here is ‘outstanding.’

Outstanding people seek opportunities to tell stories, push boundaries and develop new approaches. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t be outstanding. We may have fixed many remuneration-related malpractices (at least most mainstream agencies have), when it comes to culture and working practices, the profession has become downright shallow. Yes, companies like Google and Apple changed the game for every other industry in the world but ad agencies in Pakistan cannot even compete with their clients in the single most important ingredient of success in talent management today – flexibility.

For an industry built on the premise of creativity to act so resolutely ‘uncreative’ when it comes to talent management is ironic. Flexibility has always been crucial in attracting and retaining the best talent in our business and all recent global studies on workplace culture and HR management show a significant change in key expectations; an increased desire among employees for flexibility in the way they work. According to Steve Price (Dell’s Chief HR Officer), results from their worldwide research shows that “more than 60% of employees work before or after standard business hours. Furthermore, roughly two-thirds globally conduct at least some business from home on a regular basis and the average employee spends at least two hours per week working from public places.”

Enabling people to work as much – or as little – as they want, when what they want is not the opposite of discipline and order. Developing a company culture based on flexible work style options will lead to more satisfied and engaged team members.

Forbes published a research study in 2017, which stated that “more than 80% of Millennials say workspace technology will influence the jobs they take.” This aligns with other global research published in the past few years. The numbers are even higher for people in developing countries as social structures evolve and parenting roles are significantly changing.

Enabling people to work as much – or as little – as they want, when what they want is not the opposite of discipline and order. Developing a company culture based on flexible work style options will lead to more satisfied and engaged team members. Google says flexibility is one of the top three cultural attributes team members value the most, followed by ethics and inclusion; a survey conducted at Blitz showed similar results. We have seen that giving our team members the independence to work remotely can lead to productivity gains and has even helped retain some top talent when they were ready to resign and do their own thing; look after an ailing parent or take an unplanned vacation. We learnt this the hard way, after struggling to retain any fresh talent for over a year. Even now, despite all the adjustments we have made to our HR systems, our digital team has a high employee turnover rate.

Perhaps it also has a lot to do with the way the agency structure is evolving as we look towards building our competencies around clients and consumers, instead of working with media specific structures for conventional and digital separately. The structure at Blitz is more fluid today than it used to be five years ago when the demarcation between media, creative, digital and content were very clear. While Blitz still has separate business units for creative, content, media and digital, a strong collaborative culture is what drives our growth engine. When an agency becomes more fluid in structure, the talent acquisition and management practices need to evolve as well. Agencies need to be more adaptive to the unique combination of skills each individual offers to discover the potential across all functions. Our strategy and planning team works on key pitches and major campaigns across different business units. We have had plenty of management trainees who jumped their function after merely spending six months for what they were originally hired. This helps us retain the people we have so carefully hired.

Enabling people to work as much – or as little – as they want, when what they want is not the opposite of discipline and order. Developing a company culture based on flexible work style options will lead to more satisfied and engaged team members.

I remember being overawed by the simplicity of thought behind Keith Reinhard’s ‘Four Freedoms’ in his book Any Wednesday – Notes To An Advertising Agency. Reinhard was Chairman Emeritus, DDB Worldwide, when I joined the agency and ever so simply, he captured the essence of what flexibility means in the advertising agency business; the Freedom from Fear, the Freedom to Fail, the Freedom from Chaos and the Freedom to Be. The presence of these freedoms he says, “ensures talent will flourish and ideas will flow.” I believe that what lies behind the talent crisis in our industry is the absence of these freedoms. Most agencies poach talent off each other. There are several problems created by this practice, but the most concerning bit is the shrinking supply of top-quality talent; we are no longer a first choice for the cream of fresh grads. Some would argue that it has always been the case, but it wasn’t this way for media sciences, communication design, mass communication and design graduates at least.

The competition is even fiercer for creatives, many of whom have fled to greener tech pastures. The migration of young communication designers to tech companies has been going on for years, but new graduates deciding outright not to work in advertising is a new and troubling trend. The creative folk in a fluid agency structure can make all the difference as they leap to cross functional projects for the opportunity to do work that requires a different level of thinking. This is the freedom we have to give all ad folk if we wish to attract the best and the brightest. We will need to put ourselves in the prospective talent’s shoes. Without knowing what they value and what they need, we cannot get the best talent through the door, forget keeping them there!

Umair Saeed is COO, Blitz Advertising.