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January 16, 2008
When it Comes to Talent, Don't Just Say it, Mean it

“In our business, it’s all about the people.”

You’ve heard that a million times. (In fact, you’ve probably even heard yourself saying that a million times). While it’s easy to say, how often do you really feel it?

After having worked in both a large global network agency and a small creative shop, in the U.S. and overseas, within very different agency cultures, I have found that what wherever they are, what motivates people is basically the same.

1. It’s people, not “talent”

I’m lucky to have one of those names that people don’t know how to pronounce. I say lucky because it’s a great litmus test: the world is divided between the people who take the time to ask me how to say it correctly, and those who don’t. (Let’s not even talk about spelling.). It’s a small thing that represents a bigger truth: although we preach how clients need to show more insight into their consumers, we often show so little emotional intelligence when dealing with the people in our own agencies. Take the time to get to know them; where they come from; ask them about what they do outside the four walls of the office. They’ll be a lot more likely to want to stick around.

2. We all want to be part of something bigger

Back when I was a newly minted account supervisor I was put in charge of an account the agency had just won. In the initial internal kick-off meeting we realized that everybody’s name started with or had a prominent “A” in it – and so was born the “A Team”. Hokey yes, but it worked – everybody got on board and we were able to put out the new campaign in record time. What makes your shop different, unique, fun? What are the agency’s aspirations? Tell people, or better yet, ask them how they can contribute to the goal. Treat them like you need them to make it happen: You do. After all, there are thousands of interesting places to work – make them want to be at yours.

3. Let people do their thing

My first boss’ nickname was “The Delegator” (a.k.a. “The Terminator”), given to him by the other account directors. Believe me, they didn’t mean it as a compliment. I never understood why: he gave me so much room to figure things out on my own that I grew up faster as a professional and we both got promoted ahead of our peers. Letting people come up with their own solutions to a goal is the perfect win-win situation: they invariably have the best ideas on how to get it done, feel ownership in the result, grow in the process and best of all become ready to take on even bigger challenges.

4. Take the time to celebrate

At our agency we always find an excuse to get together at least once a month for a happy hour: someone is joining, someone is leaving, we just won at Cannes, we got a new client; there is always a good reason if you look. Let’s face it: this is a tough business and sometimes it feels like we are only as good as our last idea. Make a conscious effort every day to balance that out by recognizing and celebrating what we are doing right.

5. Above all, be fair

Advertising people tend to be a pretty cynical bunch, but in my experience people are really pretty reasonable. A job is not just a paycheck, and if you have done a good job in the previous four points, people will make them a big part of the equation when they are thinking of looking somewhere else. They also have X-Ray vision when it comes to reading through the BS. So pay them the closest you can between what they deserve and what you can afford. Be fair when evaluating them. When you have a bad year, explain to them why you can’t do everything you would like. And when you have a good year, make it good for them also.

All this may sound Polyanna. It isn’t. Motivation tracks directly to the bottom line – for everybody.

(By the way, a few months ago I ate lunch with one of the account executives I worked with way back when I was a supervisor. The first thing she asked me was: “When are we going to have an A-Team reunion?”)

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Before la comunidad, Alain Groenendaal made his career at Leo Burnett. He’s championed clients in account management; led new business efforts, consulting projects and overall agency operations with Best Buy, Citibank, Federal Express, Gatorade, H-P, Procter & Gamble, and Visa. Alain has an MBA, was born in New York, raised in Canada, and is happy to have found people who can pronounce his name (well, at least his first name).
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