How to Retain Talent? Teach Them to Leave, Says KBS+

New York Agency Holds In-House Entrepreneur Course for Select Employees

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It's first thing in the morning. You've grabbed a coffee and a pastry, and you settle in to a lecture on convertible debt and preferred equity, followed by a tutorial on how startups should select angel investors.

Sound like an MBA course? It's actually an in-house training program in entrepreneurship at New York agency KBS+.

Instructors hunt for staffers at all levels to help curriculum live throughout the agency.
Instructors hunt for staffers at all levels to help curriculum live throughout the agency. Credit: Tim Farrell

In the ad world, there are two big problems when it comes to talent: finding it and keeping it. Finding worthy candidates to recruit to agencies is tough enough when they may rather work for the Googles, Facebooks and Twitters of the world. For talent already in the business, the problem is staying motivated and feeling like your career path is widening rather than narrowing.

The KBS+ Fellows program tackles the two issues, hoping the rewards outweigh the risks. After all, the MDC Partners-owned agency is actually equipping staffers with the tools that may make it easier to move on.

The idea was birthed by Darren Herman and Taylor Davidson, who run the KBS+ Ventures arm, which backs early-stage startups in advertising and marketing technology. KBS+ CEO Lori Senecal bit on their pitch right away, but it wasn't clear to what degree staffers would embrace the program, considering that so many of them purposely bypassed business school to focus on being creatives, art directors and coders.

Now in the middle of its fourth graduating class, the Fellows program is without question popular, and the application process is growing more competitive. Sessions are held in a six-month rotation. Between 15 to 20 employees are chosen each time, though as many as 60 apply.

In building the class, the instructors hunt for staffers at all levels to help the curriculum live throughout the agency. The more expertise fellows have in areas such as mobile, media, data, optimization and analytics, the better. KBS+ could later call upon them to evaluate companies for investment; so far, the agency has bought stakes in firms like Adapt.ly, Crowdtwist, and Place IQ. Last but not least, the chosen ones have a real enthusiasm for what's happening in the venture space.

That passion was evident on the morning I sat in on a class. Mr. Davidson was the instructor, and the lesson of the day gave the room -- a diverse group of men and women -- a break from crunching numbers, instead focusing on how culture figures heavily when buying a company. Zappos' office space was discussed at length. There was a heated debate over the difference between real culture and ping-pong tables and free beer. Every student was engaged and took notes -- and that was a good thing, because the teachers mean business. At one point, Mr. Davidson scolded a student for checking his phone during class.

The required reading for students is a book compiled by the agency called "Creative Entrepreneurship." It gathers essays from prominent folks around Silicon Valley, including Fred Wilson and Charlie O'Donnell. Venture-world execs regularly show up for talks that fellows attend, including Phin Barnes, partner at First Round Capital; Steve Schlafman, principal at Lerer Ventures; and Ari Jacoby, CEO-founder of Solve Media. Fellows are permitted to take additional courses on KBS+'s dime at Skillshare or General Assembly on entrepreneurial subjects to beef up their learning.

The course closes with a graduation ceremony held at parent MDC Partners' headquarters, and the company is considering expanding it around the full MDC network, which includes agencies such as CP&B, 72andSunny and Mono.

"Education about venture and entrepreneurship reinforces the agency's commitment to marketing inventions ... exposing people to the new thoughts, ideas and solutions being created by entrepreneurs through the Fellows education helps them in their daily work," said Mr. Herman.

So far most students have stayed. But in rare cases they leave -- and this is where agencies will need to ponder whether they'd consider implementing a similar program that would give their best staffers the wings to fly, because the program primes students with the information they need to launch, successfully market and win investment for what could be the next big startup.

Case in point: One media strategist who joined the Fellows program full of curiosity about the startup world graduated with such enthusiasm for what she learned that she left, joining the Mondelez early-stage innovation team at another agency.

"We are not concerned," Mr. Herman said. "Starting your own company still requires a significant leap and a set of situations that goes far beyond the education in the Fellows program. At the end of the day, it's easier for people to exercise their entrepreneurial skills inside KBS+ than outside KBS+."