Agencies need change to attract new talent

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As the dot-com bubble bursts, Madison Avenue human-resources executives are breathing a sigh of relief. Maybe now the talent will come back. Maybe not. Ad agencies that threw up their hands during the migration of talent to the dot-coms will be surprised to find these individuals are not returning.

The only way to win talent back and continue to appeal to new generations is to examine why the "best and the brightest" are leaving agency life. It's time to acknowledge that dot-coms didn't just prey on talent-but the talent was ready to go. Why?

The dot-com world offered an attractive culture-an empowering environment with a sense of common goals and a feeling that each person is crucial. Sounds a lot like ad agencies in the '60s and '70s.

As agencies have reached a new level of maturity, it's time for them to re-examine where they are, what they stand for-to evolve their cultures to attract the talent that will continue to make them great.

Agencies, sourced for their ability to create brand equity for clients, rarely spend the time creating their own brand when it comes to the talent market.

It's easy to find out the reputation your organization has as an employer. Just listen to the elevator talk and tune into the "word on the street." Its's something most agencies actually turn a deaf ear to-maybe because they are worried about what they'll hear.

The best employees are those who are proud of the organization they work for. They are given a culture they can thrive in and an understanding of the values and goals of the company. They are stimulated by their work, their environment, and the potential they have at the organization-they feel well compensated, and have a sense of loyalty to the company that stems from a feeling that they are important to the organization.

No one understands this better than Jack Welch, CEO of General Electric, the master of cultural evolution and integration. GE employees have a strong understanding of the company's culture and goals and are proud to be a part of GE. Mr. Welch has always understood the need for culture to be driven from the top.

Another organization that understands the culture ROI is Added-Value Group, a brand consultancy. Added-Value has a "litmus test" to see if candidates will be a good fit. They present the potential hire with a hypothetical client problem and give the candidate time to think about how to handle it. Then they bring in their senior people to have an interactive discussion of the issues. This lets them see how creative and smart the person is, in addition to how open he/she is to ideas and criticism. The second hurdle is a casual lunch with another group to see if the person fits in with the culture on a social level. The result-the company has built a strong and committed team that has the right chemistry and shares the same values and goals.

Agencies should also be using their HR departments as the nucleus to drive culture. HR should develop incentive programs for senior management based on "culture" goals.

Working with HR, management must take the reins to create and proliferate a culture that will ensure you are attracting and keeping the best talent. Create a "culture" task force and start with a hard look at where your culture is now. This team has to ask itself some tough questions:

* What is our brand identity as an employer? What is the overall experience of working here? What are our values and goals? Are they evolving to meet our growth and needs? Are we communicating them to the staff?

* Are our employees familiar with our history?

* Have we developed and articulated the agency's future and each employee's role in it?

* What is our culture? Are there disciples in the company who understand it and are committed to spreading it? How often do we take inventory of our culture? Are we listening to the employee grapevine?

* Are the advertising icons at our agency involved in teaching and inspiring the next generation of talent?

* Are we making our culture a part of our interviewing process?

* Do our communications vehicles reflect an interest in our people? Do they offer a sense of the culture?

* Does the head of HR report to the CEO? Is the HR department represented on our board? Do we discuss people-management programs at our annual meetings?

* Are we considered a "hot" agency to work for? Is our agency attracting and developing "stars"? And if not, why?

* Do our people feel valued? How do our compensation packages measure up? Is it evident to our staff that we are committed to innovative incentive programs?

* Is the physical environment we offer our employees attractive?

* Do we allow our talent to rotate assignments?

* Are we adequately communicating the career paths and exciting opportunities we offer? Do we have an articulated global career path?

* Are our HR policies reviewed regularly? Does our HR department develop an annual business plan tied to the organizational objectives and goals?

With so many agencies sitting back, waiting for the talent to return on its own, there is a tremendous opportunity for those who choose to be the pioneers-to develop and embody a culture that any creative and talented individual would want to join.

Mr. Gundersen is CEO and founder of Gundersen Partners, New York, a leading global executive search and management consulting firm that specializes in marketing and marketing communications (sgg@gpllc.com).

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