As China's Talent Crisis Intensifies, WPP Tries to Tackle It

In Land of 1.5 Billion People, Not Enough Skilled Advertising Workers

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If you think Madison Avenue has a talent crisis, head East -- to China, where a relatively new business climate, a yet-undeveloped creative aesthetic and an education system that has historically favored memorization skills over creative problem solving all add up to agencies fighting over a dearth of suitable workers.

To increase the pool, WPP is launching a three-year marketing and communications college program in China, aimed at creating a source of market-ready talent in a country where annual turnover at ad agencies can reach 50%.

Martin Sorrell
Martin Sorrell

Advertising executives in China unanimously rank recruitment and retention as their biggest challenge. Breakneck economic development has spurred double-digit growth in advertising and marketing -- but the education system doesn't produce enough capable graduates, nor can agencies keep up with the training required.

"The problem with our industry is that people believe the way you develop talent is by stealing it," said WPP Chief Executive Martin Sorrell. "Our competitors, especially the ones who are desperate, are especially adept at stealing talent."

"What we're doing in China, [in partnership] with the Shanghai Art and Design Academy and the [local government] administration in Shanghai, is to a) acknowledge that marketing talent is important and b) to try and develop programs that are specifically aimed at developing that talent," he said. "And what we'd like coming out of it is a more long-term attitude toward growth and development of talent in our industry, which is very lacking."

The WPP School of Marketing and Communications will have 50 students in the inaugural class and plans to double that number next year. WPP senior staff will serve as part-time faculty and mentors. The school will be officially inaugurated today in Shanghai by Mr. Sorrell and other top WPP officials.

According to TB Song, chairman of WPP Greater China and dean of the school, the curriculum focuses on creativity the first year, expanding to planning, account service and marketing in the second. Top students take part in six-month internships at WPP agencies in the third year.

Graduating from the school does not, however, guarantee employment at a WPP agency.

The biggest challenge in China is finding strong creatives and strategic planners, while ad agencies have to compete with IT and web companies for digital talent, Mr. Song said. The problem stems in part from China's education system that emphasizes rote memorization over creative or critical thinking.

"At a lot of companies, their turnover rate is about 25 to 30%, and a lot of companies are close to 50%," Mr. Song said, referring to the ad industry in China overall. "If you can keep the turnover rate to about 20%, the company will be stable and the service quality will be stable."

Among WPP's competitors, Omnicom Group works with Beijing's Tsinghua University, where the journalism building is named after the New York-based holding company. It also runs a digital training program in partnership with Shanghai's Fudan University and has an "Omnicom University" for top execs with Harvard Business School.

At the agency level in China, a variety of initiatives aim to combat issues of recruitment and retention, with varying degrees of formality. Beyond promoting a company's brand or culture, and university partnerships and lecturing gigs, some programs include:

  • Omnicom agency DDB Greater China's structured training system, with up to 10 modules split between a core-skills program for junior staff and advanced skills program for those with 3 to 5 years of experience, including courses on negotiation and pitching.
  • Omnicom's TBWA's "Great Wall" mentorship program, geared toward career development for rising leaders, who in turn mentor two people each. Formal meetings are held every six months. If an employee expresses desire to change career directon, "we're on top of it and in a position to react, instead of getting a resignation letter," said Ian Thubron, president of TBWA Greater China.
  • Lowe China's chairman-CEO, Kitty Lun, personally interviews more than 100 intern candidates a year at the Interpublic Group of Cos. agency. Ms. Lun's goal is to find young people to do real work. Her latest success story: a former intern who has doubled her salary, gone to New York for training and now works as a senior account executive for Unilever -- all in less than a year after being hired.

WPP is aiming to see its school become a strong talent pipeline within five to 10 years. Graduates may be easy targets for agencies from other holding companies, but Mr. Sorrell said he isn't worrying about that too much.

"The industry won't go anywhere if this continuous poaching, stealing, nicking goes on," he said. "We're prepared to take that initiative. It's for the health of the industry and it will ultimately benefit us."

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