4A's Conference

At 4A's, Talent Crisis Called out as 'Criminal'

Agency Holding Chiefs Sorrell, Wren, Roth Confront Lack of Interest in Industry by Youth and How to Fix It

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WPP, Omnicom and Interpublic are three of the biggest employers in adland, with a combined workforce of more than 200,000. It's a fact that made this admission from their CEOs last week all the more stunning: We suck at recruiting.

Martin Sorrell, John Wren and Michael Roth took the stage together for the first time last week at the 4A's Transformation 2011, the annual conference of ad bigs, and basically whipped themselves over their companies' failure in getting young people fired up about advertising. Mr. Sorrell, chief executive of WPP, used the strongest language when he called it "criminal neglect," but Mr. Roth, Interpublic Group of Cos.' CEO, wasn't far off when he said, "No one wakes up in the morning and says they want to go work in the advertising business."

The topic had been teed up in an earlier presentation by Arnold CEO Andrew Benett that painted a bleak view of employee retention. According to a survey by the agency and the 4A's, 30% of the collective agency work force will be gone within 12 months, and 70% of employees would call a recruiter back if one reached out to them. A whopping 96% of employees surveyed said they feel they could easily get a job, due in part to the recovering economy.

"We're not taking our own advice," Mr. Benett said. "We say, 'Talent is our No. 1,' but you look more into it and you look at how managers are, revenue is more important."

On the bright side, 37% expect to stay one to five more years in the industry, while 66% plan on staying more than five years in the business. But while they might not be necessarily leaving the business, agency staffers are essentially playing musical chairs, a problem identified by Mr. Wren, CEO of Omnicom Group.

"We've gotten way too comfortable poaching, effectively," Mr. Wren said. "Episodically Omnicom has gone to campuses, but we don't stay there ... we pretend to stay there, but we don't."

Mr. Sorrell added that he and his competitors need to be better at recruiting from business schools. Art schools and film schools also need to be targeted, Mr. Sorrell said.

In the following session, Miles Nadal, CEO of the smaller holding company MDC Partners, touted his company's investment in Boulder Digital Works and its commitment to create five schools around digital innovation. And Mr. Benett offered his own solutions: invest in talent in the early stages, such as schools; promote cross-training; introduce new incentives, such as education financing or sabbaticals; fix performance management; and engage employees in the career conversation.

Besides these ideas, there weren't a lot of firm fixes being offered, a bit unsatisfying because this isn't precisely a new topic of concern for an agency business that's seen some of its best employees lured away by the likes of Google, Microsoft and Facebook.

And it's become hard to talk about improving talent-recruitment methods without talking about diversity -- namely, the continued lack of it -- in the ad industry. Coltrane Curtis, who runs New York-based influencer-marketing agency Team Epiphany, briefly addressed conference-goers, driving home the importance of diversity as it relates to being able to influence pop culture. At his shop, it's not just seasoned ad veterans but black, Filipino and Hispanic staffers, students and fashion designers who help craft a marketing voice for clients such as Pepsi and Diageo.

What's bad for the industry was good for one of its main conferences. The talent issue presented the confab formerly known as the 4A's Management Conference with a central theme and an urgency not historically found there.

Also significant was Ms. Hill's coup in getting the three holding company chiefs on stage together. While Mr. Sorrell is no stranger to an interview with a newspaper or business-TV anchor, Messrs. Wren and Roth are more low-profile. Their panel was noteworthy for two reasons: First, the frequent agreements from longtime rivals Mr. Wren and Mr. Sorrell, who have fundamentally different ideas of the role of the agency holding company. Second, Mr. Roth, an insurance industry vet who's a relative newcomer to Madison Avenue, displayed a surefootedness in talking about the business and fended off an aggressive Mr. Sorrell in the panel's liveliest moment.

Pressing on the talent question, Mr. Sorrell asked aloud why the holding companies don't have HR executives on their board. Mr. Roth suggested that it was bad corporate governance to do so.

"I think we are paying lip service to it," Mr. Sorrell said.

"Maybe you do. But we don't," said Mr. Roth, causing the audience to laugh.

In the following session, Mr. Nadal insisted that his company does have a board-level talent officer: himself. "I am the CEO and talent is the single most important thing that I do. We spent $25 million on new talent last year and I was involved in 95% of those hires." The brash Mr. Nadal even offered up an example of his deep involvement in talent matters: He had "four kosher dinners" as part of an effort to persuade creative Ari Merkin to return to CP&B to run its Miami office.

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Contributing: Rupal Parekh

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