TalentWorks Digital Career Guide

Great Talent Is Everyone's Game to Win

Google, Yahoo and Other Digital Behemoths Can Suck Star Hires Right Out From Under You -- Unless You Fight Back. Here's How

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Illustration: Ray Bartkus
Google is a black hole to talent, a Silicon Valley singularity that seems to eventually draw every mote of digital-marketing ability and aptitude into its voracious maw. Microsoft and a few other digital behemoths do the same thing.

"They're 800-pound gorillas that can outspend you and out-recruit you and be all over the place, whereas you only have a finite amount of resources," says Aaron Batte, partner in Faction Media, a Denver-based digital agency.

But whether you're client or agency, big or small, there are actually ways you can compete with these giant suction machines and keep your digitally deft candidates and employees from being pulled away.

Instead of some inevitable victim of the industry's quantum physics, think of yourself as a David to Google's Goliath. David had only a slingshot and five smooth stones to go up against the Philistine. But you can mix and match from these 10 ideas:
1. TELL YOUR OWN STORY
Many small digital-marketing firms are growing faster than the industry giants -- and have a bigger upside. "It will be a lot easier for us to double than for Google or Yahoo," says Patrick McKenna, CEO of DMi Partners, an interactive shop in Philadelphia.

That usually spells opportunity for staffers at outfits such as ePrize, an advergaming agency in Pleasant Ridge, Mich. that grew 40% last year. "It's difficult to have an impact at Microsoft as employee No. 111,000," says CEO Josh Linkner. "We're the category killer in the industry, but we're small enough for people to feel they can make a difference."

Perceiving such opportunities can be the crucial employer determinant for many digitally capable young marketers.
2. EMPHASIZE YOUR STRENGTHS
For agencies, that may mean touting the broad exposure to clients and applications that digital mavens can enjoy. "I'm basically doing banner ads for four of the biggest music companies in the country," says Laura O'Connell, a 24-year-old business analyst for Gupta Media, a tiny outfit in Cambridge, Mass. "Every day there's a new project coming up."

Mike Devereux, executive director-digital marketing for General Motors, promotes "the attractiveness of being a digital marketer" at a large brand. "It's very different than being a subject-matter expert in search. What we're selling is sexy, because you literally get to change the way marketing works."
3. EXPLORE THE MARGINS
Excuse yourself from the talent wars and duck into less-crowded conduits. "Instead of just trying to steal from other agencies, we go to universities a lot and look for data and analytics experts, especially professors and people getting Ph.D.s," says Mark Miller, president of RMG Connect, an online-customer-acquisition outfit headquartered in New York with about 300 employees scattered across the United States and even more overseas.

And nothing intrigues talented and capable people, digital or otherwise, like the recommendation of a friend or peer. For example, Cambridge, Mass.-based Sapient relies on employee referrals for 39% of its hires.
4. STOKE THE HOME FIRES
America's silicon enclaves aren't the only places digital talent resides. Resource Interactive, a 250-person agency in Columbus, Ohio, skims graduates from Ohio State University and other major schools nearby, and now is taking advantage of a slowing economy. "A company like ours that's in a growth mode is a shining star in a less-growing area," says CEO Nancy Kramer.

Many digital talents simply love home cooking. "My family is here, and my husband has a great career in Michigan, too," says Susan Walton, the 43-year-old digital manager of GM's Saturn brand. "The fact that my kids are in a city with their grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins is really important to me."
5. DON'T BECOME THE GREATER FOOL
Avoid the temptation of settling for the first person who knows what "SEO" stands for. For such reasons, many in the digital job market already have inflated salaries and titles. "There just aren't a lot of senior-level talents who can actually drive client relationships and projects," says Amanda Schonfeld, recruiting manager for Sapient.

Spark Communications performs vigorous vetting to make sure it's getting people who are entrepreneurial as well as digitally capable. They must demonstrate a "cross-functional understanding" and the ability to be "comfortable in an adaptive environment," says Ken Zasky, president of the Chicago-based unit of Starcom MediaVest Group.
6. TEACH THEM YOURSELF
DMi Partners, for instance, searches for employees who have the propensity to learn and then runs them through a proprietary skill-development curriculum. "That way, you're building their knowledge base in a way that's aligned with your company vs. assimilating their existing knowledge base," Mr. McKenna says. "It's expensive and time-consuming, but it's more lucrative in the long run."

Prasida Newman spurred Avenue A/ Razorfish to make a two-year commitment to a leadership-development program at LinkShare. She rotates every six months or so through a new department of the New York-based affiliate-marketing firm. "They're investing in me," says the 30-year-old Ms. Newman says, "so I'm investing in them."
7. CREATE A COMPELLING CULTURE
Everyone wants to do this, but you must move beyond weekly massages and lip service about caring and sharing. Mr. Linkner maintains that ex-Google and ex-Microsoft employees join ePrize and recognize its "rich culture based on passion and creativity and trust."

What are the components? Vast opportunities to expand skill sets and profit financially from the $50 million company's success. Real permission to challenge authority. Quick exits for people who don't get it. Monthly half-day sessions with Mr. Linkner for those who join the 350-employee organization. There's even an internally published book about the ePrize culture.
8. TAP INTO OTHER PASSIONS
Some employers chase digital talent by appealing to avocational interests. San Francisco-based Sportgenic, for example, must compete for employees with Google's mother ship nearby. So the agency -- formerly known as Active Athletes -- relies on its unique niche: building online relationships between brands and sports enthusiasts. A large percentage of its 33 employees are triathletes, kayakers, volleyball players and others dedicated to sports and recreation.

"They get to come and work on stuff that they really can get excited about," says Robert Tas, founder and CEO. Mr. Tas further endears Sportgenic to the employee base by offering what he calls "little perks, such as gym memberships and paying their race-entry fees that reinforce their lifestyle and their commitment to their passion."
9. PROVIDE BENEFITS THAT DELIGHT
Competition for digital talent has risen to such a level that a robust salary, more-than-generous benefits, and tasty and healthy food in the snack room have become mere table stakes. So firms must up the ante or get creative.

That's why, for example, Gogi Gupta, founder of Gupta Media, has done things such as purchase a PlayStation 3 system for one employee's second anniversary. Spark recently provided a "technology allowance" to each of its 100 employees. Amounts varied by level, but Mr. Zasky says that everyone was supposed to use it "to up your game in the digital space." And Faction springs quarterly gifts on its staff that have ranged from new video iPods to a season's ski pass to the Winter Park resort.
10. GIVE THEM A DOG IN THE HUNT
Profit-sharing of one sort or another has become almost a staple demand of digital talent, whether it's in the form of an actual cut of profits, "phantom" options in a likely stock sale or other instruments.

Sarkissian Mason has been willing to go even further. The New York interactive agency created a distinct unit and stock options around an e-tailing initiative called Shopnik that will reward participants over a three-year period if the venture is sold.

"I have a lot of people with 10 to 12 years in the industry who want some skin in the game, not just salary," said CEO Patrick Sarkissian. "The product itself has come out so much stronger because people cared about it at a different level. It was their baby."

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