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
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
"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+."