The Lost Art of Mentoring

Why Agencies Must Do to Attract the Best and Brightest

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Early in this decade U.S. agencies shrank by 80,000 people. Almost one in six jobs disappeared. And, so did the seasoned talent that occupied those jobs, talent now gone from the industry.
Mike Carlton
Mike Carlton

Some of the first to go were senior agency people—professionals who were probably fairly expensive and may have been past their peak in productivity.

Historically, these folks did much of the mentoring of younger agency staffers. They had the knowledge, the experience, the wisdom and—most important—the time to help young talent develop. The good ones believed in giving back to the next generation of agency professionals the skills that they had received in their youth. While their mentoring contribution was not easily quantifiable, it was of incredible value.

Now, the ranks of those unselfish mentors are dramatically thinned. Is the art of mentoring being lost?

This is unfortunate, as there is little question about mentoring's value. Recently, a survey published in USA Today asked the following question: "How much of an impact does coaching or mentoring have on career success?"

Fully 46% said that coaching or mentoring has a great impact on career success, while 45% more said it had a moderate impact. Only 9% said it had little or no impact on career success.

It's a tough world out there. Young professional talent is increasingly in short supply. Attracting, recruiting, training, growing and retaining young professional talent is the key to the future success of any intellectually driven enterprise. And advertising agencies have to compete for that talent in a much more difficult marketplace.

Other companies have made a strident effort to recruit and retain talent. For example, Booz Allen Hamilton spends 6.3% of total payroll for staff training. Ernst & Young's learning budget is $1 million per year. Ritz Carlton requires 198 annual training hours per employee. And Lockeed Martin will spend a whooping $48 million this year on staff-tuition reimbursement.

Most agencies don't put this much relative effort into the training and development of their young people.

Some used to have formal training programs, but many of these programs were killed during the recent difficult years. It is not clear how many have been reinstated.

The best young talent will go where they feel they will have the greatest chance of growing professionally; their employer's commitment to their development will surely play a key role in their career choice.

You could argue that most agencies never had much in the way of formal training programs anyway, but they always had great mentors. That's true. The question is, in an increasingly competitive and cost-sensitive agency business environment, if formal training programs are unaffordable, can mentoring fill the gap? And if so, what should be expected of mentoring?

And if there is little training or mentoring, can the agency industry really expect to be the choice of the best and brightest young talent? And without that talent, what kind of future is in store? The dictionary defines a mentor as a wise adviser, a loyal friend, a trusted guide, a teacher and a coach. These are not typical business terms. They reflect the fact that the relationship with a good mentor goes way beyond a normal business relationship to a much deeper personal one.

Thus, when we discuss mentoring we are venturing outside the tidy world of dollars and cents. Mentoring is not, and never has been, something that can be easily measured or quantified. There is just no place for it on an income statement or balance sheet.

Still, while most everyone believes that mentoring within an advertising agency is a good thing, it is not without its cost. Mentoring takes commitment. And mentoring takes time. Time of senior people that most likely can be used to more immediate economic advantage on business development or paying client work.

Thus, agencies are caught in a conundrum. Do you maximize immediate revenue at the expense of developing talent for the future? Or do you forgo some money today in order to build the future talent base? Not easy questions. But clearly if agencies do not develop talent for the future when other intellectual services businesses are spending heavily in that area, the role of advertising agencies in our society will surely decline. It looks like many of today's agency leaders are sacrificing the future agency talent pool for immediate financial returns—even if it is benign neglect.

So, what makes for an agency with a successful mentoring environment? When you examine those agencies where mentoring seems to thrive, at least some of these five preconditions generally appear. They are:

It's part of the agency's DNA. To have mentoring become integral to the agency's culture it takes significant commitment from the top. In fact, in agencies in which mentoring is strong you almost always find senior leaders that are natural, intuitive mentors themselves.

The agency is populated by people with high self-esteem. A good mentor wants her charge to excel, even exceed the capabilities of the mentor. This takes people with strong self-belief. People who are not at all threatened by having their young charge do better than they can.

Mentoring is expected of those capable of doing so. The people who are naturally good mentors, and enjoy it, should be encouraged to do it. Even more, they should be granted the time it requires. And they should be rewarded for it, both psychically and financially.

The mentoring process is celebrated. Consistent recognition of those who mentor, and the accomplishments of those whose skills improve because of mentoring, reinforces the entire culture of the agency, the value it places on talent and its relentless commitment to assuring that each individual grows professionally.
Resources are available to help improve mentoring skills. Agencies in which mentoring thrives frequently underwrite courses, books, workshops, seminars, etc. in which their mentors can improve their skills.

It is a proposition in which everyone wins.

About the Author: Mike Carlton is founder of Carlton Associates Inc., a consulting firm that focuses on agency operational and management challenges. He also serves on the advisory or corporate boards of a number of agencies and related firms, and he regularly lectures to marketing, communications and MBA students, both in the U.S. and abroad.
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