Why This Isn't the Seller's Job Market Agencies Think It Is

Don't Neglect Your Star Performers, Because There's Still a Dearth of the 'Right' Talent

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Stuart Parkin
Stuart Parkin
It's 10 a.m. on a predictably cloudy morning as I arrive to meet "Jerry," a senior-level strategic planner with one of the nation's top advertising agencies. I'm meeting Jerry ostensibly to discuss optimal career paths. As the conversation ensues it increasingly focuses on how far from ideal her current role is and why, she tells me, most other senior managers will leave the agency when "things" get better. I'm surprised at the intensity of her feelings but not at the message itself, for me an all-too-familiar tale.

As someone who recruits and coaches talent, I am finding that this marketplace is perfect for speaking with almost anyone, and in particular with employed "uber-perfomers." Sound counterintuitive? Sure -- if you assume that people would be happy simply to have a job.

On the contrary, smart people are grateful but realistic, assume nothing and want to have a Plan B. So they are thinking ahead and are very open to considering other opportunities. That's why the prognosis for people with unique ability and/or compelling experience continues to be good. Indeed, there are fewer jobs today and there are salary and hiring freezes, but the reality is that there is still a dearth of the "right" talent. The best-performing companies are sustained by it and seek to acquire it, while the less successful companies need it to catch up. Net result: There are more viable job offers (as opposed to jobs posted merely to gauge available talent or legitimize HR directors' own jobs). The key challenge continues to be finding the right people to fill those jobs, who are still typically gainfully employed. So, is this quite the seller's market it is suggested it is?

One of the recurring comments I hear today from human-resources staff, industry veterans and people looking for work is that there must be a huge amount of talent out there. Clearly, as more people are laid off, that rings undeniably true. It's quite evident that there are a number of very smart, experienced and likeable people that are unfortunate casualties of the broader economic malaise.

But you have to ask yourself: If you had a work force of, say, 100 people and you had to let go of 25% of them, would you lay off your star performers? Not likely. They remain, working in downsized environments, in stretched roles and, no doubt at the moment, on a pile of new business that they may not enjoy, at least to the degree they are being asked to work on it. Net result: Even the star performers are feeling vulnerable and unhappy.

The focus of agencies and most business today appears to be on controlling costs across the board and notably in staffing, by reducing head count and the cost of acquiring it and controlling pay and all facets of remuneration. Employers have concluded that this is a seller's market and that they are in control. And it's true that many employees do not want to be seen talking to recruiters and are reluctant even where there is a job at another company to take it -- they fear being last in at a company that subsequently has to have a fresh round of layoffs. The longer the recession goes on, the truer that will be.

Most commentators would agree that to pull out of recession, agencies must do everything possible to innovate and, in turn, help clients to add value. That, in turn, requires the best minds and experience. Significantly, the very people most able to effect transformational changes are the same talented individuals who will help first and foremost to retain existing businesses. Certainly the brightest individuals realize there are times to buckle down and do everything to help the broader cause of the agency.

That said, the same star performers will not act in stopgap roles without some inevitable short- and long-term effect. Ultimately they will look for other jobs.

So, sure, there are still more job seekers than there are jobs. But the danger for agencies is to neglect the very best talent they have on staff, even in these torrid economic times. Managing these performers is extremely challenging, as individuals are motivated by different things. That's why the onus is on the agency to better understand specific motivating factors, be they financial, intellectual or related to the job's variety and challenges. If agencies fail in this effort, top-performing employees will leave, and when they do, invariably so will clients.

And at that point, agencies will have no choice but to contribute to the growing pool of job seekers.

Stuart Parkin is a New York-based career coach and executive recruiter. He has 20 years of experience in agency new business and marketing. He has worked on four continents across agency disciplines. He has run Sparkin, his New York-based consultancy, for seven years. He has worked with a range of traditional, multicultural, digital and public-relations agencies including DDB, Rapp, SpikeDDB, Porter Novelli, Dieste, Fallon, Berlin Cameron and Organic.
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