How to Attract Big-City Talent to Small Towns

Stop Throwing Money at the Problem and Use the One Resource You Have Plenty of: Creativity

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Joe Erwin
Joe Erwin
I can't complain ... at least I shouldn't, anyway. Erwin-Penland, the little ad shop my wife and I started 22 years ago in Greenville, S.C., of all places, today boasts more than 200 employees doing incredible work for world-class clients.

So why can't I sleep at night? Maybe it's because our greatest obstacle continues to be something that seems largely beyond our control: attracting top talent to a second-tier market.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of people working at ad agencies across the U.S. decreased from about 203,000 in 2000 to around 188,000 in 2007. Hardest hit have been cities such as Greenville -- or Des Moines, or Salt Lake City, or anywhere except New York, Chicago, L.A. and San Francisco, where heavy concentrations of large agencies continue to attract and retain tons of talented individuals.

What's a mid-market agency to do? Listing openings on job websites such as Monster is a start. Working with recruiters can be helpful -- albeit expensive -- although an unfamiliar agency or location is still likely to be passed over by potential candidates.

Instead of throwing money at the problem, agencies should apply the one resource of which they should have a limitless supply: creativity.

My friend John Risdall, of Risdall Marketing Group in Minnesota, has, with his team, taken an innovative approach to making sure homegrown talent stays close to home. They created Fusion Marketing, an independent agency comprised of students from the University of Minnesota's School of Journalism -- real employees doing real work for real clients.

Joe Erwin is president of Erwin-Penland, an advertising and marketing firm in Greenville, S.C., that's part of Hill Holliday.
For its inaugural effort, Risdall received 137 applications from the university's 600-plus J-school students -- over a single weekend. The 13 students who were eventually selected went on to create an impressive array of work for Fusion's clients, and four accepted permanent positions at Risdall -- talented individuals who otherwise might have been lost to the siren song of New York or Chicago.

It's one thing to do great work. It's another thing entirely to be recognized for these successes and become a magnet for top talent.

If you've been an observer of the ad business for fewer than 10 years, you might assume that Crispin Porter & Bogusky has always been one of the top agencies in the industry. Fact is, after languishing for decades in relative obscurity, it was great PR -- perhaps as much as great advertising -- that catapulted CPB to rock-star status and put Miami on the advertising map.

Alf Nucifora, former chairman of Earle Palmer Brown in Atlanta, once told me that the first check he wrote every month was to their PR consultant. With all the magazines and blogs covering our industry, it's never been easier or more important to create visibility for your company among potential employees.

Here we also invest considerable resources in promoting the surrounding area as part of a long-term effort to make Greenville a place creative people will want to call home.

In addition, this spring EP partnered with Michelin and BMW -- both of which have substantial operations in the Greenville area -- to host "Food for Thought: A Convention of Unconventional Creativity." This three-day celebration brought together innovators from across the country, such as Geek Squad founder Robert Stephens, with one common thread: a passion for thinking about their world in an entirely different manner.

Hopefully attendees came away inspired to challenge conventional thinking in their own lives, leading to a fountain of new ideas and possibilities. And maybe, just maybe, they'll go back to New York and Chicago and San Francisco and tell people about this cool ad agency in this cool city in South Carolina.
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