The Key to Luring Talent? Social Activism

Adland Won't Be Taken Seriously Unless It Engages Today's Idealistic Youth

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It's probably one thing we can't blame on climate change, but the talent pool on Madison Avenue has been depleted in recent years. It's a common lament from senior agency leadership and something that comes up in conversations and surveys as one of their main challenges. For an industry that loses all of its assets every day at 5 p.m. when its employees take the proverbial elevator to the ground floor and walk out of the building, talent is paramount.

Can adland do a better job of attracting a disproportionate share of talent? They have to -- by making social activism the connective tissue of their business activities.

We live in a time of discontent. In one recent multi-industry survey, an overwhelming majority of employees were found to perceive their employers as neither trustworthy nor fair-minded. Indeed, Enron and its likes taught us that the modern corporation can be a highly cynical, authoritarian organization, rife with manipulation and insecurity and offering little room for dissent.

Well-founded skepticism
Of course, there are good reasons for discontent. Politicians do lie. CEOs do enrich themselves at their employees' and shareholders' expense. Lobbyists do corrupt the political system.

And as for Madison Avenue? Some agencies equate their lack of passion or idealism with seasoned professionalism. Others think an attitude of hip, condescending detachment is an attractive, marketable quality. Kind of a sour picture, isn't it? No wonder so many young graduates think advertising is not a good fit with their values. Better chase a fat paycheck on Wall Street or an IPO in Silicon Valley.

It's an understandable attitude. Social activism in general today lacks the cohesive power of earlier eras, such as the 1960s marchers for civil rights and peace in Vietnam. It can be easy to become cynical when you see the limitation of public opinion to influence, especially when weighed against the enormity of society's ills or the depth of entrenched interests. But if the assumption is understandable, it is also mistaken.

This generation of young people is idealistic and committed to social causes like never before.

Social activism is not just the right to do -- it's the smart thing to do. As facilitators of the popular cultural conversation, high and low, agencies must engage in the issues of the day. It is unlikely advertising will be taken seriously, as more than mere hucksterism, unless it engages in the national dialogue on social activism.
Avi Dan is the former global executive director-new business development at Euro RSCG, where he was also a member of the executive committee and exec VP-new business director at Saatchi & Saatchi.
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