Recruiting Top Talent in a Downturn

Free-Beer Fridays Are No Longer a Principal Selling Point

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Greg Taucher
Greg Taucher
Jeff Swystun
Jeff Swystun

This is an incredibly interesting period in our industry in terms of recruiting talent. The economy has ruthlessly and efficiently simplified many of the variables in employment decision making. Six months ago, we were all battling in the "war for talent," in which much of the leverage arguably was in the hands of the recruit. The wants and needs of top talent often pushed organizational protocol to the brink as the demand for the best and brightest was clearly priority one.

Things have changed. Stability and job security are now more important than perks and compensation. But that doesn't mean it's an employer's market; the discussions between top recruit and employer are on fairly even ground.

Standing out
Typical practice has been to ensure that the agency brand communicates what the job seeker wants from an employer. But it's becoming increasingly important to ensure that a specific agency is not seen as one of a broad, homogenized set within the industry. Recruits will still be discriminating when it comes to choosing agencies to work for as part of their broader career strategies (if they are smart). That means the brand and culture of an agency will see new and increased relevance.

The selling points agencies emphasize to attract talent are changing rapidly. Let's face it: Advertising agencies all wish to communicate creative, youthful personas. That is why we enjoyed and have clung to aspects of the dot-com era -- foosball, pool tables, half-day "sabbaticals," popcorn machines, free-beer Fridays.

Arguably these can help build a culture and a brand. They can also help instill team spirit and promote shared values. The difference is they are no longer primary selling points in talent recruitment. The past several years have seen an amazing focus on creating much more of a sense of community within agency networks. And without a doubt, the work in these agencies communicates "fun." There will always be that need to foster creativity through playful engagement. But in this economy, those aspects of the agency-employee experience will become increasingly less relevant, as the focus will be solely on breakthrough thinking and impeccable execution.

Hot buttons
For the next 18 to 24 months, both employers and employees will connect on the hot buttons of relative job security; opportunities to grow and gain more experience; more responsibility; and exposure to agency leadership and client decision makers. In essence, recruits and employees are looking for the most tangible ways to build their personal brand to weather this storm short-term and to capture career-building opportunities in the long-term.

Most important is the new relevance attached to existing benefits within agencies. Career planning, performance-feedback processes and training will be equally important, emphasized and demanded by both employee and employer. Sure, these programs have existed in most agencies for some time, but now they are the primary drivers of the contract between both parties. Dialogue on how each employee makes a direct contribution to the success of the agency will become increasingly desirable to employee and employer.

Greg Taucher is chief people officer and Jeff Swystun is chief communications officer at DDB Worldwide, New York.

McKinsey & Co.'s paper titled "Upgrading Talent" says, "Studies have shown that although overall levels of recruitment may level off or even fall, the quality of workers hired rises in recessions." From the same paper: "Some organizations are moving surprisingly quickly in response to these opportunities in the talent market. In late October 2008, the U.S. Internal Revenue Service hosted a Manhattan career fair targeted at displaced financial-services professionals. More than 1,300 people attended, many standing in line for three hours to learn more about an employer that offered a newly interesting brand of 'job stability.'" Job seekers are weighing variables differently now.

Impact on millennials
A fascinating aspect of the new economic reality is the impact this has on millennials. This demographic has recently kept agency human-resources professionals up at night exploring how best to keep them happy and to provide an environment that fits their rather unique (and oft-assumed unreasonable) demands. The generation viewed as having the greatest sense of entitlement in history is now facing the worst job market in more than 30 years.

Millennials, who have never experienced an economic downturn of any magnitude, also are saddled with more debt than any previous generation. With most employers waiting until at least the second or third quarter of this year to evaluate the economy and subsequent hiring, those under 30 are in a tenuous position but not without leverage. They bring the technology and social-networking skills critical to agencies and their clients. They also represent a demographic that still has tremendous buying power and significant brand influence.

So where does all this leave agencies? As with any brand strategy, agencies must determine their unique value propositions to attract and retain top talent. In this market, offers of employment will be incredibly strategic, with agencies plugging critical, unfilled holes in their lineups. There will still be competition for the best within the industry, which will require the agency brand to act as a differentiator and attractor throughout the entire talent-management process. We'll look back on the next year or two as a period in which a few agencies made very smart calls in the acquisition of talent and built teams with the capabilities to tackle all economic cycles.

Agency selling points for attracting talent
Less relevant More relevant New relevance
"Fun place to work"

Social Activities

Flexible hours


Ample vacation time
Job security

Opportunity for growth and innovation

Client face time

Managerial responsibilities

Building one's own brand
Career planning

Performance feedback

Training and education

Reassignments/office rotations

Mentorship programs

Employee benefits


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