Beat The Agency Brain Drain

Beat The Agency Brain Drain
In Adland competition for talented people is fierce and holding onto talented people is even tougher. But by putting a few key fundamentals in place, you can create an environment that people want to be part of.

By Sibonginkosi Zuma, Head of People Operations at VMLY&R South Africa

Working in an agency is pretty unique in that you’re working with highly creative people. It’s an exciting space to be in and there’s a sense of pride and even awe that you feel when you see the amazing work that your people produce. But from an HR perspective, it also has its challenges.

Chasing The High

Creatives love to work on exciting projects and jobs that stimulate their creativity. So, when you have juicy briefs on the go, people are engaged and stimulated, and everyone wants to come and work at your agency.

Unfortunately, not all the work is going to be the type that goes to Cannes. Some client work doesn’t offer that adrenaline high – but it does pay the bills. This can cause creatives to become frustrated.

The company will lose talent because they’ve found a more exciting space, like a new client that resonates with their creative craft.

Keeping Secrets

Another challenge peculiar to agencies is around collaboration. From an HR standpoint, it’s always good to encourage an environment where people share knowledge and help each other grow because that’s one of the ways people – and younger people, in particular – are able to move forward in their careers, which in turn makes them more inclined to want to stay within the business.

However, being in a competitive industry doesn’t always allow for knowledge sharing since knowledge is the key to winning pitches and building a successful business.

Culture of Learning

At VMLY&R we make a conscious effort not to fall into that trap. We promote a culture of sharing and we’ve created dedicated channels to facilitate this even if it isn’t happening organically. We offer mentorships, internal seminars and courses that people can apply for. Plus, we have a bursary programme that allows people to apply for funding of studies outside of what the company offers.

Of course, there is the risk that you upskill a staff member and they leave to go to another agency – and it does happen – but if we don’t grow our people, the whole industry suffers. The talent pool within the advertising industry is very limited and therefore it’s of utmost importance that agencies grow their talent.

Plus, we’ve seen the value of constant development when it comes to staff retention. Learning and development interventions play a huge role in retaining talent and succession planning. Things move quickly in this industry, especially when it comes to technology, so there is always scope for people to learn and sharpen their skills if they want to remain at the top of their game. When people feel that they’re being given opportunities to do that, they feel valued, and they feel stimulated. It’s a different way to keep people engaged.

Being part of a global network certainly helps as there are learning apps that our staff can access (LinkedIn Learning, Ascent360) free of charge. Unlike some other multinational businesses, the VMLY&R global network works together very closely, so we’re easily able to leverage the skills of our global creatives through workshops and seminars. It’s a perk for our local creatives to have access to that resource.

We also help them keep up with latest trends by giving them opportunities to attend relevant industry conferences. Locally, our staff have attended Advertising Week Africa, Cannes Lions and Comic Con. And there’s also the opportunity to get exposure to some of the international conferences. For example, one of our creatives is going to Design Matters in Tokyo this year.

These may not seem like massive incentives, but it’s granting people access to experiences they wouldn’t be able to access if they didn’t work for us and people value those opportunities. It’s also a way for us to thank our people for the great work they put out. Working in an agency may be fun compared to some other industries, but it’s demanding. People work hard, they work long hours and it’s important for us to acknowledge that and show our appreciation for their efforts.

Support Matters

Another key part of talent retention is giving people the tools they need to do their best work. On a very basic level, this includes having generators at the offices so that people aren’t affected by loadshedding. We have adopted a hybrid workplace model, which means most of our people work from home most days, but if they don’t have the means to take themselves off the grid, they at least know they have the option of an office with working plug points, an internet connection and hot coffee!

Beyond the basics, we make sure we have the latest software and technology, which is especially important for our designers. We can’t expect our teams to put out market-leading work if we don’t equip them with the latest tools to create it.

Knowledge plays a big role here, too. In the agency environment, we can’t just stay on top of trends for our own industry, we have to be up to date with what’s happening in our clients’ worlds as well. We help facilitate exposure for our people to trends and systems within these other industries, so that when they walk into a meeting with the client, they have insight into the problems and challenges the client is facing and are prepared to think of creative solutions.

Of course, this requires a lot of on-the-job learning and once again, that culture of skills transfer from our industry experts to the junior talent comes into play. We also host internal brainstorm sessions for creatives to be able to share knowledge and trends with other creatives in the group and learn what’s worked in their countries that could possibly be implemented locally.

The result is that we always have a pipeline of junior talented being mentored and groomed to move up into more senior roles.

Our agency is structured in a way that allows us to operate as smaller businesses within the business – which we call tribes – also allows for more mobility. It means we don’t have as much of a glass ceiling problem, where people are stuck and frustrated by a lack of career opportunities, because even if they can’t move upwards, there may be an opportunity for a lateral move to a different tribe where they can work on a bigger account.  

Building A Diverse Future

A big problem with our industry is that we still have very few people of colour within senior leadership in agencies. It’s something I personally feel strongly about. We need to work hard to equip the people of colour in our businesses who have great talent with the skills they need to grow so that they can be able to apply for senior roles when they become available.

It’s not easy to land a senior position. If I look at our own recruitment process, you need industry knowledge, a strong portfolio, and years of experience. But if we try to identify talented people of colour in our business and support them early in their careers, they will be equipped with all of these requirements. And when opportunities come their way, they’ll be ready, not only to get the roles, but to excel in them and become industry leaders in their own right.

That’s how we move this industry forward – by really investing in our talent.

About Sibonginkosi Zuma

Sibonginkosi joined the VMLY&R South Africa’s People Operations (HR) team as Talent Engagement Manager towards the end of 2021 after nine years working in HR across a range of industries. Just six months later, she was promoted to Head of People Operations, which involves, among other responsibilities, developing people strategy, keeping the company’s HR systems up to date with best practice and driving transformation at all levels.

Originally published in The Media magazine.

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