The Future of Talent
Where will the most gifted people in the world work? Wherever they want
We almost forget that Madison Avenue once had more than a representational connotation. It was a place. A place at the pinnacle of a fast-talking grey-flannel-suited culture that celebrated plastic everything, joy rides just for the sake of burning gasoline, mass-produced homes among manicured lawns and, perhaps most of all, a rampant and joyful consumerism.
But, what was once a strength became liability. The culture Madison Avenue fed off gorged itself on mass-produced cheeseburgers, cars and houses. The cars, houses and cheeseburgers all grew bigger and bigger, and they showed no sign of stopping.
If, by 1967, Dustin Hoffman's Ben Braddock in The Graduate felt a little overwhelmed; and by 1989 Lloyd Dobler didn't want to "sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed," where does that leave their 2010 versions? Today's graduates face the reality of an overfed populace driving in their suburban assault vehicles through plastic-covered landscapes pock-marked with chain stores, pausing only long enough to pick up their sandwiches filled with bacon and cheese with fried chicken patties for bread at the drive-through.
But the generation of talent coming to the workforce today faces more than the counter-culture tumult of the '60s, more than the acid-flashback hangover of the '70s, more than the heady and chemical-powered conspicuous consumption caravan of the '80s, and more than the ennui of the '90s. An economic collapse. An uncertain future. The spectacle of real-time video updates of oil gushing unabated into the Gulf of Mexico. And the sinking feeling that maybe that once-glimmering America pushed by Madison Avenue had played itself out.
The class of 2010, when pondering a career in the advertising industry, sees a business with, if not blood on its hands, at least some oil. It's easy enough to picture the ghosts of Madison Avenue, Wall Street, and Detroit getting together in some back room to talk about the old times over cigars and martinis. But those places have passed their sell-by dates in the collective consciousness. And place is important. Even if it's as a symbol. DUMBO, a burgeoning digital district just outside of the Manhattan epicenter, far enough away to feel different but close enough to afford opportunity, presents itself, with its silly name (standing for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) built in, as one such alternative place. An antidote to years of rot.
Of the newest crop of talent, David Slayden, executive director of Boulder Digital Works, a specialized post-graduate program at the University of Colorado at Boulder that just graduated its first class, says, "They're picky. They're not going to go to a place that they don't feel is a good match for them. It's very typical of this generation."
But there is more at work than what could be chalked up to the angst of youth, or the predilections of a particular generation. Yes, concedes Slayden, "It is sort of the DNA of what we're looking at in twentysomethings." But he thinks it's a part of the cultural zeitgeist. "What we're seeing is there's a wide range of people, from clients to upper-level management to creatives and so on - there's an increasing demand that work not just be pay but it be fulfilling. And nobody's afraid to say it aloud anymore," Slayden says. "They expect their work to be not just a paycheck but something they really enjoy doing, and that contributes to the social well-being, and all that sort of stuff. It's not warm and fuzzy anymore. They are really expecting that to be part of the deal."
He pauses to explain the executive workshops that BDW has conducted all summer for working professionals in the media industry. "I don't know that I would have said this if I hadn't just been here for two months of watching these workshops, and how people interact in these workshops, and what they say out loud, which wasn't what I expected it to be. It could be good for them and good for the world."
In communal-minded shops like the ironically monikered (at least initially when it launched more than 10 years ago; it now has more than 200 employees) Huge and Big Spaceship that sprang up out of industrial DUMBO more than a decade ago, one can recognize the sea change, and in DUMBO, perhaps a place that can replace the rusted MadAve street sign. It's not just DUMBO, of course, because this place could be Boulder or Boston or San Francisco, but for a place so close to the still-beating heart of the beast, the neighborhood offers a stark contrast.
At Huge, the UX team, designers and strategists sit at long tables facing each other and clacking away on their Macs across an airy floor of a building that still retains the feel of the factory it once was, albeit a gleaming, techno-future version committed to producing only one exquisite product at a time.
The bikes piled in one corner of the space stand in stark contrast to anything you'd see at any office near Grand Central Station, once the first and last stop of every swaggering ad man on his way back to or from Connecticut or Westchester. For one, many of these commuters aren't pedaling any further than Park Slope, and for two, well, let me tell you a story: On a recent visit to a large agency headquarters somewhere in midtown I saw a spandex-clad cyclist trying to get upstairs for a meeting almost get into a fistfight with the guard who told him to get his $5,000 carbon fiber frame the hell out of the building.
"What I'm hearing from former students of mine who are in the bigger, more corporate agencies is that they're understaffed, overworked, and it's a paycheck," says Slayden. "One of the smartest people I've ever taught decided to become a bartender, because she'd just had it with that kind of environment."
At Huge, bowls of apples and fresh fruit are everywhere. The kitchen, open to the office, is stocked with cereal and nuts. Huge partner and the guest editor of this issue, David Skokna gets quite animated talking about his employees, for whom he shows genuine affection. He says things you don't usually hear from the heads of agencies. Like he's concerned about his employees' nutrition. He knows left to their own devices (many of them, typical of DUMBO, are in their twenties), they'll eat junk food. He's concerned that they have a place to keep their bicycles off the street.
These are shops apart from the gleaming towers in Manhattan, though you could argue, of course, that they are sustained by the corporate culture. But they are offering something to their staffs the big agencies can't or won't. "I think the corporate world is changing. I think it's changing very slowly, and only because that's what it has to do," says Slayden. "The job of a large corporation is to sustain itself. So that's primarily what it does."
He mentions that one of his graduates, Erin McHugh, is going to Big Spaceship in the fall. "You knew she'd fit there just from talking to her. If you spent any time with her you'd know that she's a little quirky, she's very smart and creative -- and she liked the culture, the fact that they work on things that aren't necessarily directly for a client," he says referencing Big Spaceship's reputation for giving its employees the freedom and resources to pursue personal projects. The penchant has now been formalized into its "IP Fridays" program, in which, in lieu of the traditional media world's Summer Fridays, the staff stops working on client projects at 2 p.m. to create their own agency projects (giving the IP its double meaning, referring to both internal projects and intellectual property). "Really, it was born out of our commitment to our culture -- bringing all our folks together to create with a different set of opportunities and limitations," says Michael Lebowitz, Big Spaceship's founder and CEO. Those different opportunities have yielded Web hits like Most Awesomest Thing Ever (a crowd-sourced voting experiment) and will soon bear fruit in the form of an app that could be a serious contender on Most Awesomest Thing Ever -- the Taco Finder.
Besides the obvious intangible benefits to his team, Lebowitz sees the program as important to the work Big Spaceship does. "We can experiment with things we think are compelling - behaviors, experiences, data, tech - and get comfortable with them before there's a specific challenge," he says, adding, "Clients and potential clients seem to have an easier time projecting their needs onto our non-branded work. So it's easier to convey potential value." But most important to Lebowitz is the pride he sees in his team when this IP work gets released out into the wild and recognized.
This culture is a large part of what led Erin McHugh from Boulder to Brooklyn. "I am interested in Big Spaceship for a multitude of reasons," she says. "Sure, the area is nice, but the fact that they are in DUMBO and not Manhattan is just icing on a very substantial, delicious digital cake." She ticks off some of the standard answers and then points to the great personality she sees in the shop's client work, but then says, "Big Spaceship is also constantly working on projects for themselves in addition to those that keep the staff well fed, and I think that says a great deal about the company and the people that they hire."
Brooklyn, now that it exists as a digital district, can be anywhere. From Dallas to DUMBO, Denali to Denmark, new tools are making it possible.
"As the tools get cheaper and cheaper, the barriers to entry get lower and lower. And people can self aggregate and do work for anybody," says John Winsor, founding partner of Victors & Spoils, an agency built on crowd-sourcing principles. Before founding Victors & Spoils, Winsor was executive director of strategy and innovation at Crispin, Porter + Bogusky (a role he took on after CP+B acquired Radar Communications, the agency he'd founded after a career in publishing). "There are so many good ideas coming from everywhere, and sometimes it's kind of the garage band mentality. Right? You and your buddy can come up with something and it can be a great idea, like a Facebook idea, or Twitter, or whatever, but things that really change the face of marketing and media."
But it's not just that digital tools are getting into more hands. Knowledge itself is metastasizing: "The network effect is accelerating all this stuff. So you've got places to share and people can comment and you can change your work, and you can create some momentum for yourself," says Winsor. The geometric progression of the network effect can make ideas that sometimes seemed radical just six months before, seem normal very quickly. "It's not just an information economy. It's a networked information economy," explains Slayden. "And that means things are going to move so much faster than they've ever moved before."
And, in many ways, this progression poses a threat to the old agency models. "It takes less resources to produce something," says Winsor. "It means that the size of the staff can be a lot smaller, so three or four guys in a garage somewhere can go out and compete with anybody in the world." This is the latest in a long stream, though. "Communications historically has gone from very scarce channels, scarce tools, scarce talent to abundant channels, abundant tools, and abundant talent," Winsor says. "No one category is going to just go away, but there's going to be a lot more channels," he posits. "It's no different than TV 20 years ago when three channels went to 500, now. Just a lot more choice."
He compares the metamorphosis advertising is going through now to the one he witnessed in publishing when he built a magazine group in the 1990s. "Guys were starting crazy little magazines on skateboarding, and surf mags and zines - because they could," says Winsor. In 1990, he acquired the rights to publish a then-struggling magazine, Women's Sports & Fitness. Building the company with, at the time, revolutionary desktop publishing tools like Quark, he spun the pub into a successful crop of titles, which Condé Nast bought from him in 1998. But in 1990, he began by stripping everything back, running his publications from the proverbial garage with a MacPlus and a LaserWriter he got for $23,000, eliminating typesetters. "Yeah at the time," he recounts, "the early, early beta version of Quark wasn't even graphic; it was more typesetting code. And you had a choice of four different fonts. And everybody said, 'Oh, that's so rough. You can't do anything.' And yeah, it was rough back then, but all those tools expanded so massively that there isn't really a typesetting community anymore. It's so limited that it's only really a specialty."
Will agency holding companies go the way of the typesetters? Winsor sees their situation as analogous to the old Hollywood studio system: Historically, the big studios owned the sets and cameras and all the equipment. The actors and the producers, the writers, the directors, the script girls - everybody was on the studio's payroll. And they'd churn out assembly-line movies by the ton. "Over time, that model became economically unfeasible," says Winsor. "You'll see the same thing happen. You'll see great ideas that clients throw out there and can aggregate folks around a project. So it could be a movie; it could be a digital idea; it could be a TV spot. But it'll be much more flexible and clients will save a lot of money not holding these big retainer-based relationships."
In this model it all comes down to the quality of the brief. It could come from the brand, it could come from a large agency holding company with a name like a Bond villain's shadow company, it could come from a company like V&S, or it could come from those three guys in the garage. "The talent follows the model; as new models get momentum, people want to jump into new things," Windsor says.
And, talent, especially creative talent, seems to want to be free. "Chiat Day tried the non-office office a while back, says Slayden. "What they found was that there's still a real value to people being in the same building, but you don't have to do it every day. When you have face-to-face meetings they should matter." With digital tools you can, of course, connect in a variety of ways, "so the opportunities for collaboration are much greater than they were. Technology is not replacing face-to-face, but it's one option." Windsor's vision of a gig economy future fits right in. "People are just going to have lots of different jobs at the same time. They're going to have a full-time job; they might do some interesting projects on the side. And those things are just getting a lot more formalized," he says. He also sees the splitting of corporate structure, geography and ideas. "All organizations are becoming less place-based. It just doesn't really matter where you are," he says. "You can be in Sri Lanka, or in Boulder, or in New York. Our ability to communicate in a networked world gives anybody the flexibility to be anywhere, any time."
"You don't have to be in one of the centers anymore," Slayden concurs. "It's going to create a variety, because locale matters. But what's interesting is that it's not isolated anymore." And then the phone disconnects. I don't know if it was my Cisco-powered voice over IP or his cell phone, but the last thing I heard was something about Portland. When I called back the line was down, and I got a "We're sorry your call cannot be competed at this time" message.
The future may have to wait.