“If you developed your talent plan pre-pandemic, it’s obsolete,” Media Sherpas CEO-former 4A’s chief Nancy Hill told agency leaders during a recent webinar hosted by independent agency network Worldwide Partners.
“In the absence of a physically shared space, the reality of the work itself is not enough to keep people happy or engaged. Employees do not feel taken care of, and they are increasingly burned out, pissed off and disengaged. This is the single-biggest issue agencies face.”
Hill based her assessment on more than 100 employee interviews, a series of focus groups and deep dives on Fishbowl and Glass Door she did this summer on behalf of several agency clients. Over the summer, she found agency turnover growing from 25% to more than 40% per month, with employees increasingly resigning in groups.
Hill said agencies need to reimagine retention, recruiting and development.
Agencies need to start prioritizing wellness over productivity, and ultimately make employee wellness a key productivity measure, Hill said. Through her research, she found employees want pay, paid time off and respect. She cited some promising steps agencies are taking toward rebalancing the employee experience, such as deleting Slack (a messenger and data tracking app) from phones, banking emails between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m., paying lower-level employees 15% more, creating four-day workweeks and instituting mandatory time off.
“We need to stop presenteeism,” Hill said. “Agencies say we have unlimited time off, but everyone feels pressure not to take it. It’s like the old days, when you had to get into the office before the boss — somebody’s paying attention to where you are. There’s pressure to be on point and on call. People aren’t going to put up with that. Agency leaders need to lead by example here. Make it public you’re on time off and stop calling in from vacation.”
As people come back to the office, agencies need to preserve their flexibility to take care of their personal needs on their own time.
“We've reached an inflection point,” Hill said. “People have reorganized their lives to do their jobs and deliver for their families, and they want to go to the grocery store in the middle of the day, not at 7 p.m. You need to sit down with your people and learn their new patterns, because honoring them will make a huge difference.”
Hill said agencies need to rethink recruiting, starting with a fresh perspective on the skills and personalities they really need. She said some agencies are foregoing resumes in favor of asking prospective employees to define their ideal job descriptions and personal goals.
“It’s time to short-circuit the hiring process,” Hill said. “We're still putting people through our old ways of hiring — four to five rounds of interviews and case study presentations — which is a total turnoff.”
Agency leaders need to sell people personally rather than rely exclusively on HR, Hill said. She cited her own experience with the University of Mount Union, where she is a trustee, and which has dramatically improved recruiting by having department heads talk directly with prospective students. When a prospective account director gets a call from the Chief Strategy Officer, or a prospective copywriter hears from the Chief Creative Officer, Hill said, they feel special. It’s clear they matter to the agency.
Agencies need to flip the script on pay by focusing on long-term value, Hill said. “Don’t play into the rising salary game everyone else is doing,” she said. “Change the conversation to how you’ll help people invest for their futures. Pay off their student loan debt and give them self-directed 401(k) programs where they can invest in areas like sustainability, where their passions lie.”
Hill also shared some thoughts about the role of agency managers.
“Manager is not a title, it's actually a role — one we need to redefine fast,” Hill said. “Managers are your front line for engagement and development, and many of them are behaving in frightening ways. They don’t know how to nurture and grow their team members, especially in a dispersed and remote environment, and most agencies suspended management training in the pandemic when they needed it most.”
To encourage managers and foster career development, Hill said agencies need to make retention a key part of management compensation. Agencies also need to emphasize personal growth plans that include people’s lives as well as career goals. “Managers need to build relationships with employees based on how they learn and what they want,” she said. “And they need to participate more actively in people fulfilling their overall goals.”
Worldwide Partners conducts webinars and other events periodically for its membership, which now totals 70 agencies in 40 countries. The events are designed to provide members with insights and opportunities to discuss pressing issues reshaping agencies today.