The Talent: A Terrible Thing to Waste

In the last two months, I've had the opportunity to judge a media plan of the year competition for professionals and a creative media advertising competition for students in the Northeast. That there were worthy winners in both competitions was no surprise. Far more surprising was the contrast in the overall standard of entries between the two groups, and what it says about the current and future state of our business.

I was encouraged to find one of the competitions full of ideas, enthusiasm and a real passion for our business. Then, there were the professional entries - more than 300 of them, and dominated by old ways of thinking. I lost count of the number of times I read the phrase "teaser to create excitement." These so-called 'media' strategies were obviously driven by some whim of the creative department, without any measures or understanding of the effort's effectiveness and reflecting an overall lack of energy and pride of ownership that would make them jump off the page.

Since the professional entries were mostly written by people with at least five years or more experience, I had to wonder: What is the industry is doing to people that takes the talent, potential and enthusiasm from eager students and then wrings it out of them once they've entered the agency world?

I ask this question particularly of the business in the United States. I have participated in industry awards and training on several continents, and in general have found that after five years of experience, the enthusiasm of junior staff has been heightened rather than dampened and suppressed.

The answer does not lie in the much-discussed ability of our industry to attract good people. The increasing importance of media and media companies in communications and marketing is now well-documented and anyone recruiting will clearly see we are no longer 'third tier' recruiters of junior marketing talent.

Rather it comes from what we do with that talent once we have attracted it.

In many other countries, lack of resources means staff (especially junior staff) are required to multi-task across the disciplines of research, planning and buying. They are also given greater exposure to clients at a senior level and, in turn, clients are more supportive of fledgling talent that brings them new ideas and fresh insights. As a result, junior staff's roles and responsibilities are broad, they have a real sense of ownership and contribution to their clients' business and their jobs remain challenging and stimulating.

How many of us can say the same about the majority of mid-level staff we meet? The fault is not their own. The size and scale of the business in the United States is such that it has bred a level of specialization that is unique. Beyond the separation of media specialists and the division of the research, planning and buying functions, we have added new levels: network buyers, spot buying specialists, competitive reporting and consumer insights specialists, channel planners, etc.

The result is that to even reach the supervisory level, many staff have had to go through years of repetitive, highly specialized work usually focused internally on purely one aspect of a client's media activity, making ever more incremental (and often hypothetical!) improvements to implementational plans, rather than working externally with clients to learn about and contribute to what really driving a client's business.

All this when changes in the communication business increasingly demands generalists - people at every level who are able to navigate clients across multiple platforms and disciplines.

It is an undocumented truth among most senior management of today's leading media companies that we all got better as we got more senior, and moved away from individual disciplines onto a broader playing field. But we mostly did it at a time when that happened much earlier in our careers than today's generation.

I've seen the talent out there, even in just the Northeast, who are as yet unspoiled by specialization. The next time a senior figure in the industry bemoans the lack of talent coming through the ranks it's worth asking: Would the new recruits have stayed around longer if they had not been asked to be the local spot buyer for Idaho for five years, or if their intro to the agency world had been something besides the 24/7 competitive reporting assistant of the agency?

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