“It’s the people, stupid”

Advertising agencies don’t make widgets and they don’t have factories or manufacturing lines that create tangible goods; they are in the idea business. So it constantly amazes me how many of them don’t understand that their most valuable asset is – their people. Every agency’s success relies purely on the talent it has within its ranks and yet so few companies actually do meaningful things to retain and nurture talent.

David Ogilvy famously said, “If each of us hires people who are smaller than we are, we shall become a company of dwarfs. But if each of us hires people who are bigger than we are, we shall become a company of giants.”  Sadly, so many companies today, and it’s not limited to ad agencies, seem content hiring and retaining small people. I understand that when times are tough there will be cost-cutting, and things like training programs and other employee perks will disappear but this is just the tip of the iceberg, and frankly, not the only things that companies should think about when trying to retain talent. These things can help in the short-term but do scant little to address the true nature of retention in the long-run. Don’t get me wrong, money is important but most companies believe that it is the only tool they have to motivate and recognize employee performance.

To me it starts with understanding a very simple formula:

“Happy Employees = Happy Clients.”

When your employees are happy, they are motivated. When they are motivated, they go above and beyond and it shows in both the quality of their ideas and their output. When the work shines it tends to resonate with customers, creates brand recognition and preference, which in turn leads to greater sales. When sales increase we have very happy clients…It truly is that simple! This is really the only way to achieve great results, and client satisfaction. Quite simple when you spell it out but extremely hard when it comes to actually getting management in most companies to recognize it or have the courage to execute it.

The trouble begins with two important areas; both of which are misunderstood by many corporations. First, most companies today, believe that making clients happy involves giving their clients exactly what they ask for –  rather than helping clients understand what they really need. I am not talking about getting a clear brief from a client but about literally letting your clients dictate the idea, and much worse the execution. Following this path will ALWAYS lead to failure; without exception. It is simply a matter of time before you will lose the business. Think about it, if clients knew what they needed, leave alone how to articulate it to their customers, then agencies would not exist. It is like going to a brilliant lawyer and asking them to take your case, then insisting on writing the arguments, the opening and closing statements and doing everything short of standing up yourself in court. It defeats the purpose of hiring and paying someone for their particular experience and expertise.

The second problem is in the way companies approach talent retention. Granted these days it feels like most companies care little about their star performers, leave alone the average employee, but let’s for a moment imagine a company that does care and makes a genuine effort to create “happy employees.” The problems still lies in a flawed approach to providing this happiness. Most companies still believe that hard work should be rewarded by simply paying an employee more money. This is all well and good but retaining talent requires much more than dollars. It requires making sure employees are constantly challenged, that they are learning and growing everyday (and I don’t mean purely through workshops or training seminars). Additionally, it goes a log way to know that your company has your back, by standing behind their work and defending and fighting for it with clients. Also, it would really help if companies spent more time making sure that their people are not constantly doing busy work or re-works on every project – nothing kills morale faster.

If companies really want to retain and nurture great talent, then they need to think about creating a culture that promotes these behaviors in management; at every level of their organisation. They also need to hold management accountable and ensure that they are following through on these practices. It is these things that help contribute most to that most powerful and yet hardest to deliver tool a company has in its retention arsenal – employee motivation. Money cannot provide the same satisfaction that feeling appreciated for your efforts does or seeing the fruits of your labour perform in the marketplace.

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