Brian Fetherstonhaugh on retaining young talent

OgilvyOne's CEO on managing turnover, taking a scalpel to workflow and why culture is about more than 'Thirsty Thursdays.'
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Attracting and retaining young, fresh talent is an issue for many companies, but OgilvyOne Worldwide CEO Brian Fetherstonhaugh has some ideas about how advertisers can start to fix it.

Fetherstonhaugh, who was formerly president of Ogilvy & Mather Canada before moving to New York to hit the global stage with the agency in 1997, touched back down in Toronto to promote the release of his new book, The Long View: Career Strategies to Start Strong, Reach High and Go Far, at the Spoke Club last night.

His talk focused on how agencies, as well as other companies in the media and communications industry, recruit and retain young talent in an age where that talent is viewing work very differently.

“Millennials today have more competition for their jobs than ever before, and there’s a tremendous amount of pressure for them to really find their place in the workforce and carve out something meaningful,” Fetherstonhaugh told strategy ahead of the talk.

Fetherstonhaugh said that while younger boomers and Gen X would commonly work eight to 10 jobs in their lifetime, he said these days that number now lies closer to 15 (a figure supported by Workopolis’ 2014 Time to Work study).

He said that frequent change can prompt unhealthy behaviour among the masses, such as chronic dabbling of work, diving into new work on a very short-term basis or what he calls “career flashmobs,” where young people tend to follow their peers to the latest trendy start-up, resulting in larger waves of turnover.

Fetherstonhaugh acknowledged that these more extreme forms of job hopping can hurt agencies, but he said if the agencies want change, they have to spark it.

“I think the advertising and the media industry as a whole need a fresher mindset,” he said. “Agencies have followed a very structured model — the notion that you come in, you’re a full-time, long-term employee, you stay for eight years or whatever, and then you leave and you’re gone forever.”

He said one of the ways to offer more freedom is to create a more flexible approach, whether it’s in terms of the hours or allowing people to work remotely. They can also take on more part-time and short-term roles like consultants, allowing companies to bring in creative expertise while still allowing them to pursue outside projects.

“The best companies are not set up on the presumption that employees will work with you in perpetuity and exclusively,” he said.

Retention is also achieved through different types of bonding, said Fetherstonhaugh. The four key components of bonding are structural (how work contracts are laid out), financial bonding (“the more you do, the more you get paid”), and emotional and social bonding. The last two are commonly confused with social outings that Fetherstonhaugh said are commonly mislabelled as “company culture.”

“People misconstrue ‘thirsty Thursdays’ and ‘you can bring your dog to work’ as company culture. Big deal.”

Instead, he said, company culture needs to be mandated within the actual operations of the company, starting with the on-boarding process.

“There are ways to engage in more emotional on-boarding other than just ‘here’s your contract, here’s your benefits form, here’s your stapler,’” he said. He pointed to New York marketing tech company Return Path, which has new employees write up a one-page story about themselves and include details from what kind of music they like to pictures of their pet, which allows them to come into the environment feeling like their fellow employees know them (he added that the same company, in the event that someone leaves, puts their picture on the wall in a “lost” column as a way of mourning their loss and reflecting on why they left, which helps the company better itself).

Once the work begins, he said, simplifying many of the workflow processes generally leads to happier employees, and, as a bonus helps clients.

“There’s probably about 500 business units and P&Ls per year that could be removed,” said Fetherstonhaugh, adding that processes such as conference calls and meetings, when they involve more employees than they have to, serve as barriers, rather than bridges.

“A lot of it could actually come down to working with behavioural change consultants and figuring out how to restructure your meetings. Not every meeting needs an agenda, but many do. Some require advanced reading or the meeting becomes inefficient. You have to take into account which leaders on your team are introverted versus extroverted leaders when you’re doing something like a conference call.”